There are 13 Founding Mother Members, each of whom is unique in that they will “adopt” a founding mother as their moniker in order to honor them.
There are 13 Founding Mother Members, each of whom is unique in that they will “adopt” a founding mother as their moniker in order to honor them.
One of the most influential and significant women in American history is Abigail Adams. Born Abigail Smith on November 22, 1744, Mrs. Adams became the first Second Lady and the second First Lady of the United States.
Although she did not have a formal education, as was customary for women in that day, her mother taught her to read and write. She also studied English and French literature in her father’s large library. Adams was extremely modern and open-minded for a woman of her day. Through her husband, she advocated for the new nations advancement of women’s rights. Women, she believed, should not submit to laws not made in their interest, nor should they be content with the simple role of being companions to their husbands. They should educate themselves and thus be recognized for their intellectual capabilities, so they could guide and influence the lives of their children and husbands. She begged her husband John to “not forget the ladies.”
Adams was also a strong advocate against slavery. She believed that any slavery was evil and a threat to the American democratic experiment. A letter written by her on March 31, 1776, explained that she doubted most of the Virginians had such “passion for Liberty” as they claimed they did, since they “deprived their fellow Creatures” of freedom.
As they were third cousins, John and Abigail were acquainted with each other and soon fell in love. John was attracted to the young 17-year-old because of her sharp wit and intellect, as well as her mastery of language and poetry. They married on October 25, 1764 and had six children (although only four survived childhood).
Since John was often out of town serving the new country, the challenges of child-rearing and managing the family farm fell to Abigail. Ever steadfast and strong, Abigail diligently held the family together through the terrors and trials of war. Eventually, when the war was over and her husband became President, she was the first First lady to live in the White House.
Adams died on October 28, 1818 of typhoid fever. Her last words were, “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long.”
Born in a Quaker settlement in North Carolina on May 20, 1768, Dolley Payne was the first daughter of Mary Coles Payne and John Payne Jr. Her father was not Quaker but joined the Quaker faith in order to marry her mother.
Shortly after she was born, the Paynes moved to a beautiful, rural plantation in Virginia. While growing up in the lush landscape of eastern Virginia, Dolley played alongside her sisters Lucy, Anna, Mary. She also had four brothers named Walter, William, Isaac, and John.
After the Revolutionary War, Dolley’s father emancipated his slaves and moved to Philadelphia to start a business as a merchant. Her father soon tragically died, leaving her mother to open a boardinghouse to support the family. Aaron Burr was one of the Payne house residents, who later formally introduced Dolley to her second husband, James Madison.
When she was 21, Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker attorney, and together they had two sons.
However, during the yellow fever epidemic, Todd became ill and died, along with her 3-month-old son, William.
As a young widow with a son to support, Dolley Payne Todd’s future seemed bleak. Although Dolley and James Madison may have known of each other from socials and other political encounters, Aaron Burr, a college friend of Madison’s and a boarder in Dolley’s family house, introduced the pair in May 1794. Madison, a confirmed bachelor 17 years her senior was instantly captivated with the young woman and proposed to her three months later. Since her husband was not a Quaker, she left her faith and joined the Episcopal church.
Less than a year after losing her first husband and son to fever, Dolley married James Madison. The new family resided in Montpelier until the newly elected Thomas Jefferson asked Madison to serve as his Secretary of State. At once Dolley set to entertaining the politicians in Washington and made a name for herself as one of the best hostesses around. In fact, the widower Jefferson was so impressed that he asked if she would help plan and host presidential functions and parties.
When Jefferson retired from presidency, Madison was elected next, serving from 1809-1817. Dolley continued in her hostess duties. She was known for her lavish parties and social graces as an accomplished and hospitable woman, and contributed tremendously to her husband’s popularity in Washington, which led to him serving two terms as president.
Unfortunately, her son from her previous marriage, Payne Todd, was a source of great stress. Instead of pursuing a career, Payne preferred to gamble and drink In order to shield his wife from the stress and financial ruin he was bringing to the family, Madison did not let Dolley know the extent of her son’s debts.
To pay for Payne’s mistakes, Madison was forced to sell land he owned in Kentucky and mortgage his home. After James Madison’s death in 1836, Dolley sold some of his papers and letters to congress to help pay for Payne’s debts. After years of serving her country as an unofficial but effective “diplomat,” the incomparable Dolley Madison was essentially left penniless at the end of her life due to her son’s errors. And yet, her indomitable spirit remained.
In in the winter of 1776, the patriots lost a great number of battles and the situation appeared hopeless. Some wondered if it was possible to gain independence after all. Overwhelmed with the lack of supplies and crippling defeat, many questioned if it was worth the sacrifice.
A group of men in Elizabethtown, New Jersey met in the home of Isaac Arnett to discuss the possibility of surrendering by signing an oath of loyalty to the crown in exchange for protection of property. When Isaacs’ wife, Hannah Arnett overheard their plot, she burst into the room and scolded them for their cowardice. Although there is no accurate account of what was said, we do know that Mrs. Arnett was persuasive enough to make the men change their minds.
For her efforts in possibly changing the course of American history, Hannah’s grave marker reads, “Near here rests Hannah White Arnett…Her patriotic words, uttered in the dark days of 1776, summoned discouraged men to keep Elizabethtown loyal to the cause of American independence.”
Martha was born on June 2, 1731 in Virginia. At the age of 18, she married Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy plantation owner twenty years her senior. They lived at White House Plantation (coincidentally the same name as the future presidential dwelling). Although they had four children together, only two survived to young adulthood: John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis. According to the Mount Vernon Ladie’s Association, the children’s great-grandfather had imposed a strict condition on inheritance: only children bearing the name “Parke” as part of their given name would receive a portion of the family estate.
By age 26, Martha was a young widow. Along with raising her children, she managed 17,500 acres of land and 300 slaves. As a shrewd businesswoman, she bargained with merchants over tobacco prices and managed her late husband’s estate. After her first husband’s death, she was courted by another wealthy planter named Charles Carter and a colonel named George Washington. Obviously, she chose the latter. They were married on January 6, 1759.
During the War of Independence, Martha often visited the encampments and encouraged the morale of the soldiers. She spent the winter of 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the spring of 1776, she followed her devoted husband to New York. In the spring of 1777, she arrived at his headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, but she returned to Mount Vernon for the summer. The next winter she joined the beleaguered commander at the bitterly cold and miserable Valley Forge encampment, and later she suffered along side him during war campaigns in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
After her son John Parke Custis died of fever, she raised his children Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis at Mount Vernon. Martha’s health, always somewhat precarious, declined after George Washington’s death in 1799. Two and a half years after the greatest American passed away, Martha died on May 22, 1802 at the age of 70.
Born to a prosperous Cape Cod family, Mercy became a crucial instigator in sparking the fires of the American Revolution with her propaganda and persuasive political prose. Although she received no formal education, she would often eavesdrop on her brother’s private tutoring in order to learn to read and write. Her brother, James Otis, went on to study law at Harvard and later became a significant proponent in the war for independence. He is most noted for coining the phrase “no taxation without representation,” which became the founding slogan for the patriotic cause.
In 1754, Mercy married Massachusetts delegate James Warren and together they had five sons. The Warrens became increasingly involved in the conflict between the American colonies and the British government. Over time, their home became a meeting place for local politics and revolutionaries including the Sons of Liberty. With the assistance of her friend Samuel Adams, Mercy hosted the meetings that laid the foundation for the Committees of Correspondence. Due to her close proximity to political leaders and events, Mercy was very well-informed on the developing arguments and issues of the day and soon became a renowned historian. Her husband encouraged her to write, fondly referring to her as the “scribbler” and she became his chief correspondent and sounding board.
Like Abigail Adams, Mercy publicly defended political rights for women. She posited that women did not have inferior intellect, but simply were given no opportunity to display their brain power. In a letter to James Warren, John Adams wrote, “Tell your wife that God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which, in the cause of his Providence, he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.” Indeed, Mercy did not neglect her talent in writing and soon published numerous political poems and two plays that explored relevant issues such a liberty, representation, and moral values. Her work earned the congratulations of numerous prominent men of the age, including the brilliant Alexander Hamilton, who remarked, “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius has outstripped the Male.”
After a prosperous and successful life, Mercy Otis Warren died on October 19, 1814 at age 86. Providentially, her legacy as an influential author and extraordinary woman of the revolution continues to be remembered. The SS Mercy Warren, a World War II Liberty ship launched in 1943, was named in her honor. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. She is also remembered on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. Although she was just a woman in a time when the female role in society was heavily limited, Mercy discovered that the pen was mightier than the sword and bravely fought with ink.
Nancy Hart was an adamant and fierce patriot. Her single-handed efforts against the British, as well as her covert activities as a patriot spy, have become legendary.
Nancy Ann Morgan Hart was born in North Carolina around 1735. During the early 1770s, Hart and her family left North Carolina and made their way to Georgia, eventually settling in the fertile Broad River valley. Her cousin, Daniel Morgan, was a prominent general in the Revolutionary War, leading the way in the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina.
As a tall, broad woman who towered six feet in height, Nancy was a fearsome presence to behold. Her flaming red hair matched her vehement temper towards the British.
One evening, a Tory spy crept up to the log cabin, and one of the Hart children, noticing an eyeball peeking through a crack, secretly informed her mother. Hart, who was making soap around the fireplace, filled her ladle with boiling soap water and flung it through the crack. A scream confirmed her aim. The Tory was hog-tied and taken as a prisoner to local militia.
Once five Tories came to her cabin and demanded information concerning the location of a certain Whig leader. Hart insisted that no one had passed through her “neck of the woods” for days. Convinced that she was lying, one of the Tories shot and killed Hart’s prized turkey. After ordering her to cook the turkey, the Tories entered the cabin, stacked their weapons in the corner, and demanded something to drink. Hart obliged them by opening her jugs of wine. Once the Tories began to feel the intoxicating effects of the wine, Hart sent her daughter Sukey to the spring for a bucket of water. Hart secretly instructed her to blow a conch shell, which was kept on a nearby stump, to alert her husband and neighbors that Tories were in the cabin.
As Hart served her unwanted guests, she frequently passed between them and their stacked weapons. Inconspicuously, she began to pass the loaded muskets, one by one, through a chink in the cabin wall to Sukey, who had by this time slipped around to the rear of the building. When the Tories noticed what she was doing and sprang to their feet, Hart threatened to shoot the first man who moved a foot. Ignoring her warning, one Tory lunged forward, and Hart pulled the trigger, killing the man. Seizing another weapon, she urged her daughter to run for help. Hart shot a second Tory who made a move toward the stacked weapons and held off the remaining loyalists until her husband and several others arrived. Benjamin Hart wanted to shoot the Tories, but Hart wanted them to hang. Consequently the remaining Tories were hanged from a nearby tree. In 1912 workmen grading a railroad near the site of the old Hart cabin unearthed a neat row of six skeletons that lay under nearly three feet of earth and were estimated to have been buried for at least a century. This discovery seemed to validate the story of the Hart legend.
Nancy eventually found peace from her seething hatred of the British in a personal relationship with God. According to former Georgia governor George R. Gilmer, whose mother knew Hart, the indomitable woman “went to the house of worship in search of relief. She . . . became a shouting Christian, and fought the Devil as manfully as she had once fought the Tories.”
Lake Hartwell, situated between Georgia and South Carolina, is named in Nancy’s honor, as is Hart county.
Sybil was born in 1761 in Kent, New York to Henry and Abigail Ludington. Her father had been a prominent figure in the French and Indian War. On April 26, 1777, British troops were planning to attack Danbury, Connecticut, where the Continental Army had a supply depot. The patriots needed support and men to fight. Fearlessly, the young girl mounted her horse around 9pm and continued until the wee hours of the morning.
Although this heroic action is impressive to us today, it is important to have some historical context to appreciate her sacrifice. Traveling was often extremely dangerous in the colonies. There were no paved highways or lighted roads. Thieves and wild animals lurked in the darkness, ready to ambush an unsuspecting traveler. A young girl traveling alone in the dark was always vulnerable to attack.
Sybil’s dauntless bravery and unwavering determination was highly commemorated. She gladly put herself in danger to deliver the message and fight for liberty. Owing to her great courage, she was able to gather 400 men to fight off the British. Her efforts were so influential that General George Washington publicly lauded her contributions. In Carmel, New York, there is a statue commemorating her sacrifice and bravery in the American Revolution.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was born on August 9, 1757 in Albany, New York, the second daughter of Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. Unlike her future husband, Alexander Hamilton, who was born in illegitimate poverty, Elizabeth was born into one of the wealthiest and most influential families in New England.
In early 1780, Elizabeth went to stay with her aunt, Gertrude Schuyler Cochran, in Morristown, New Jersey. There she met Alexander Hamilton, one of General George Washington’s aides-de-camp, who was stationed along with the General and his men in Morristown for the winter. The relationship between Eliza and Alexander quickly grew, even after he left Morristown, only a month after Eliza had arrived. By early April they were officially engaged, with her father’s blessing.
On December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler were married at the Schuyler Mansion.
After the war, the Hamiltons’ had an active social life, often attending the theater and as well as various balls and parties. According to one historian, Elizabeth Hamilton and Lucy Knox were the leaders of fashionable society in their day.
Elizabeth aided Alexander throughout his political career, serving as an intermediary between him and his publisher when he was writing The Federalist Papers, copying out portions of his defense of the Bank of the United States, and sitting up with him so he could read Washington’s Farewell Address out loud to her as he wrote it.
In 1797, an affair between Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, a young woman who had first approached him for monetary aid in the summer of 1791, came to light. Eliza evidently didn’t believe the charges when they were first leveled against her husband. Only after Hamilton published a pamphlet, later known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, admitting to his one-year adulterous affair, did she believe the rumors. She briefly left her husband before returning to him later that year. Over time, Eliza and Alexander reconciled and remained married, and had two more children together. Only two years later, Alexander became involved in a similar “affair of honor,” which led to his infamous duel with Aaron Burr and untimely death.
Two years after her husband’s death, she, along with several other women, founded the Orphan Asylum Society as the first private orphanage in New York. Eliza was appointed second directress, or vice-president. In 1821, she was named first directress, and served for twenty-seven years in this role. She died in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1854, at age ninety-seven. She had outlived her husband by fifty years.
Esther de Berdt Reed was born on October 22, 1746 in London, England to a family of Belgian Protestant refugees.
When she was 23, she married an American law student studying at Middle Temple in London named Joseph Reed. Her husband would later serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress and sign the Articles of Confederation. Along with her mother, Esther followed Joseph Reed back to the colonies to begin a new married life.
Although she was born in England, Esther showed no signs of supporting the mother country. Along with other patriotic women in Philadelphia, she helped organize the Daughters of Liberty and raised more than $7000 in support of the war, an enormous sum in those days. Wishing to do more to help the war effort, Esther and other women sewed over 2,000 uniforms for the American troops. Her commitment and sacrifice to the cause did not go unnoticed. She was later recognized, post mortem, as a Daughter of Liberty.
Unlike the other Founding Mothers at the time, Esther was not a native to the colonies. The Pennsylvania land was not her original home. Yet despite having only lived in the United States for scarcely a few years, Esther remained completely loyal to her adopted home. When asked why she was fervently championed the patriots, she said that she believed in freedom. Although she died before the American Revolution ended, Esther Reed was unshakably committed to the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Although little is known about the childhood of Benjamin Franklin’s wife, Deborah Read Franklin was an extraordinary woman and help-mate to her husband by running the household and business affairs so he could focus on his political career.
When eighteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, he boarded with the Read family and began his printing apprenticeship. The budding friendship between the two young people soon developed into mutual attraction. Franklin proposed to Deborah, but her mother refused to consent due to his impending travel arrangements. Prior to the engagement, Franklin’s skills were recognized by the governor of Pennsylvania who asked him to travel to England in order to purchase printing supplies for the colonies.
While he was away in England, Deborah’s mother convinced her daughter to marry a local potter, John Rogers. Not knowing when Franklin would return, Deborah reluctantly agreed to marry the man. Unfortunately, it was an unhappy and abusive marriage. Rogers soon abandoned her and was never heard from again.
When Franklin returned from England after being gone for a number of years, he proposed again. However, they could not be legally married since she was still technically married to the absent John Rogers. Unless she could prove his death, she was still legally bound and thus would be charged with bigamy if he ever returned. Not daunted by this legal technicality, Franklin entered a common law marriage – a social contract which, after years of co-habitation, resulted in a de facto marriage.
Together they had two children, Francis and Sarah. While her husband was dutifully securing and negotiating with England, Deborah stayed in the colonies raising the children and running the printing business by herself. She hated to travel and was often alone while her husband was constantly abroad. Throughout her life, Deborah struggled with her health until she suddenly fell victim of a stroke and died on December 17, 1774.
One of the bravest women in the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson risked her life to defend the “red, white, and blue.” Born on December 17, 1760 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, she was the great-great-granddaughter of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony. After her father abandoned the family, Deborah was sent to live with relatives. When her mother died soon thereafter, the young girl was sent to live with a widow who taught her how to read. After the elderly widow died, she worked as an indentured servant for 8 years to the Thomas family of Middleborough. At the age of 18, she was released from her services and then worked as a schoolteacher.
Although she had a difficult childhood, Deborah was anything but timid and delicate. If anything, her rough experiences taught her to be resilient and strong. Indeed, her 5 foot-9 inches frame greatly dwarfed the 5 foot average height for women in the day. Standing above the average 5’6 male, Deborah was a fearsome woman not to be trifled with. Along with her haggard and frontier-wearied facial features, this strong woman could have easily passed as a man.
When war erupted at the Battle of Lexington in 1775, Deborah saw a chance to provide a substantial income for herself. She cleverly disguised herself as a man and began walking and talking as one. In 1782, she joined the the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the name Robert Shirtliff. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average. Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move. Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson’s disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman in a unit made up of soldiers who were specifically chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.
During her first battle, she received two shots in the leg. Fearing she would be discovered as a woman, she begged her men to leave her to die. She was taken to the doctor nonetheless. But before the doctor could examine her wound, she removed the bullets herself by using a penknife and a sewing needle. During another battle she was injured again. But this time a doctor named Barnabus Binney discovered her secret. Rather than report her, the kind doctor quietly ushered her into his house for his wife to tend to her injuries.
Following the end of the American Revolution, Dr. Binney sent word to General Patterson. Instead of reprimanding her, Paterson gave her an honorable discharge and money. In her later years she was rewarded a soldiers pension for her bravery and service to her country.
The only First Lady to be born outside of the United States until present First Lady Melania Trump, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was born on February 12, 1775 in London, England.
Although her father, Joshua Johnson, was an American, he married Catherine Nuth of London and escaped to Nantes, France during the American Revolution. After the war, the young family, with seven daughters and one son settled in London. As an colonial-born representative, Joshua Johnson was appointed consul general to London where he served as an ambassador in 1790. Five years later John Quincy Adams paid a visit to him, where he met his future wife, twenty-two-year-old Louisa Johnson. They married on July 26, 1797 and moved to the United States to begin their married life. Her new father-in-law, President John Adams objected at first to his foreign-born daughter-in-law, especially since he had just fought a war with her native land, but upon meeting her, he laid aside his prejudice and welcomed her into the family. In fact, when her father declared bankruptcy, President John Adams appointed him U.S Director of Stamps to provide a stable living for the Johnson family in the new nation.
Louisa suffered countless, debilitating migraines throughout her life, which greatly impacted her marriage and life. Heath conditions were not alleviated when her husband was promoted to Minister to Russia. The harsh Russian winters and strange customs often isolated and depressed Louisa. When John Quincy was suddenly called to make peace negotiations in Ghent and London, Louisa was left alone with her seven-year-old son to make the arduous forty-day journey across a war-ravaged Europe in the middle of winter alone. Road conditions and the real threat of unruly soldiers and wild beasts threatened the young woman’s safety and yet, she persisted, determined to stay strong for her son.
For the next few years, the Adams’ flourished in London before John was called to serve as James Monroe’s Secretary of State in 1817. In Washington D.C, Louisa was a greatly admired hostess and socialite. She battled severe depression, however, which often left her secluded and withdrawn, especially with her husband occupied in the political campaign for president.
Later upon reflection, John Quincy said of his wife, “Our union has not been without its trials? many differences of sentiment, of tastes, and of opinions in regard to domestic economy, and to the education of children between us. she always has been a faithful and affectionate wife, and a careful, tender, indulgent, and watchful mother to our children.” Although perhaps not the best pair suited for public life, Louisa did her best to be a faithful mother, wife, and public figure. When she died suddenly of a heart attack at age 77, the entire United States Congress adjourned to attend her funeral, the first time both the House of Representatives and the Senate had done so for a woman. Such was the aura of her wonderful being.
An American heroine during the Revolutionary War, Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 in Pennsylvania. When she was five years old, her father was murdered and her mother was kidnapped by Native Americans, so the young girl and her brother were raised by an uncle. In 1772, she married a farmer named John Corbin. When the Revolutionary War broke out, her husband enlisted with the Pennsylvania Artillery and Margaret faithfully accompanied her husband by serving him in washing and cooking. For her services, she gained the nickname, ?Molly Pitcher.?
In November 1776, his artillery was called to New York to help defend Fort Washington in Manhattan. The 600 Patriots were greatly outnumbered by the 4,000 Hessian soldiers. Nevertheless, they persisted and fought with ferocity as the Battle of Fort Washington waged on November 16, 1776.
During the ensuring battle, her husband was killed instantly on the battlefield while packing a canon. At once, Margaret took his place and continued to pack and fire the massive canon until she was too injured and unable to fight. She later became the first woman in U.S. history to receive a pension from Congress for military service because she could no longer work due to injury and was enlisted into the Corps of Invalids.
The 24-year-old young widow bravely fought alongside her fellow countrymen. The battle, however, was lost. Margaret and the remaining men were captured by the British. Eventually she was released.
As a retired solider, she was the first woman to receive a pension for military service. She died at the young age of 48 on January 16, 1800.