Social Studies

Book Review: A Tale of Two Women and the American Revolution

By Catherine A. Cardno — September 10, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Catherine Allgor is the Nadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Allgor is also a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. Her book, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (Henry Holt & Co., 2006), was the basis of the PBS film “Dolley Madison,” produced as part of the network’s American Experience series.

Today, Allgor reviews Nancy Rubin Stuart’s new book Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary Women and the Radical Men They Married (Beacon Press, 2013). Stuart’s website notes that she has appeared on C-Span’s BookTV, the A&E series “Mansions, Monuments and Masterpieces” and “America’s Castles,” The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Morning News, and Charlie Rose, and has been heard on National Public Radio.

By guest blogger Catherine Allgor

Nancy Rubin Stuart is a skilled writer with a real talent for storytelling. She also has a commendable commitment to women’s history: Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married is her fourth historical biography, albeit a dual one. With educators so eager to incorporate stories of women’s lives into their history classes, Stuart does real service bringing these two women, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold and Lucy Flucker Knox, famous in their own time, to our attention.

And what women they were. Peggy Shippen Arnold (1760-1804), the gray-eyed blonde beauty from a Loyalist Philadelphia family, married Benedict Arnold when he was a celebrated Patriot general. Shortly after their marriage, General Arnold committed his infamous betrayal, and historians have ever after wondered about Peggy’s part in his defection. No one could question the patriotism of Lucy Flucker Knox (1756-1824), wife of another American general, Henry Knox. Defying her family and following her husband through the revolution’s army camps, Lucy was famed for her devotion, her gambling, and her considerable girth.

Stuart has a fascinating tale to tell and she does it well. That said, Defiant Brides has limited use as a book of history. The tragic flaw in this work lies in its skimpy footnotes, inserted only to verify direct quotes, a decision that was probably the publisher’s and not the author’s. But full citations are crucial to making a historian’s case; without them, a book cannot truly be history. Citations demonstrate that the historian knows the historiography, the predecessors on whose work she is building. Knowing what came before one’s own work, and accounting for it, advances a field. Stuart seems to have done a lot of the required reading—she occasionally mentions “scholars” in the text—but the notes can’t tell us what she knows.

Bibliographies are of limited use in replacing missing footnotes, and the one in this volume shows surprising omissions. Of the two classics in the field, Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) and Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Cornell University Press, 1996), Stuart has only the former. The field-changing Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) by Rosemarie Zagarri is not listed either.

Citations offer more than the chance to show off scholarly chops; they also offer evidence for paraphrase and interpretation. Throughout the text, Stuart asserts as fact thoughts and emotions, and even some events, which she cannot prove. Stuart has certainly done more than due diligence in the archives, but without citations it is not clear how she can back her claims.

The historical discipline of women’s history demands that we do more than simply add women to existing narratives; indeed, one of the reasons that we look at women’s lives is that their experiences, words, and contexts change the story. While Stuart is to be lauded for her attempts to put Peggy and Lucy into history, she does not move beyond the traditional “war and politics” textbook narrative in this volume, despite its focus on these two women. Many times we lose sight of the two women as pages concerning the Revolution sail by. This is a shame, as Stuart could have used other historians’ analytic approaches to more deeply understand her subjects’ lives. The changing cultural ideas about the proper role of women, the politicization of white women during the American Revolution, the role of social events in the early republic, new ideas about motherhood—these are just a few of the narrative-changing analytic lenses forged by recent works on women’s history that Stuart ignores.

Biographers must hold two diametrically opposite ideas, regardless of the gender or historical circumstances of their subjects. The first idea is that our subjects are in some way fundamentally like us, essentially human. The second is that the people of the past are on some level completely unknowable, like aliens from outer space. In her quest to make the story of Peggy and Lucy relevant, Stuart tries to flatten the difference between women now and then, using terms like “brides” and “wives” as though they mean the same thing in any historical context. They do not. In her press materials, and in the text, she stresses that this is a personal story, with lessons for modern wives.

But to be a bride and wife under coverture (of which there is no mention in this treatment) meant that as women, Peggy and Lucy were deprived of legal personhood. For all their difficulties, both marriages worked out; had they not, Peggy and Lucy could have lost all rights to their children and any claim to property, as would have any other married woman in the eighteenth century. For women of this era, then, marriage was a not only serious, it was life and death. No wonder one woman called matrimony “the dark leep [sic],” as women leapt from their familiar pasts to their unknown futures. The historian’s role is to help modern American women understand the real history of marriage, not to blur the distinctions.

The book is meant for adults and the sophisticated prose would make it a difficult read for any but high school juniors and seniors, and Advanced Placement ones at that. Because of the lack of historiographical apparatus, it is not a good example of making an argument with evidence, as the Common Core State Standards demand. Moreover, reading a book is a significant commitment of time for a high-school student; better they should invest that time in one of the other works mentioned above.

Defiant Brides can be best used by teachers to enrich their own knowledge, awaken their curiosity, and to inspire them to follow Stuart’s aim—to restore women to history. However, it should not be used to understand the role of eighteenth-century women as either brides or wives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.