4th of July reading: Revolutionary women

Book Review

Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution, by Melissa Lukeman Bohrer, Atria Books, 271 pp., $24

Many of us learned about the American Revolution through the eyes of the Founding Fathers, the “great men” who led 13 struggling colonies to break from English tyranny. Very few of us have learned about the contributions, leadership and sacrifices of women in securing and defending liberty during the American Revolution.

Indeed, very few books have focused exclusively on the role of women in the American Revolution. Melissa Lukeman Bohrer’s Glory, Passion and Principle does just that.

While the book focuses on eight women, the stories of Mercy Otis Warren and Deborah Sampson stand out.

Mercy Otis Warren was born on Sept. 25, 1728, in Barnstable, Mass., the third of 13 children. Like most women, she was denied a formal education. But Warren’s brother James, educated at Harvard, took the “leading role in her education, dissecting political and historical issues with her, helping teach her to write.”

When the American Revolution developed into armed conflict the patriots and loyalists both struggled for the hearts and minds of the people. In response to a play written by a British general that ridiculed the colonial solidiers, Warren wrote The Blockheads; or The Affrighted Officers: A Farce. “Her political satire wove its way straight into the hearts of its readers, with a brilliant realism that caricatured her victims perfectly, thwarting the effect of Burgoyne’s attack,” writes Bohrer. Like Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Warren’s writing roused the spirits of the Boston patriots and helped to mobilize for the war effort.

While Warren wrote political satire within the confines of her Boston home, Deborah Sampson chose a different path, and contributed in the war effort like no other women during the American Revolution.

Born on Dec. 17, 1760, in Plympton, Mass., Sampson was the fifth of eight children. Her father left when she was five and since her mother was unable to care for her, Sampson was given to another family as an indentured servant until the age of 18. “Her days were filled with spinning and weaving, baking and cooking, helping care for the farm animals, helping tend to the babies – all the work expected of a woman and a girl at that time,” Bohrer writes.

At 22, Sampson did something unthinkable at the time – she joined the patriot forces as a male soldier, defying popular conceptions of women as weak and unable to perform in combat as effectively as men.

In many ways she surpassed most men with her drive, ambition, intellect and ability to handle the most trying of circumstances – all the while pretending to be a man.

After being wounded during a sneak attack by British loyalists, Sampson’s identity was found out by a doctor. Fearing for her safety, he kept her secret until she healed.

Sampson was honorably discharged. Her experiences were published years later and she lectured widely, becoming the first woman in the history of the United States to go on a professional lecture circuit.

In addition to Warren and Sampson, Bohrer gives a chapter each to six others, the more well-known Phillis Wheatley, Abigail Adams and Molly Pitcher, as well as the lesser known Sybil Ludington, Lydia Darragh and Nancy Ward.

Melissa Lukeman Bohrer’s Glory, Passion, and Principle is a welcomed contribution to a neglected subject.

– Tony Pecinovsky (tonypec@pww.org)