Editor’s Note: ABC News Correspondent Cokie Roberts discusses her bestselling new book Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.
LESLEY: You write about Mrs. Alexander Hamilton in your new book. And I heard you say once that she was the Silda Spitzer of her day.
COKIE: Right. The first of our many, way too many, political wives who stood by her husband as he admitted to a scandal, having had an affair with a woman whose husband then blackmailed him to keep his silence. And when the blackmail was discovered, Hamilton had to go public because he was being accused of being blackmailed for trading illegally in government securities. So he had to say, “No, no, there was an affair.” And then Eliza Hamilton stood by him and she saved his political career because she was a Schuyler, a very prominent New York family, and the fact that she saved him and saved him. But you know, Lesley, I made the joke recently that she was probably wearing pearls because all these women seem to wear pearls when they stand by their husbands. And some woman sent me a note that said, “Pearls behind swine.”
LESLEY: Oh, my God. Pearls behind swine. Use it. Use it, use it. Here’s something I never knew, and I have never seen pulled together the way you do in the book: how much the founding fathers relied on their daughters.
COKIE: Yes, isn’t that nice?
COKIE: You really do get a sense of their appreciation for their daughters, particularly those whose wives had died. Martha Jefferson died when her oldest child was about nine or ten years old. And Thomas Jefferson really took over the education of his daughter, Martha. He educated her like a man and then depended on her mightily to run Monticello and take care of all of his personal life. And he wrote to her about politics all the time, even though he disapproved of women participating in politics. He kept her abreast of all the political machinations leading up to his presidency and then while he was president. And Aaron Burr, the very peculiar Aaron Burr — whose wife also died when his daughter Theodosia was about nine or ten — raised his daughter with a very solid male education. And he relied on her for amusement, comfort and advice about his many romances.
LESLEY: Oh, my gosh. Well, can you believe he turns to his daughter?
COKIE: I know. It was a little yucky.
LESLEY: Yucky. But so interesting.
COKIE: So interesting. Yes, because that’s what we’re doing here, Lesley, we’re reading their mail. And so that’s a lot of fun, you know. You really get to know people.
LESLEY: And they really used to tell things in their letters back then.
COKIE: Particularly the women, because they didn’t think anybody except the person they were writing to would read it. So they wrote about politics. But then they also wrote about fashion and who was getting pregnant and who was losing children, which happened way too often, and all of the various aspects of life. So you really get a full picture of what life was like. And also, of course, they are much more interesting about the men. We think of these founding fathers as deities. You can be sure their wives didn’t think of them that way. And the men are more interesting in their letters to the women than they are in letters to each other because, again, they didn’t expect us to be reading these.
LESLEY: Let’s talk about your timely book about the women close to our founding fathers, called the Ladies of Liberty. And, let’s jump right into specifics, because the first chapter is on Abigail Adams, when John was already president. And you make this very original and brilliant observation about why John Adams seemed to have lost his political compass once he got in the White House.
COKIE: Well, as you well know, Lesley, having covered many White Houses, what often happens inside the White House is that people develop a bunker mentality. They’re in there working long hours, feeling like they’re doing the right thing for the country and they don’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t just allow them to do the good that they believe that they are doing. And they come to be resentful of the opposition and to hate the press. And that was certainly true in the Adams administration. The opposition was led by his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson. And the press was vicious. And Abigail Adams was so undone by that, that she became an ardent supporter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. And John Adams was so used to listening to her political advice — and normally her political astuteness was high — but in this case she really just had it wrong. And it went a long way toward helping defeat him for president.
LESLEY: Yeah. Another historian once told me that David McCullough never really understood why John Adams supported the Alien and Sedition Acts. He never really got it. And you have figured it out: she was his political compass.
COKIE: That’s right.
LESLEY: And when she got swept up …
COKIE: That’s exactly right. In the years when he was in the Continental Congress and then, especially, when he was abroad for all those years, she was the person who was giving him political intelligence, giving him political advice. And so he was very used to her being the person to go to for guidance. She got it …
LESLEY: She got it right.
COKIE: For years and years and years she got it right. And then she got it wrong.
LESLEY: And, I think, she got it wrong because — and this is probably true of all first ladies right from Martha all the way up to Laura — the spouse takes these attacks on their husbands even more to heart than the politician president …
COKIE: Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely true. As you know, I am a political child, with both of my parents having been in Congress. And I think it is much harder on the family than it is on the politician.
LESLEY: Right. So Abigail, with her wonderful instincts, got thrown off by the attacks on her husband.
COKIE: Right. Because she really loved him. And she also thought that he was doing the right thing for the country and how could anybody question that.
LESLEY: Now she was the only one who loved him, though. We should point that out.
LESLEY: She was the only one who did love him.
COKIE: Oh, you mean in terms of romance or in terms of …
LESLEY: I mean in terms of everything. He was a tough customer. You know, we tend to think there was no really influential first lady until Eleanor Roosevelt.
COKIE: Well, we would be wrong.
LESLEY: We would be wrong. You come along, you write this book and tell us what some of us sort of suspected — that Dolly Madison was the “Presidentess,” as you said, and an enormous center of power.
COKIE: Oh, she was. And she was a terribly important one for the sake of the nation because this was a time when people were just at each other’s throats. They were literally killing each other over politics. Those duels were fought over political words. And Thomas Jefferson, as president, only entertained one party at a time. So the partisanship just grew and grew. And Dolly Madison made these people come together and sit down and talk to each other and behave, and try to abate the partisanship that could have torn the country apart.
LESLEY: Which she succeeded at, to some extent.
COKIE: She did. And she certainly succeeded in getting her husband elected. I mean his first opponent said, “I was beaten by Mr. and Mrs. Madison. Had I just run against Mr. Madison I would have had a better shot.” And in his second election, James G. Blaine, the politician historian, wrote, “The administration of Mr. Madison was saved by Dolly Madison. But for her, DeWitt Clinton would have been elected president in 1812.” So she not only was good at it, she got credit for it.
LESLEY: Yeah. You know today – well, in our lifetime, the presidents try to hide how influential their wives are.
COKIE: And it was so interesting to me the other day that Laura Bush took the lectern herself on the subject of Burma because she feels strongly about it. She knows more about it than anybody in the administration. And instead of just feeding the information to someone else, she decided to hold the press conference herself, which I thought was great.
LESLEY: And she was strong.
COKIE: She is very strong on the subject.
LESLEY: And she’s been hiding that from us.
COKIE: Well, anybody who knows her knows she’s strong.
LESLEY: But I meant the public at large doesn’t know that.
COKIE: Well, I think they’ve gotten glimpses of it over the years. But she’s out there now.
LESLEY: We look back at the founding fathers, I think that whole time, and marvel at how this group of men all came together at the same time with such extraordinary, not only intellectual power, but moral force. And we say, how did they all get there at the same time? And I’m wondering if the women at that time were just as extraordinary.
COKIE: Well, I think the answer is yes and no. I think that some women were. I think the men were very much aware of the enlightenment and studied the philosophers of the time and were trying to do something extraordinary and they knew it, in the American experiment. I think the women were great supporters of the men and became very passionate about the cause. But I think what they really were, were women like women always are. You know, just doing what needed to be done when it needed to be done. And in their case what needed to be done was defeat the British, elect their husbands and get a country off the ground.
LESLEY: Just little, tiny things.
LESLEY: Now, Cokie, the research, the new materials you’ve come up with, the vividness of your portraits, are so impressive and it is so much fun to read. Let me ask for a sum up. In doing all this work, and in the writing, did you learn anything that you think could help today, as the country seems in such dire need of leadership?
COKIE: I think, yes. One of the things I’ve had people say to me is, “Oh, you know, things aren’t so bad today,” when they see what the country was like in the past. There’s some kind of a rosy glow over our history that makes people think that these are the worst of times, and that’s just not the case. We’ve gone through much tougher times in our history. We’ve gone through much tougher times in yours and my lifetimes, Lesley. And I think that sort of looking back and seeing how well the women handled it and how they kept sort of pushing and prodding the men into understanding what was important, and then created the institutions that made it a better country – the benevolent institutions, the social safety net, the educational institutions. I think that people should take a look at that and say, “I can do that, too. I can make it a better country through civic participation.” And that will encourage people.