“Contagious Liberty”: Women in the Revolutionary Age

by Rosanne Lichatin

Background

The American Revolution, a byproduct of events both on the North American continent and abroad, unleashed a movement that focused on egalitarianism in ways that had never been seen before. Even John Adams commented on these changes in a letter to his wife Abigail. He wrote, “We have been told that that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to the Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.” His wife had prompted him to address a new tribe–women who were eager to challenge long-held assumptions about their role in the eighteenth-century world. Although most American students are familiar with the words of Abigail Adams, they are less familiar with the work and contributions of Catharine Macaulay, Phillis Wheatley, Hannah Adams, and Mercy Otis Warren, each of whom took up the “female pen” to record history and to share their views on politics and society. This lesson provides students with the opportunity to explore the varied talents and thoughts of these early advocates of women’s rights and their views on liberty.

Common Core Standards

Students will:

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole. Determine the central idea or information of a source and provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.
  • Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

Essential Questions

  • In what ways did each of these women challenge the traditional role of women in the eighteenth century?
  • How did the American Revolution and the accompanying ideology help to frame how women perceived the idea of liberty and their role in society?

Materials

  • Document 1: Catharine Macaulay, Observations on a Pamphlet, Entitled, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. London, 1770. Pages 5 and 19–20. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 2: Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, 1773. Pages 4–5 and 7. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 3: Phillis Wheatley, “Poem to Washington.” Pennsylvania Magazine (edited by Thomas Paine), April 1776, page 193. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 4: Verse 1 of Hannah More, Slavery: A Poem. Philadelphia, 1788. Page 3. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 5: Catharine Macaulay, Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France, in a Letter to the Right Hon. The Earl of Stanhope. London, 1790. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 6: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London, 1792. Pages iii–v and vii–viii. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 7: Hannah Adams, A Summary History of New-England, from the First Settlement at Plymouth, to the Acceptance of the Federal Constitution. Comprehending a General Sketch of the American War. Dedham MA, 1799. (Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)
  • Document 8: Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations. 3 vols. Boston, 1805. Vol 1, pages iv, viii, and 105.(Transcribed from the original in the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection online in the Princeton University Digital Library.)

Introduction

The teacher will ask students to define the word “liberty.” Contributions will be discussed. The teacher will share dictionary definitions of the term.

According to Merriam Webster, liberty is defined as the quality or state of being free; the power to do as one pleases; freedom from physical restraint; freedom from arbitrary or despotic control; the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges; and the power of choice.

Discussion

Given this description, have all groups in American society enjoyed liberty? Who has been denied access to these rights over time? What methods have been used to bring attention to a lack of liberty and/or the means of attaining it?

The teacher should introduce the role of the American Revolution in creating conditions that ripened the idea of liberty for all. It was during the revolutionary period that women began to demand, although not always successfully, the promises put forward by the great thinkers and leaders of the period.

Lesson Activity

Students will be in groups of three to analyze and evaluate one of the following eight documents. Students will be given dictionaries to identify underlined words. They will be asked to do close reading and annotation of the text for greater understanding knowing that they may be called upon to explain the document to the entire class. In addition to the specific roles assigned to the group members, each student must answer the specific questions related to the document.

Roles

  1. Students will write responses to their individual responsibilities:
    #1 student will identify tone and the words or passages that indicate tone to the reader.
    #2 student will note the purpose of the document and its message.
    #3 student will identify ways in which the author addresses the idea of liberty as defined above.
  2. Each group will share an analysis of their document with respect to tone, historical context, meaning, and how it specifically addresses the idea of liberty.

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