Friday, March 08, 2013

Guest post by Jodi Daynard, author of The Midwife's Revolt

My guest today, Jodi Daynard, has contributed an enlightening essay covering her research discoveries about early America, as exemplified through period letters and recipes and relevant photographs.  Her novel The Midwife's Revolt, a semi-finalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Awards, was published this past January.  Her protagonist Lizzie Boylston is a midwife, widowed at Bunker Hill, who develops a close friendship with Abigail Adams and becomes a spy for the patriot cause. Publishers Weekly has called the novel “A charming, unexpected, and decidedly different take on the Revolutionary War.”

Jodi will be speaking at the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference on the "American Experience" panel on Sunday morning, June 23rd.  To read more about her work, go to


Things you never learned in School about our Founding Fathers and Mothers.

Tiny Houses, Big Dreams:  After reading the letters of Abigail and John Adams, I was expecting to find that they lived in a fine house, one befitting a distinguished lawyer and his family. I was struck dumb when I saw the cramped, rustic abode in which this illustrious pair lived so much of their lives.

 The dichotomy between the physical meanness and the intellectual exaltedness of the Adamses moved me. It drove home the wildly idealistic nature of their dream of independence from Britain. And yet, two hundred and thirty-one years after the enormous edifice of British rule has toppled, these humble farmhouses remain.

Money Matters: The State of Continental currency.
Writing The Midwife’s Revolt, I understood that money was scarce, and that my midwife would have to barter her services for food and other goods. But I didn’t really understand why. The story of Continental paper money is amusing, in a tragi-comic way: the Continental Congress needed money to pay for the war, so they produced it in great quantities. Unfortunately, the money was not backed by anything—not gold, not silver, certainly not taxes. No, it was backed by hope and prayer: hope that God was on our side, prayer that He would let us win the war. Only then might our states squeeze enough taxes out of its citizens to pay back the debt.

What’s more, these bills were easy to forge, and their growing worthlessness was hurried along by British and Tory counterfeiters like Mr. Stephen Holland, who makes an appearance in my novel.

Here is an example of one of these worthless bills, beautifully designed by Paul Revere: notice that it’s dated 1779. It is made out for eight pence and gives the bearer the right to redeem it eight years later. With any luck, the bearer would be dead by then.

Abigail Adams: “Farmeress” or First Lady?

Reading the letters of Abigail’s letters, I was able to infer some interesting things about her. For this discussion, I will refer to her letter of May 14, 1776, to John Adams, who was then in Philadelphia.

May 14, 1776
I set down to write you a Letter wholy Domestick without one word of politicks or any thing of the Kind, and tho you may have matters ofinfinately more importance before you, yet let it come as a relaxation to you. Know then that we have had a very cold backward Spring, till about ten days past when every thing looks finely. We have had fine Spring rains which makes the Husbandary promise fair -- but the great difficulty has been to procure Labourers. There is such a demand of Men from the publick and such a price given that the farmer who Hires must be greatly out of pocket. A man will not talk with you who is worth hireing under 24 pounds per year. Col. Quincy and Thayer give that price, and some give more. Isaac insisted upon my giving him 20 pounds or he would leave me. …I am still in quest of a Man by the year, but whether I shall effect it, I know not. I have done the best I could. We are just now ready to plant, the barly looks charmingly, I shall be quite a Farmeriss an other year.

Our Little Flock send duty. I called them seperately and told them Pappa wanted to send them something and requested of them what they would have. A Book was the answer of them all only Tom wanted a picture Book and Charlss the History of king and Queen. It was natural for them to think of a Book as that is the only present they ever Pappa has been used to make them.
Adieu -- Yours,

First observation: poor Abigail couldn’t spell. But then, nobody could back then. The men, given at least some formal education, fared slightly better, but there were no standards with regard to punctuation and capitalization. Thus, Everything, especially Nouns, always seemed slightly larger than Life!

Abigail took pride in her farming. In boasting to John that she will be “quite a little farmeress,” she wishes not only to relieve his anxiety about her but to assure him that she’s on board with a popular value at that time: homespun self-sufficiency. What money she has is nearly worthless; her farm hand’s an incompetent drunk. But, by golly, she is going to get the job done—singlehandedly, if necessary.

It is jarring to tour Abigail’s later house, Peacefield, which the couple bought in 1787 and which Abigail immediately enlarged and renovated, ordering furniture from France to fill it. The later house matched their increased wealth and status, but the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Abigail, begun in 1800, will always strike me as disingenuous. Gone, it seems, is the proud “farmeress.” But I suppose that’s American upward mobility for you.

Finally, Abigail had a wonderful way of needling John Adams. Unlike even some of the world’s greatest statesmen, she was fearless of him. Her letter concludes with a transparent reproach: that he is forever buying books for the children, when presumably they would like something less intellectual now and then.

George Washington, Terrorist

In an earlier letter, dated March 31 of that year, Abigail famously teases John:

I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.
The discovery that amazed me, however, was not Abigail’s letter of March 31st but another, penned on the same day. This second letter was written by His Excellency George Washington to his brother John, and presents an eerie correspondence with Abigail’s own. Writing from Boston, Washington writes,

March 31, 1776 …all those who took upon themselves the Style, and title of Government Men in Boston, in short, all those who have acted an unfriendly part in this great Contest have Shipped themselves off in the same hurry, but under still greater disadvantages than the King's Troops have done; being obliged to Man their own Vessels (for Seamen could not be had for the Transports for the Kings use) and submit to every hardship that can be conceiv'd. One or two have done, what a great many ought to have done long ago, committed Suicide.
While I knew Washington to have little sympathy for traitors, and hung people without a shred of remorse, I was shocked to discover just how venomous he could be. His was a steely radicalism that shared more with the likes of Robespierre or even Bin Laden than, say the compassionate and inwardly conflicted Abraham Lincoln. I was soon to find reverberations of Washington’s radicalism rippling out from the epicenter: in confiscation acts that took Tories’ homes and goods, in the banishments and death threats. As the war progressed, these acts took on the dangerous cast of ideological fundamentalism.

The Oyster that Ate Manhattan

On a lighter note, the abundance of New England’s wildlife at the time is astonishing. Clearly, we fought not only for independence but for the primacy of our species in this relatively new land: bears occasionally roamed the farms of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Oysters were so large that a couple could feed on a single one for dinner.

Lobsters the size of human beings were reported. Indeed, lobster was so abundant in New England waters that savvy servants wrote it into their contracts that they were not to be fed lobster more than twice a week. In January of 1779, in Braintree, the crow population grew so large that the air looked like something out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Braintree’s selectmen offered its citizens 6 shillings for an old crow and 2 for a young one. By May, that offer had risen to 30 shillings for an old crow. This fact appears in a few scenes of my novel.

I conclude my wildlife section with a recipe from Revolutionary War Period Cookery, by Robert W. Pelton. It was John Adams’s favorite oyster recipe, and calls for a quart of shucked oysters. Skip it if you are not rolling in cash!

Chicken and Oysters – An Adams Family Favorite
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup spinach, chopped
¼ tsp pepper
4 cups cooked chicken, diced
4 cups cream
1 quart oysters, drained
1 cup celery, chopped fine

Put butter in cast iron skillet and melt. Add salt, pepper and cream. Blend well. Slowly stir in flour so as not to lump. Then add spinach and cooked chicken pieces. Mix everything thoroughly. Lastly add the oysters. Let mixture simmer until oysters are nice and plump. Sprinkle over nicely with fine chopped celery and serve immediately.  

Strange Bedfellows

Finally, a fact that moved me most of all to discover was the physical intimacy of the time. Individuals did not feel entitled to have a great wall of space around them, as we do now. Coaches, church pews, markets, and beds were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Men and women had few issues with touching, kissing, and sleeping with someone of the same sex. Tolerance for odors was certainly much higher than ours—people generally bathed once a month, washed their clothing once a year. Beds were expensive and families often slept in one bed, as did travelers. Life stank.

And on this note, I’ll close with a famous story about the time John Adams and Ben Franklin were forced to share a bed while traveling from Philadelphia to Staten Island. Here is an excerpt from John Adams’s journal entry:

Sept. 6, 1776

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window….

… The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep…

I have often conversed with him since on the same subject: and I believe with him that Colds are often taken in foul Air, in close Rooms: but they are often taken from cold Air, abroad too. I have often asked him, whether a Person heated with Exercise, going suddenly into cold Air, or standing still in a current of it, might not have his Pores suddenly contracted, his Perspiration stopped, and that matter thrown into the Circulations or cast upon the Lungs which he acknowledged was the Cause of Colds. To this he never could give me a satisfactory Answer. And I have heard that in the Opinion of his own able Physician Dr. Jones he fell a Sacrifice at last, not to the Stone but to his own Theory; having caught the violent Cold, which finally choaked him, by sitting for some hours at a Window, with the cool Air blowing upon him.

For me, this letter reveals so much: not just about John Adams’s thorny character but about the profound closeness that could be achieved at the time. It wasn’t a good closeness; it wasn’t a bad closeness. It was an “I love you/hate you/accept you/you’re in my face” kind of closeness that is unmistakably real, unmistakably human, and that I feel, in this age of Tweetchats with cyber-strangers, more than a little nostalgic for.

The physical intimacy of these two outsize personalities is the stuff of high comedy to us now. Adams professes boredom with Franklin’s harangue, but that doesn’t mean he let the matter drop. No, he continued to argue with Franklin—for years—about the cause of the common cold. And when he reveals that Dr. Franklin finally succumbed to a bad one from “sitting hours at a window, with the cool Air blowing upon him,” his glee is obvious. John Adams always had to have the last word. And he always did—unless he happened to be speaking to his wife, Abigail.


Jodi Daynard is the author of The Midwife's Revolt, a novel, and The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by 20 Contemporary Writers. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, Harvard Magazine, The Boston Globe, Agni, The New England Review, and elsewhere. She taught writing in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University, at M.I.T., and in the MFA program at Emerson College. The Midwife's Revolt was published by Opossum Press in January 2013 ($18.95 trade pb / $4.95 ebook, 440pp). 


  1. What strikes me over and over about Abigail Adams, was that she wasn't only a skillful farmer, but a terrific business woman. Until the era in which Adams was Vice President, she lived in that cramped house without husband for much of their marriage. He was off -- in Boston or Europe -- making the USA. She was taking care of home business.

    On that stony New England land Abigail and John, together, without ever owning a slave, though she employed some free people of color, as she employed others, in the house and outside, without any corruption or favors that I've ever discovered -- what did they do? They created enough wealth to well educate and dower their children and leave legacies to their descendents. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson in his Palladio inspired palaces at the top of His Mountain, lived from slave labor and the sale of slaves his whole life long -- always in deeper debt. When he died, his slaves had to be sold away from their homes and their families to pay those debts.

    John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, were by every account dour, and not the best of company. They didn't have the popular touch and feared the mob and mobocracy -- which JQAdams's adversary, Andrew Jackson, claimed as anti-democratic -- he who was the first president elected by popular vote, i.e. our first democratically elected president -- Andrew Jackson had the touch par excellence. Moreover he'd beaten the bloody British when nobody else had been able to do in the War of 1812 -- and where was John Quincy in that war?

    The Adamses, as their great-grandson Henry Adams understood so well, founded an American aristocratic family -- which is of course what the Jackson people accused John Quincy of (among other things). Their legacies, through their descendents are all around us still, today. And myself, I put all the original credit on Abigail Adams! :)

    Love, C.

  2. My former house in Massachusetts was a saltbox colonial, just like the one in the photo at top. It was plenty spacious for two people, but definitely not a mansion, and it can see it being cramped with a family the size of the Adamses.

    I'm curious about Abigail Adams' signature "Hermitta."

  3. Good question. I knew the answer, once, but have forgotten...will try to find it again.

  4. While I can't speak to your other comments about events such as confiscations, etc., the fragment you quoted of Washington's letter strikes me as perhaps more understandable, given that men of his class took many of their values from the codes of conduct and honor held by European gentlemen: ergo, a traitor was not a man of honor, but a scoundrel, and if he valued honor at all, he ought to end his life to atone for his sins against it.

    I suspect too that Washington was less than inclined to be merciful or to look at all sides, having seen suffering personally and daily during winter campaigning. It would take a rare man to face the looks of hunger, of disease and bloody tracks in the snow--men suffering for a cause he had to lead--and still find sympathy in his soul for those comfortable profiteers sitting out the war on the British side, getting their bread for what he had to see as the price of their integrity.

    All this may have bred in him a distaste for compromise--I think it's certainly safe to say that revolutions are formed and led by men of extreme opinions, not in general prone to compromise--but to classify him as a terrorist of any sort is perhaps too simplistic a solution to the problems of defining a complex character.

    1. Just a note to say sorry your comment didn't show up immediately, Lucy - I've just liberated it from my spam folder.

    2. Thanks, I hope there isn't another one there now. :-)

  5. Hi, Lucy – I certainly agree with your comments, and I’m a great admirer of George Washington. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t shocked when I came upon this letter. I feel certain that as a “good Christian,”—which GW wasn’t, particularly—suicide would be frowned upon. Of course, in an isolated letter I might have let GW’s comment go; but the demonization of the “other side” soon became so widespread, with arrests and threats and confiscations happening every day, that I was no longer able to remain smug in the knowledge that our side was entirely on the side of virtue or goodness, as I’d been taught in school. To be sure, some of these Tories were actively engaged in anti-Rebel activities. But others were no more politicized than your moderate Conservative neighbor who simply wants to hang on to the status quo. Washington’s letter galvanized my understanding that any ideology, followed too far, runs the risk of obliterating its follower’s humanity. I think it’s an important lesson to teach alongside all the panegyrics.

  6. Agreed, too, completely. I suspect I'm a little naive, as well, not realizing quite how far Washington has been elevated to sainthood in many people's thinking--simply because I don't think of him that way.

    Your post sent me on a brief voyage through Wikipedia, floating from biography to biography: John Laurens, Rochambeau, John Andre, von Steuben, Kozciusko (I know I've spelled that wrong), and what stuck with me so much were the vibrant personalities--they were colorful characters, really--and how nothing of that ever came into my history books in school, and I wish it had. I love the complexity.

    Thanks for sharing, and for a thoughtful discussion! :-)

  7. I enjoyed the reflections on "I'm-in-your-face" closeness.

    About the ever-fascinating Adams family, I'm currently in the middle of John Quincy Adams, a newish book by Unger--very readable. What a family!

  8. Excellent post! This book is on my list and I loved reading these little historical tidbits!