17 April 2004

This evening I caught Tim Russert interviewing Cokie Roberts on his CNBC show. They discussed her new book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.

Roberts is an engaging storyteller, with an interesting ancestry. Her mother was a U.S. congresswoman from Louisiana, and an ancestor, William Claiborne, was a U.S. congressman from Tennessee in the 1790s. In fact, he was elected to the House of Representatives at age 23, even though the Constitution mandated a minimum age of 25.

Growing up in Virginia, Claiborne was close to Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al; indeed, these gentlemen convinced him to move to Tennessee, as their presence in Virginia essentially precluded him from election in that state. So he moved next door to Tennessee, and, since he was the only candidate, was allowed to serve in Congress at such a young age.

Claiborne played a pivotal role in the famous presidential election of 1800. Back then the candidate with the most votes became the president, with the second-place candidate settling for vice president. Even though Thomas Jefferson’s main opponent was John Adams, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his running mate, received the same number of electoral votes. So the election was tossed to the House of Representatives, where, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson emerged victorious.

One of the deciding votes was cast by young Claiborne, who was later rewarded by Jefferson with the governorship of the Louisiana Territory, and later the state of Louisiana.

I'll leave you with the book review from Publishers Weekly:

    ABC News political commentator and NPR news analyst Roberts didn't intend this as a general history of women's lives in early America -- she just wanted to collect some great "stories of the women who influenced the Founding Fathers." For while we know the names of at least some of these women (Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Eliza Pinckney), we know little about their roles in the Revolutionary War, the writing of the Constitution, or the politics of our early republic. In rough chronological order, Roberts introduces a variety of women, mostly wives, sisters or mothers of key men, exploring how they used their wit, wealth or connections to influence the men who made policy. As high-profile players married into each other's families, as wives died in childbirth and husbands remarried, it seems as if early America -- or at least its upper crust -- was indeed a very small world. Roberts's style is delightfully intimate and confiding: on the debate over Mrs. Benedict Arnold's infamy, she proclaims, "Peggy was in it from the beginning." Roberts also has an ear for juicy quotes; she recounts Aaron Burr's mother, Esther, bemoaning that when talking to a man with "mean thoughts of women," her tongue "hangs pretty loose," so she "talked him quite silent." In addition to telling wonderful stories, Roberts also presents a very readable, serviceable account of politics -- male and female -- in early America. If only our standard history textbooks were written with such flair!

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