Woman in Art/Chapter 22 - Wikisource, the free online library

Woman in Art - Matilda of England.png

J. W. Wright



Portraits: Influence Shown in Matilda of Scotland; Philippa of Hainault; Victoria, of England; Mistress Ann Galloway; Mary Ball Washington; Abigail Smith Adams; Emma Hart Willard.

"Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart;
So did'st thou travel on life's common way
In cheerful godliness."—Wordsworth.

The greatest human asset is character.

In the most ancient Book we find this inspired record: "Let us make man in our image," that is, in our Character. So man was made a little lower than the angels, and given dominion over the works of the Creator.

Shakespeare, in the thought-provoking forest of Arden, made this record:

"These trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts I'll character."

(Impress, would be a synonym for Character.)

Character is the compelling product of soul, the mercury within the hermetic bulb of life. It rises from the zero mark or falls below it according to the influences that warm or chill it. Character is the distinguishing mark of Cain, or the Christ; of the murderous club of selfish barbarism or the cross of renunciation, sacrifice and uplift. It is that spiritual effulgence that radiates from innocence to goodness, to greatness, to glory; or reversely, the inner light becomes smothered innocence to disobedience, to debasement, to death.

"What we shall be will mirror what we are;
And what we are reflects what once we were;
The thing God judges by is character."

Portraiture is one of the oldest forms of art. It is of historic, artistic, and anthropologic value, aside from family pride and interest. It has a value as a connecting link over long spaces of time in countries where there has been short-lived or sporadic art only. Kings, queens, courts, clergy, and beauties have had their physiognomies preserved in oils because they could afford to nourish their personal and political pride in that way, and sometimes because their admirers or constituents requested it.

Egypt and Assyria had great pride in royal sculptured portraiture. They portrayed their deities for the delight of their eyes, augmenting their own kingship—the head—by symbols of power they worshipped in animal forms.

In this twentieth century A.D. we realize the value of that prehistoric portraiture, some of which Dr. Flinders Petrie exhumed from millenniums of debris, and presented to our age the ivory carved features of Mena, King of the first Egyptian dynasty about 5000 B.C. Wall paintings in Egypt give representations of the "four races of the world," and that was done more than three thousand years ago.

In a previous chapter you have noticed other ancient and Ptolymaic portraits in stone. Greek painting, which would have enriched our knowledge and art, was ruthlessly destroyed by the Roman conquerors in large measure, although fragments survived to assure us moderns that their art reached a high degree of refinement in features and in the art of portraiture.

We know that all religion is the spirit life of the human in its struggle to find his relation to the Author of Life, Truth, Righteousness and Love. These attributes were lived and proved to the world for all time by the God-Man who stooped from the heights to the lowliness of earth to verify and justify the ways of God to man.

Portraiture was not a large factor in renaissance art, not even in the fifteenth century. A few of popes, doges, and dukes were painted, but few were painted of women. Leonardo da Vinci painted his own portrait which has been the admiration of centuries of painters. The portrait of Mona Lisa, wife of his friend, has had both condemnation and praise, and endless speculation as to the character portrayed—is it purity and goodness, or sarcastic and hypocritical? For a period of four years the artist worked it over, so evidently it did not suit himself as a portrait.

As we have said, there were long stretches in years when woman filled her space in the economy of life with little or no notice taken of her value outside or inside the home, unless she were on the throne or within its radius.

Modern history beginning with the Norman Conquest is more than a thousand years old. That long period brings us to an epoch of history enacted in England some three hundred years before the dawn of the renaissance in Italy.

History in the past has been concerned with kings, their wars and conquests. But when Clio dips her pen to write of queens, she records names, dates, marriages, the birth of future sovereigns, and the peaceful activities of the queen regent during the king's absence on war intent.

Matilda of Scotland was queen of Henry I of England, great-granddaughter of Alfred the Great on her father's side and of Henry II of Germany on her mother's side. Her life is a thrilling romance to this day.

After William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and subjugated the English, the Saxons of noble birth, not daring to trust to his promises of protection, took ship secretly by night and fled from his court. The refugees were Agatha, widow of Edward Atheling, with her three children. A storm took them out of their way, and after some days they anchored on the coast of Scotland, in the Firth of Forth.

The eldest daughter, Margaret, eventually married Malcolm, King of Scotland, Shakespeare's Malcolm, son of that "gentle Duncan" so treacherously murdered by Macbeth. The first child of that marriage was Matilda, born in 1077. The young princess grew from childhood beautiful as her mother had been, and resembling her in goodness and sweetness of disposition.

After the untimely death of her parents, Matilda, then but sixteen years of age, was taken to England by her mother's brother, Edgar Atheling, where, under the care of an aunt she was instructed in the literature of the time and attained a higher degree of knowledge than was customary for one of her sex. For those days she was considered remarkably proficient in music, and her beauty, refinement of manners, and common sense marked her as a queen. The story of her life and influence is too long for these pages, but her marriage with King Henry united the two royal lines, Saxon and Norman, and made sure the rights of future sovereigns, all to the great joy of the whole nation.

Matilda as Queen of England radiated a beautiful character. Her piety, her conjugal virtues, and her generous spirit were worthy of the daughter of Margaret Atheling, and of her queenly position in a country greatly disrupted by greed and political factions. Her exertions for the good of her people were varied. She tried in every way to improve the conditions of the country, causing roads to be made through wild heaths and forests, thus facilitating commerce which had never been looked upon as a national asset. There were the remains of four old Roman roads radiating from London. England must thank Matilda for the first bridge over any river or stream; it still stretches its one arch over the River Lea at Stratford-le Bow. This queen built "Road-Houses" for the comfort of travelers. Several hospitals and charitable communities owe their foundations to Matilda. To have accomplished all this and much more, she must have possessed more power in the government than was permitted a queen-consort. In 1115 Henry and Matilda spent Christmas together at St. Albans, where a portrait of the Queen was painted, a copy of which is in the British Museum. It confirms the reputation of that remarkable queen for a mild and amiable beauty.

There is also a statue of her in the Cathedral of Rochester, forming the pilaster of the West door. A statue of Henry forms the other.

Matilda died in 1118.

England had more than fifty queens, between the reign of Henry and Matilda and that of Queen Victoria, who according to their characters influenced the political and moral status of the nation for weal or woe, for nearly eight hundred years. Among these queens Flanders furnished a number who greatly augmented the stability of the Island Kingdom as a power. William I, while still a Norman Prince, wooed, waited, and finally won the hand of Matilda of Flanders, whose son in time became Henry I. Both Matildas became literally a power behind the throne.

Some three hundred years later Edward III and Philippa of Hainault were betrothed as young children, as was the fashion of royalty in those days, and married some years later. Edward's reign was warlike in the extreme. He was brought up to wars by his infamous mother who murdered her husband. There seems but one redeeming feature in the reign of Edward III; that is the moral and economic efforts of his Queen Philippa and her influence on the whole country. While on the war-path in various directions, Edward left his Queen as regent of the realm. She augmented the Plantagenet dynasty to the extent of eleven heirs. Furthermore she invited John Kempe of Flanders, a cloth weaver of wool, "to come to England with the servants and apprentices of his mystery, and with his goods and chattles, and with any dyers and fullers who may be inclined willingly to accompany him beyond the seas, and increase their mysteries in the kingdom of England; they shall have letters of protection, and assistance in their settlement."

In that same year (1331) the Countess of Hainault visited her royal daughter and by her presence assisted in establishing those Flemish artists in England.

Philippa also established the grand tournament and jousts, which in reality practiced the young men in the military tactics of their day, though it was done as field sports, augmenting the army of the king with men who had some idea of what was expected of them.

While the king and his son were fighting in France, the Scots overstepped
Woman in Art - Philippa of Hainault.png

Edw. Corbould


Consort of Edward III

the border and the battle of Neville's Cross was fought in England. Says Froissart: "It now was Philippa's turn to do battle royal with a king. The Queen of England, anxious to defend her kingdom, came herself to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to await her forces. On the morrow the King of Scots with forty thousand men advanced toward Newcastle, and sent word to the queen that if her men were willing to come forth from the town he would wait and give them battle. Philippa accepted his offer, saying her bairns would risk their lives for the realm of their lord the king.

"The Queen's army drew up in order for battle. Philippa advanced among them, mounted on her white charger, and entreated her men to do their duty well in defending the honor of their king and urged them for the love of God to fight manfully. They promised, and the queen took leave of them, and recommended them to the care of God and St. George. Her courage was wholly moral courage, and her feelings of mercy and tenderness, when she had done all a queen could do, led her to withdraw from the work of carnage and pray for the invaded kingdom while the battle joined."

Suffice it to say that the English archers gained the day and King David was captured.

This admirable Queen of England died in 1369, mourned by all the kingdom. To her influence England is indebted for the establishment of factories and commerce as national assets to her progress.

Art commingles with history when it comes to portraits. Or shall we say that portraiture pronounces the development of humanity when said portraits represent the high lights of history.

One of the functions of art is the portrayal of character that has influenced a nation, an epoch, or a dynasty for better or worse.

The work and influence of the early English queens referred to proved a stimulus to the Anglo-Saxon race in its formative period, as it was passing through the slow process of amalgamation of differing nationalities, struggling toward a state of civilization, the perfection of which was not even a dream at that time.

From the crowning of Matilda of Flanders as Queen of England, in the old cathedral at Winchester in 1067, to the proclaiming of Victoria as Queen of England in 1837 represents nearly eight centuries of that formative period, and there were but few high lights among the queens of those centuries.

But there was to be a change.

Owing to a number of deaths in the royal family, and William IV having no heir, the Duchess of Kent, mother of the Princess Victoria, told the child, when she was but twelve years of age, that some day she might become Queen of England. Lifting her dimpled hand she said, "I will be good." Those words struck the keynote of Victoria as Queen and Empress. Later, when eighteen years of age, she was aroused from early morning slumber to receive the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain, bringing their salutation to her as Queen of England, the dominant motive of her life sounded again, and she fell on her knees between them, saying, "I ask your prayers in my behalf." After presenting herself on the balcony to the cheering crowds before Kensington Palace, she returned to her mother, her eyes and voice overflowing with emotion requesting to be left alone and undisturbed for a time; the first few hours of her reign were spent in fervent prayers for herself and her people. Thus began a new era for England.

"A devoted mother gave the kingdom a devoted queen, eliciting the gratitude and respect of the nation, which commingles with the love and reverence the daughter gives her mother's memory. A part of her training was the development of that natural poise and dignity that has ever graced her Majesty, and the happy faculty of doing the right thing at the right time. She never ceased to be the queen, but was always the most charming, cheerful, unaffected queen in the world."

These words express the opinion of Lord Melbourn, Prime Minister at the beginning of the Victorian era; and for long years after he was succeeded by Peel, he was her friend and counsellor in political matters. Party factions soon learned that their queen was gifted with prudence and strong sense. Her coronation has been considered the most magnificent ceremonial that ever took place within the historic walls of Westminster Abbey.

Against the background of similar historic events, how beautiful, solemn, impressive, appeared the coronation of the young girl queen, sincere, pure-hearted, untainted with ambitions and vices of intriguing court life, taking the oath to protect the constitution and the nation! What had been merely a ceremonial with previous sovereigns assumed the solemnity of a patriarchal rite.

The American artist, Thomas Sully, was in England at the time, and the young queen graciously acceded to his request that she sit for her portrait in her coronation robes. The portrait was painted in Buckingham House before her coronation and finished May 15, 1838, and her coronation occurred the 28th of June following. Victoria's reign of sixty-two years of peace within
Woman in Art - Victoria of England.png

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum


Painted by Thomas Sully

her domain was an era of development and progress in the nation, and its world-wide influence has been a dominating factor in the history of the nineteenth century. Victoria was the seventh queen regnant, with the added honor and responsibility, since 1877, of being Empress of India.

On January 22, 1901, Victoria passed to the spirit realm. Magnificent as was her coronation, no pageant has ever followed a sovereign indicating the love, veneration and honor expressed by the cortege that followed the oak catafalque from Osborne to Windsor. The world loved and mourned Queen Victoria.

One of those long spaces of years indicated by four figures brings us to the period of the renaissance when artists were painting their own portraits, perhaps for practice, and now and then a woman's face was seen on canvas. But not often, for women had not yet arisen to artistic, literary, professional, or political prominence on the continent. One exception, however, is of interest—Michael Angelo's portrait of Victoria Colonna. For the time in which she lived she was a remarkable character. Born when the renaissance in painting was at its height (Michael Angelo working in Rome, and Raphael as a youth painting in Florence, Bartolommeo, Purugino, the Bellini and Titian all making reputations on walls and canvas), she, too, belonged to the gifted company that brillianced Italy for all time; but her talent expressed by the pen was newer to the thought and appreciation of the time than painting.

"She was the daughter of the grand constable of the kingdom of Naples, and Anna da Montfeltre, the daughter of the "Good Duke" Frederick of Urbino was her mother, and Morino was her birthplace. In accord with the custom, she was betrothed at the age of four years to Francisco d'Avalos. She received the highest education and gave early proof of a love of letters. Her hand was sought by many suitors, but at seventeen, as she ardently desired, her marriage with d'Avalos took place. They had four happy years together in their home on the Isle of Ischia, when he offered his sword to the Holy League. During the months of exile and the long years of campaigning that followed they corresponded in most passionate terms, in prose and verse. In 1525 he died of wounds in Milan. She was hastening to him when she received news of his death. Returning to Naples, she remained for ten years. In 1538 she took up her residence in Rome, where she first met Michael Angelo, then in his sixty-fourth year. She became the object of a passionate friendship on the part of the great artist. He wrote for her some of his finest sonnets, and from these we can well understand her character and influence upon him. She made friends with men of highest position and kept them for friends while commanding their highest respect. She died in 1547."

Portrait painting in America was not as crude an art as many thought previous to 1890. If not the first, one of the first missionaries came to the foreign field of America in 1710 to minister to a little band of Swedish settlers who had located on the Delaware River. With the missionary came his brother Gustavus Hesselius, a portrait painter, and within two years each took to himself a wife. The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts contains the portrait of Gustavus and his wife Lyda, painted and signed by himself. Among other portraits from his easel that of Mistress Ann Galloway of Tulip Hill, Maryland, introduces us to a typical lady of that time. These and other portraits prove the man from Sweden to have been a trained and understanding artist. Later it was discovered that he was also the first organ builder in America, and that work was for the Moravian brethren at Bethlehem, in 1746. The first commission for a work of art in a public building was given Mr. Hesselius "Aug. ye 2d, 1720: Ye vestry agree with Mr. Gustavus Hesselius to paint ye altar piece and Communion Table, and write such sentences of Scripture as shall be thought proper thereon, and wn. finished to lay his acct. of charge before ye Vestry for wch. they are to allow in their discretion not exceeding 8 pounds curry. to wch. agreement he subscribed his name."

Not only does the portrait of Mistress Ann Galloway stand for the vigorous and strong-minded Colonial Dame, but it shows to a nicety the quality of goods and style of costuming of that time, and shows also the remarkable technique of the artist. It makes one wish it were possible to see his painting of the "Last Supper" over the altar in St. Barnabas' Church near Wilmington on the Delaware River—the first mural painting in the new world.

A mere first glance at the portrait of Mary Ball brings the exclamation, "George Washington," so striking is the likeness of the son to his mother. Even should the comparison be made with any of the numerous portraits of Washington the likeness would be impressive. Nor was the resemblance confined to the features; characteristics both mental and temperamental were
Woman in Art - Mistress Ann Galloway of Tulip Hill, Maryland.png

Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art


By Gustavus Hesselius

the heritage of the man from his mother. Her portrait done by an artist, Wooliston by name, expresses what we know of her endowments. Mary Ball's English grandfather, Colonel William Ball, emigrated to America in 1657, His son, Colonel Joseph Ball, built his home on the left bank of the Rappahannock River near its confluence with the tidal waters of beautiful Chesapeake Bay, one of the beauty spots of old Virginia. His plan- tation was called Epping Forest, where, in 1706, his youngest child Mary was born. Little is known of her life in that early home. Her name occurs in a legal document of June 25, 1711, when her father, "smitten with sore illness, lying upon the bed in his lodging-chamber, maketh his last will and testament, commending his soul to God, with sound and disposing mind," carefully arranged his estate for the benefit of his family, and made a special bequest to their youngest child, thus "Item .... I give and bequeath unto my daughter Mary 400 acres of land in Richmond County, in ye freshes of Rappa-h-h'n River, being a part of a pattern of 1600 acres, to her and her heirs forever,"

Books and schools were few and far between in those days and only one of Mary Ball's letters remains; it was written to her half brother Joseph in England, and among other things we learn a fact : "We have not had a school- master in our neighborhood until now in nearly four years."

There were no public schools in Virginia at that time, and few tutors were to be found. But Mrs. Ball lived until her daughter was twenty-two and well grounded in the practicalities and refinements of life. We take a quaint description of Mary Ball from a letter found during the war in a desolated house near Yorktown, Virginia, under date of "Wmsburg ye 7th day of Oct., 1722"; the letter says:

"Madame Ball of Lancaster and her sweet Molly have gone Horn. Mamma thinks Molly the Comliest Maiden She Knows. She is about 16 yrs. old, is taller than Me, is very Sensable, Modest, and Loving, Her Hair is like unto flax. Her eyes are the color of Yours, and her cheeks are like May Blossoms,'"

This description helps one to understand why, in the flowery language of that time, the sweet girl was called "The Rose of Epping Forest." A scrap of another old letter says : "I understand Molly Ball is going Home with her Brother, a Lawyer who lives in England,"

The visit was probably made, and the inference is that Mary Ball met and married her husband there, for the old family Bible still proves by the faded brown ink that "Augustine Washington and Mary Ball was married the sixth of March, 1730-31." Nothing more was added, as to where, or if at home or church. As her mother had died, it was but natural for her to have gone to her brother's home for a while. That the bride was blonde and beautiful, both history and tradition tell us. Mary Washington's description of her husband is confirmed by his contemporaries' testimonies—"a noble-looking man, of distinguished bearing, tall and athletic, with fair, florid complexion, brown hair, and fine gray eyes."[1]

George Washington was the first child of his mother, and the study of the two characters results in a number of interesting similarities. As a developing young girl, Mary Ball was not only beautiful, but had a temper of her own; but it was modulated by an affectionate disposition and a reasonable mind. A clear straight-forwardness and kindliness looks at you from those eyes. The mouth is sweet and tender, yet expresses firmness above a well-moulded chin.

You know a boy would love her, would obey and respect such a mother, and her eldest son paid her that homage as long as she lived. Now note the same calibre in the son; it was in the way of counsel he gave to a nephew just as he had been chosen to the Assembly, and doubtless it conformed to his own practice.

"If you have a mind to command the attention of the house, the only advice I will offer is to speak seldom but on important subjects, except such as particularly relate to your constituents, and in the former case make yourself perfect master of the subject. Never exceed a decent warmth (temper) and submit your sentiments with diffidence. A dictatorial style, though it may carry conviction, is always accompanied with disgust."

The great man had, like his mother, learned to "hold his horses." The personal care and training of their children until majority were left solely to the mother, and of results, able historians have written that in those manifold duties she acquitted herself with great fidelity to her trust, and with entire success."

Mary Washington was a typical matron of those Colonial times, nor did any political disturbance affect a change in her routine of duties. Directions to the overseers, supervision of the spinners' and weavers' work—an important
Woman in Art - Mary, Mother of George Washington.png

Woolastin, Pinx.

The Only Portrait Extant.

Copyright, 1885, by R. F. Field & Co.

item, as the servants were clothed in the main from fabrics of home manufacture—and the daily direction of the household kept her constantly occupied.

Typical of her force of character and her rigid discipline was the rebuke she administered to an overseer who presumptuously departed from her directions and followed his own judgment upon some matter of work. When arraigned for the offense, he made the insolent reply, "Madam, in my judgment the work has been done to better advantage than if I had followed your directions." A withering flash of her eyes fell upon the offender, with the imperious question: "And, pray, who gave you the right to exercise any judgment in the matter? I command you, sir; there is nothing left for you but to obey." He was dismissed at once, and tradition relates that when telling his friends of his misfortune he declared that when he "met the blue lightning of Madam Washington's glance he felt exactly as if he had been knocked down."

"Before leaving home for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, with a recognition of the deadly strife that the nation was entering upon, and with tender forethought for his aging mother, her son induced her to leave the lonely country home and remove to Fredericksburg. There in a comfortable house, surrounded by her most cherished home furnishings and attended by a housekeeper and three colored servants, she spent her remaining years. Her garden was her delight. Here she watched, with a mother's interest, the political problems and turmoils incident to the adjusting of the new nation. She was much in the open air, driving daily in the "park phaeton" (an importation from London), or walking the mile to her daughter's home aided by her gold-headed cane, which had become a necessity in advancing years, her maid Patty, whose turban handkerchief towered in a top-lofty structure, carrying an extra wrap and the little basket of needlework or knitting for her mistress, the dignified, gray-haired Stephen coming in the evening with the chaise to fetch her home. An incident pictures the respect inculcated in the children of those times. "When Madam Washington appeared in the streets of Fredericksburg in her phaeton driven by the pompous Stephen, or taking her daily walk, her progress became an ovation, for everyone, from the gray-haired old man to the thoughtless boy, lifted his hat to the mother of Washington."

"Upon the Lewis estate overlooking the valley of the Rappahannock was a favorite spot which she afterward selected for her burial. She would sometimes stop there to rest, and seated upon a flat boulder would meditate while the grand-children amused themselves. But they liked better to nestle by her side while she chatted cheerfully, teaching them lessons of natural history illustrated by their surroundings, and linked with the Bible story of the creation of the world, the deluge, and the changes that came over the earth. The manner of her speaking was so deeply impressive that neither the lesson taught, nor the scenes connected with the telling, were ever quite forgotten. As one of them related, when himself growing old, "There was a spell over them as they looked into grandmother's uplifted face, with its sweet expression of perfect peace, and they were very quiet during the homeward walk."

What a deprivation for the children of today, that grandmothers of that calibre and teaching are no longer included in the universal curriculum of life. The writer was blessed with such an one, and the paucity of books in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries compelled the reading and study from the book of nature; the telling of what they learned or discovered to children formed their first schooling.

"The Bible was her constant study, its precepts the guide of her life, and the influence of its teachings ever shown in her character and conversation. When teaching her children from its pages, any irreverence or mutinous merriment was sternly rebuked.

"The venerable volume is covered with homespun cloth in check plaid of now faded blue and buff, the Continental colors, fashioned by her own hands, though patched to preserve the original fabric.

"When the tidings of the splendid success at Yorktown were brought direct from the General to his mother, she was moved to an exclamation of fervent thanksgiving: "Thank God! The war is ended, and we shall be blessed with peace, happiness, and independence, for at last our country is free!"

"After the surrender of Cornwallis, Washington, leaving Yorktown with a brilliant suite of French and American officers, started for Philadelphia, stopping enroute to visit his mother whom he had not seen for seven years. It was the 11th of November, 1781; the town of Fredericksburg was all aglow with joy and revelry. Washington in the midst of his brilliant suite sent to apprise his mother of his arrival, and to know when it would be her pleasure to receive him................

"Alone and on foot, the general-in-chief of the combined armies of France and America, the deliverer of his country, the hero of the hour, repaired to pay his humble tribute of duty to her whom he reverenced as the author of his being. The greeting was warm and tender, then tenderly she said, 'You are growing old, George; care and toil have been making marks in your face since I saw it last.'

"The citizens of Fredericksburg had resolved to give a ball in honor of the victors, and the lady above all others who should grace the fete was the mother of Washington."

When the General entered the ball room, his mother leaning on his arm, every head was bowed in reverence. She wore a simple black silk gown, with snow-white kerchief and cap, her figure still erect, though it had grown thinner and frailer than once it had been. When she was holding her little court, one of the French officers observed, "If such are the matrons of America well may she boast of illustrious sons."

The Marquis de Lafayette, before returning to France, came to Fredericksburg to bid adieu to his friend's honored mother, and was conducted to her presence by her young grandson, Robert Lewis. She was walking in the garden taking careful note of its condition when they approached. Her black stiff gown and white apron were as neat as a nun's, while above the white cap was worn a broad straw hat tied down under her chin.

"There, Sir, is my grandmother," said young Lewis, pointing to her. The Marquis made the military salute as they approached while she, recognizing the distinguished visitor, came to the garden paling and looking over with a kindly smile remarked: "Ah, Marquis, you see an old woman; but come in, I can make you welcome without parade of changing my dress." The impulsive Frenchman's reply was full of warmth, he called her the mother of his friend, his hero, and the preserver of the country and its liberty. When he arose to leave, referring to his speedy departure for France and his home, he asked that she would bestow upon him a blessing. With hands clasped, and the light of faith in her uplooking eyes, the blessing was fervently invoked, beseeching that God might grant him "every blessing of safety, happiness, prosperity, and peace." It so moved the heart of her noble guest that tears filled his eyes, and taking the frail, faded hands into his warm clasp he bent his head to touch them reverently with his lips as the final adieu was spoken. The grandson who witnessed this scene said it was so affecting that he "almost choked to keep from crying aloud." Speaking of Washington's mother subsequently, the Marquis made the remark that he had seen the only Roman matron who was living in his day.

Mary Washington lived to see her eldest son elevated to the highest dignity a grateful people could offer. Having been unanimously elected the first president of the new nation, and before his inaugural, George Washington hastened to his mother for her blessing and a God-speed. And he added, "So soon as business, which must necessarily be encountered in arranging a new government, has been disposed of, I shall hasten to Virginia and—" She gently interrupted him, saying, "You will see me no more. My great age and the disease that is rapidly approaching my vitals warn me that I shall not be long in this world. I trust in God. I am prepared for a better. But go, George, and fulfill the high destiny which heaven appears to assign you. Go, my son, and may that Heaven and your mother's blessing be always with you."

Her forebodings were fulfilled, for she passed into that better world August 25, 1789.

History tells us that Mary Washington became indeed the head of the family when George was eleven years of age, and the four remaining children were all younger. By will and wish the father left all his estate to be administered by the mother, to be divided to each as they came of age, and she was equal to the trust. Destiny marked the son of Mary Washington for the Father of his Country, rather than the father of a family. It may well be said of her as it was said of the mother of Queen Victoria, a devoted mother gave the nation a devoted ruler. In her life-time she could not realize her part in the uplift of the new nation, for the world, and for Time.

The Good Book tells us there is a time and a season for everything under the sun. We notice such times and seasons in the peopling and developing of the New World. From 1492 to 1620; again to 1776, thence to 1865. Those four periods we can name. Columbus, Discovery. Pilgrims, Freedom. Washington, Independence. Lincoln, Emancipation. Those periods not only had the leaders named, but the surprising number of efficient helpers in various ways, who fitted into the work to be done when and where they least expected it. This is not the prelude of history, rather of art which could not take root and flourish till the time and season were ripe, that is, after warfare, and commerce and crops had had time to replenish the depleted exchequer of the new nation. The one hundred and fifty years from the landing of the Pilgrims had been such a strenuous time between life and death, the establishing of home, churches, and colleges, that the inhabitants did not realize the growth and development of character springing to life and strength in the
Woman in Art - Abigail Adams.png


From an original painting by Gilbert Stuart

purity of air, exercise, and principles, but when the pressure came from George III and his Parliament across the sea, the people were ready with needed brain and brawn that brooked no interference or injustice so far as their independence was concerned. They made that emphatic. Character, love of liberty, Independence, and Loyalty, never took deeper root than in that period of American history.

The portrait of Abigail Smith Adams recalls two volumes of her life and letters that the writer read aloud to her mother when twelve years old[2] Her letters reveal much of daily life not to be found in history, illustrating the naturalness of preparation for service; how necessities of the moment opened the door to positions undreamed of by the man who was equipped to serve his country at its most crucial moments.

Abigail Smith was born in Weyworth, Massachusetts, November 11, 1744. Her father, Parson William Smith, was a notable figure of the times, a man of character, intelligence and cultivation. In the process of time his daughter became the wife of John Adams, then a young barrister. From the year of their marriage, 1764, to the day of her death, she was in every relation of life a pattern of filial, conjugal, maternal and social virtue.

Within the period of her life occurred the most vital and crucial events that led to the War of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the formation of the government of the United States of America, the acknowledgment of the new nation by foreign powers, the naval warfare of 1812,—and in all these formative events John Adams was often called in council, was a member of the Continental Congress which convened at Philadelphia, and by Congress was sent twice to France on State business, and to England as the first ambassador from the United States. He was the first to serve the country as Vice-President, and was inaugurated second president February 8, 1797, Thomas Jefferson becoming Vice-President.

Abigail Adams was not well and could not attend that inauguration, but wrote a letter to her husband on that day which has become a classic. A copy of it here will speak for the wife:

"The sun is dressed in brightest beams,
To give thy honors to the day."

"And may it prove an auspicious prelude to each ensuing season. You have this day to declare yourself head of a nation. 'And now, O Lord, my God, thou hast made thy servant ruler over the people. Give unto him an understanding heart, that he may know how to go out and come in before this great people; that he may discern between good and bad. For who is able to judge this thy so great people?' were the words of a royal sovereign; and not less applicable to him who is invested with the chief magistracy of a nation, though he wear not a crown, nor the robes of royalty.

"My thoughts and my meditations are with you, though personally absent; and my petitions to Heaven are that 'the things that make for peace may not be hidden from your eyes.' My feelings are not those of pride or ostentation upon the occasion. They are solemnized by a sense of the obligations, the important trusts, and numerous duties connected with it. That you may be enabled to discharge them with honor to yourself, with justice and impartiality to your country, and with satisfaction to this great people, shall be the daily prayer of your A. A."

Abigail Adams and her husband were singularly of one soul and one mind. This we glean from one of his letters to her in the Spring of 1774 while on his way to answer the call to the first Continental Congress at Philadelphia, just before the outbreak of the Revolution. Lord North had effected the blockade of Boston Harbor, and had vowed he would "put Boston seventeen miles from the sea." New England was under severe trial, the trial for life and liberty. The country was seething, the pot of Independence was at the boiling point. Though on business for his country, his wife and children were in his heart and mind. To Abigail he writes: "We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial; what will be the consequences I know not ............ I do not receive a shilling a week. Let us therefore, my dear partner, for the affection we feel for our lovely babes, apply ourselves in every way we can to the cultivation of our farm. Let frugality and industry be our virtues, and above all cares of this life, let our ardent anxiety be to mould the minds and manners of our children. Let us teach them not only to do virtuously, but to excel. To excel, they must be taught to be steady, active, and industrious.

"I am anxious for our perplexed, distressed Province. Resignation to the will of Heaven is our only resource in such dangerous times. Prudence and caution should be our guides.

"I have the strongest hope that we shall see a clearer sky and better times."

That time was drawing near. The notable Committee of Five was appointed to draw up a Declaration of the Independence of the thirteen colonies. They were Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Everyone knows that Jefferson wrote the Declaration; yet Adams, it was said, stood forth as "the Atlas of Independence, bearing on his shoulders the main burden of the tremendous decision."

The next day this to his wife: "Yesterday the greatest question was decided which was ever debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was or never will be decided among men. A Resolution was passed without a dissenting colony 'that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, and as such they have, and of right ought to have, full power to make war, conclude peace, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which other States may rightfully do.' You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the causes which have impelled us to this mighty resolution, and the reasons that will justify it in the sight of God and man."

Abigail read this letter to her four children, Abbey, John, Charles, and little Tommy, and we know that she gave all needed explanations to their eager minds.

Her reply to her husband is sober and discreet, like herself. She writes: "By yesterday's post I received two letters dated 3rd and 4th of July, and though your letters never fail to give me pleasure, be the subject what it will, yet it was greatly heightened by the prospect of the future happiness and glory of our country. Nor am I a little gratified when I reflect that a person so nearly connected with me has had the honor of being a principal actor in laying a foundation for its future greatness. May the foundation of our new Constitution be Justice, Truth, Righteousness. Like the wise man's house, may it be founded upon these rocks, and then neither storm nor tempests will overthrow it!"

In the beginning of 1783, anxiety and overwork laid the indefatigable statesman on a bed of fever. For days his life hung in the balance. But his work was not finished. Before full strength returned, he was again on the other side of the Atlantic and finding his stay would be indefinitely prolonged, he summoned his faithful Abigail to England. She remained with him the four years that kept Mr. Adams at the court of King James.

Abigail Adams lived to enjoy with her husband their golden wedding in 1814. They also welcomed their son John Quincy home from Russia where he had been ambassador for eight years. The next honor conferred upon him was that of Secretary of State, but the mother passed from this life too soon to know of his election to the highest office in the gift of the American people, which made her son the sixth president of the United States.

  1. "Something more is due to the father of Washingtton than mere mention of his personal appearances" See Washington ancestry given in Spark's and Irring's histories tracing the family for six centuries in England.
  2. A more recent work by Laura E. Richards is in one volume.