Republican Motherhood and Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy

Author: Emily McAdam

Before the American Revolution, New Englanders considered learning to be masculine and education for girls unnecessary. However, women’s contributions to the political revolution as protesters, spies, nurses, camp followers, and household and business managers led to a social revolution that not many anticipated. Americans believed that a republic depended on a virtuous and informed citizenry, which gave mothers new importance in the home and justified the existence of educational institutions for girls. Litchfield, Connecticut embodied this revolution for women in the decades following the American Revolution.

Although women were not voters and had no place in the public sphere, they were tasked with developing the nation politically and intellectually from their homes or in comparable domestic institutions, particularly schools. In order to achieve such lofty outcomes, they demonstrated a new kind of social independence. Daughters who witnessed their mothers handling wartime hardships on their own grew up to choose their own spouses, participate in more egalitarian marriages, or never marry. Sarah Pierce of Litchfield built a career for herself instead of marrying, founding the Litchfield Female Academy in 1792 (See Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Sarah Pierce

Tapping Reeve, founder of the first law school in the United States in Litchfield, indicated that men encouraged a kind of independence for women; he wrote a letter to Maria Tallmadge supporting her decision to break off an engagement with one of his law students. Daughters of the Revolution also grew up to believe that their sphere, though different and separate, was equally important to men’s. Two paintings of Litchfield residents Mary Floyd Tallmadge and Benjamin Tallmadge commissioned simultaneously reflect this perfectly. Benjamin is depicted with an older son in one painting with papers and books, suggesting a public career (See Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Benjamin Tallmadge and son

Mary is shown in another with her younger children, bathed in light, with a church steeple seen through the window, indicating her moral significance to their development (See Figure 3).

Fig. 3: Mary Floyd Tallmadge and her other children

Their children were educated at the Litchfield Law School and Litchfield Female Academy. Motherhood took on a political function after the American Revolution. “Republican Mothers” like Mary Floyd Tallmadge were responsible for raising their sons to be full citizens, future voters, and statesmen and for raising their daughters to be self-reliant, virtuous, domestic professionals who would best serve the nation by raising the next competent generation. In order to be the Republican Mothers that the nation needed, an old-fashioned education for women in basic literacy, work habits, needlework, and dancing would not suffice.

Sarah Pierce was one of the new nation’s pioneers in female education. Prior to the American Revolution, the best education that girls might have received typically involved no more than rudimentary literacy and ornamental crafts. After the Revolution, Pierce and others opened schools – actual institutions – that offered much more in order to develop ideal Republican Mothers. The emphasis on domesticity and behavior kept the institutions from being too radical; Pierce advertised the prospects of suitable marriages to law school students, and she did not eliminate the more traditional subjects that upper class women were still expected to master. Many examples of her students’ artwork survive (See Figure 4).

Fig. 4: Student artwork

However, an expanded curriculum reflected Pierce’s goals of self-improvement and intellectual development for the good of the nation. Benjamin Tallmadge promoted the Litchfield Female Academy in a letter in 1823 to an acquaintance who was considering enrolling his daughter. He shared that tuition was $5 per quarter for “art Geography, Grammar, ancient & modern history, Composition, Philosophy, Chemistry, Logic, reading, writing, spelling and needle work.” Pierce was so much on the cutting edge in offering these subjects of study to girls that she could not find a suitable history textbook; therefore, she wrote one herself. The influential author Harriet Beecher Stowe, a native of Litchfield and former student of Pierce, commended her on this textbook years later and asked to purchase a copy to use to instruct her own children (See Figure 5).

Fig. 5: Letter, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Although societal expectations still kept women and girls from the public sphere, expanded educational opportunities like those offered by Sarah Pierce prepared them to make valued contributions to their families and the nation.

As many as two thousand girls from across the nation and abroad attended the Litchfield Female Academy in its forty years. Some went on to raise their children quietly as good Republican Mothers; some married Litchfield Law School students and supported their husbands’ public careers; and some became educators, authors, and leaders of reform movements, pushing the boundaries of the domestic sphere. Litchfield was one of the catalysts of these large and small revolutions.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Vanderpoel, Emily Noyes. Chronicles of a Pioneer School from 1792 to 1833, Being the History of Miss Sarah Pierce and Her Litchfield School. Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1903.

A Glimpse into Farmington’s Past: The Charlotte Cowles Letters

Author: Garrett Coady

Farmington, Connecticut had been a New England hub for evangelical abolition during the decade of 1835 and 1845. Farmington had established an anti-slavery society in 1836 that was initiated around abolitionist reform and evangelical revival. One of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society’s founding members had been Horace Cowles. Horace and his wife, Mary Anne Steele Smith Cowles had a large family. Among their ten children was their daughter Charlotte Cowles.

During the heart of the Farmington abolitionist movement, Charlotte Cowles had written her brother Samuel Cowles a large volume of letters that highlighted the unique and volatile Farmington environment between 1835 and 1845.  Charlotte’s letters expound upon past on goings in Farmington, Connecticut and often on the inner workings of the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society.

Much of what Charlotte had written to her brother Samuel was about Farmington’s staunch evangelical abolitionist following, but Charlotte’s letters also help shape her personal persona. Charlotte comes across as an intelligent, caring, thought-provoking, and loyal abolitionist who saw the anti-slavery movement as a means to improving humanity through Christianity. The Charlotte Cowles Letters are treasure-troves of nineteenth century Farmington history. These letters are archived and available for public viewing at The Connecticut Historical Society. What follows is just a small snippet of the invaluable information that Charlotte Cowles scribed.

The Cowles family was one of Farmington’s prominent families of the nineteenth century. Charlotte may have been influenced by the temporal, benevolent and abolitionist work of her father Horace who was energetic throughout Connecticut as a member of multiple Christian reform programs.

From a young age Charlotte’s letters highlight her as an active member of the local abolitionist community in Farmington. Charlotte had written her brother Samuel often of her displeasure with anyone who did not believe abolition was for the betterment of humanity. Some of Charlotte’s earliest letters to her brother feature the daily proceedings of local anti-slavery meetings, like the selling of anti-slavery handkerchiefs to raise money for the movement in Farmington.
Outside of her activity within the Farmington Anti-Slavery Society, Charlotte may have been a teacher at Ms. Sarah Porter’s Farmington Female Seminary.  In a letter dated in February 1840, Charlotte had written Samuel detailing that she had received an application from Miss Sarah Porter to teach immediately at her school, which would have paid her $150 for the ten months of service. In the same letter Charlotte had written that she felt “Latin is sadly neglected in schools.” The statement was missing additional context, but it begs the question whether or not Charlotte was trained in the classical language. In her letters to Samuel, Charlotte comes across as an intuitive woman, so it seems reasonable to think that she may have known how to speak and read foreign languages.

Charlotte conquered with the sentiments of Mr. Phelps that “the architects and inhabitants of this town are in the form of abolitionists.” Charlotte stressed almost all people of nobility and high standing joined the anti-slavery movement. If Charlotte had viewed Farmington Anti-Slavery Society members as people of the highest order, presumably Charlotte would have regarded ones acceptance of colonization as the polar opposite. Charlotte had questioned this anti-slavery practice many times in her writings to Samuel and could not understand the allure.  Charlotte had attended an anti-slavery lecture with the agenda dealing with colonization, writing that, “when I returned from the lecture, I was able to see the absurdities of colonization more clearly and read it…with more clarity than ever before!”

One of Charlotte’s more fascinating letters was dated March 24, 1841, recounting the stay of the Amistad “Mendi” Africans in Farmington after their release from prison.  This letter not only presented Charlotte’s tolerance of the Mendi, but also showed her as a compassionate young woman. Charlotte stated that a young Mendi girl named Kan-ne had been staying with her family, Dr. Noah Porter housed Ta-ne, and the last Mendi child was at Timothy’s.  Charlotte was astounded by how smart Kan-ne had been, the “cheerful spirit” the little girl possessed, and was stunned with the writing skills of the Mendi.

In her letter’s, Charlotte features a substantial group of mindful and forthright abolitionists in Farmington, Connecticut during the decade of 1835 to 1845. Not all of Farmington saw abolition as a means to eradicating slavery, but a strong portion of town shared an anti-slavery mindset like Charlotte Cowles. The Charlotte Cowles Letters are a peak into an evangelical belief system, which felt the institution of slavery could be abolished peacefully through Christianizing the world. Charlotte had written her brother Samuel a great deal more than what has been presented here. A visit to the Connecticut Historical Society to read more of Charlotte’s riveting letters on Farmington’s local history is strongly recommended!

 

Charlotte Cowles: Writing Herself into History

Author: Regan Miner

Charlotte Cowles (1821-1866) lived in Farmington, Connecticut during an extremely polarizing time. During the 1830s, Farmington was grappling with the divisive issue of abolitionism; many people in town were either indifferent to or opposed to changes to the current gradual emancipation legislation. There was a significant minority of influential and wealthy citizens who favored abolitionism. Many abolitionists in Farmington were members of the same social and familial networks. Numerous members of Charlotte’s extended family were abolitionists, such as her cousin-in-law, Austin F. Williams, her uncle Timothy Cowles, her cousin Chauncey Cowles and her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, who opened an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford. Charlotte was a staunch abolitionist and the modern day researcher can delve into her thoughts thanks to the numerous letters she wrote to her brother, Samuel S. Cowles, currently housed at the Connecticut Historical Society. Charlotte’s letters reveal a strong willed woman who discussed everyday life in Farmington, abolitionist activities and her true feelings on slavery.

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Jennette Cowles Williams and Austin F. Williams’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Samuel and Charlotte’s parents were Horace and Mary Anne Cowles; of 10 children, only Samuel, Charlotte and another sister, Mary Ann, survived to adulthood. Their father, Horace Cowles, was a merchant active in the temperance and abolitionist movements. Charlotte and Samuel Cowles’ 94 letter correspondence, 91 letters from Charlotte and 3 letters from Samuel, spans from 1833 to 1841, and a single letter was penned in 1846. Charlotte’s letters are historically significant, because it is very rare to have a women’s first person perspective on a significant issue such as abolition. In addition, Charlotte wrote these letters between the ages of 13 and 25, which shows her intelligence and maturity about controversial issues at such a young age. Many of Charlotte’s letters detail the activities of various members of the Cowles family and she provides amusing updates about her life, such as her dinner plans and she described an episode where she went “sleighing.” Furthermore, Charlotte discussed births, marriages and deaths of family members and bemoaned the unpleasant winter weather. She constantly asked her brother when he would visit and if he could pick up certain items for her in Hartford. Charlotte’s charming prose and detailed descriptions offer a remarkable glance into everyday life in Farmington in the 1830s.

Charlotte’s letters give unique insight into the lives of the Amistad Africans, while they stayed in Farmington for roughly nine months before they returned to Africa. She described the Mendi as “beautiful” and “elegant” and even admitted that she was embarrassed by her lavish praise of one of the Mendi named Banyeh. Charlotte befriended many of the Mendi and listened to stories of their “adventure” from Africa to Farmington. The Mendi helped Charlotte understand the true horrors of slavery; she stated, “we read and we talk about these things [slavery], but as long as we do not see the victims, we know nothing of them.” The Cowles’ family housed one of the Mendi girls, Ka-me or Kagne, and she seemed  “very contented, so far as we can judge from her happy looks and cheerful words.” Charlotte goes into detail about the Mendi’s appearance, impressive work ethic and their adaptation of white culture; “they looked very neat and orderly, and behaved as if they had been to church all their lives.

Charlotte Cowles' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Farmington

Charlotte Cowles referenced many nationally known abolitionists such as Alvan Stewart, John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and a “Mr. Burt” who lectured about abolitionism in Farmington. Charlotte’s depth of knowledge about scholarly literature and abolitionist newspapers was quite impressive as was her command of different political ideologies and politicians. For example, Charlotte discussed a speech given by past Governor of Liberia, Rev. John Pinney, who advocated for colonization, or the transportation of African Americans back to Africa, which was a concept Charlotte thoroughly refuted. In addition, she highlighted the fierce anti-abolition sentiment in town who held their own anti-abolition meetings in protest; “it was a high day for the rioters…who came in throngs.”  In her letters, Charlotte described activities of Farmington’s abolitionists such as attending anti-slavery lectures, writing the constitution for the Anti-Slavery Society and hiding fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad.  Charlotte told her brother about a fugitive slave hiding in their family home; “I think the man who is with us now, (we call him Thomas) is the noblest specimen of the ‘Southerners’ I have ever seen. We are all very much attached to him indeed.”  Charlotte revealed her intimate feelings of slavery in her letters; “I hardly know when slavery seems most accursed; when we see a man reduced by it almost to a brute, — or when we think that there among its victims such men as Thomas, who are still noble, dignified and unsubdued, notwithstanding all they have suffered.”  Charlotte’s views on slavery reflects the opinions of a national group of individuals who endeavored to end slavery in the United States.

Charlotte Cowles’ letters are a fascinating insight into an abolitionist’s mind and daily life in Farmington during the 1830s. Her letters are an incredible repository of information about Farmington’s abolitionist activity and her first hand observations of the Mendi are instrumental for understanding the ramifications the Amistad had on the abolitionist movement. Thanks to the Connecticut Historical Society, Charlotte’s delightful prose and historic points of view will be preserved for future generations of scholars.

For further reading:

“List of Sites.” Connecticut Freedom Trail. 2016. http://ctfreedomtrail.org/trail/amistad.

Bickford, Christopher. Farmington in Connecticut. Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing,1982.

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles to Samuel S. Cowles. Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Sources:

Cowles, Charlotte. Charlotte Cowles and Samuel Cowles correspondence, 1833-1841, 1846. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut.

Women and the Law in Farmington

Author: Kevin Simon

When the founders came to Farmington they looked to create a pious paradise on Earth. With diligence and hard work they created a community in their own image, righteous, and upright.  But not everything was as perfect as the first families intended.  Some dark traits came with them to the new world.  By the turn of the seventeenth century some alarming events took place that would challenge their idyllic world.

A Two Sides of a Coin: What drives a Mother to Kill, and a Wife to Murder?

In the quiet little hamlet of Farmington there were two murders. One was a crime of necessity; the other, an act of passion.  Amy Munn murdered her child on the night of March 11, 1698.  As an unwed mother and a servant in the home of Samuel Wadsworth she was in no position to raise a child.  Beyond the financial responsibility of raising a child Amy knew she would be convicted of fornication, fined and whipped before the community.  Infanticide was a capital crime, but Munn was not executed. She was convicted of notorious negligence.  Her charges were reduced for a lack of witnesses, though the circumstantial evidence was damning.  What pushed a mother to such an extreme?  We will never know, but there were pressures on young people at this time to remain chaste.  Each small New England town had an interest in preventing illegitimate births, concerned that these new children to become a financial burden on the community.

Abigail Thomson was quite another matter. Described by her neighbors as quarrelsome and termagant she berated and abused her husband regularly.  On December 17, 1705, matters came to a head when in a fit of rage she flung a pair of tailoring shears at her husband, piercing his skull.  Poor Thomas clung to life for nearly twenty days, suffering from his wound, before he passed away.

“...Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband...” Quote from Abigail Thomson's indictment.

“…Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband…” Quote from Abigail Thomson’s indictment.

During the depositions, Abigail’s harsh nature was exposed. She was known to threaten her husband and say she would be the death of him.  A neighbor, Joseph North, recalled on multiple occasions she chased him from the house and threw rocks at him.  At first Abigail denied throwing the shears in anger, but then when that story was not believed she claimed he had beaten her with a broom, and she struck him in self defense.  Not a single deposition was made in her defense. The court was not moved.

Abigail was sentenced to death, but received a stay when she claimed pregnancy. Hopefully, Abigail named her daughter Mercy delivered in 1706.  Mercy went into the care of her uncle who lived in Wallingford, but Abigail would not get a reprieve.  She was believed to be executed in May of 1708.  These women demonstrated rare instances of violence in a quiet community, but they were actors in their own right, however the final case was a victim of her circumstances.

A Person Before the Law: The Sad Case of Hannah Norton

When Hannah Norton came to court things did not go well for her. Her legal entanglements diminished her standing in her community and before the law.  Hannah Norton married Samuel North and started an uneventful life in Farmington.  Her quiet life unraveled after her husband died in 1683.  The widow North stayed with her neighbors, the Ortons, for several days, then returned home.  A few weeks later Thomas Hancox accused her of unclean acts with John Orton.  Hancox was her jilted suitor.

By North’s account she was assaulted. Orton’s story was different.  He testified that she took his hand and gave him rum.  Even Orton’s wife supported her husband, saying the widow North, “loved his company.”  Both Orton and the North were fined, twenty pounds and seven pounds respectively.  In what must have been an excruciating letter North begged for forgiveness from God and the court for her unclean acts, but did not budge from her claim of assault.

“...I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater...” Quote from Hannah North's deposition.

“…I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater…” Quote from Hannah North’s deposition.

 

But this was not the end of the widow North. Just three years later another controversy arose.  Hannah’s new husband, John Rew, accused Matthew Woodruff of fathering her child.  Woodruff was an associate of her first husband Samuel.  Both Woodruff and Hannah denied this and so did the Court of assistance, dismissing the charges and Rew’s appeal.  One can only imagine how Hannah’s reputation must have suffered having a husband who publicly questioned the paternity of his child.

The new Mrs. Rew was not finished in court, though this final case omitted her name. When John Rew came home one night in October of 1719, he was in for one big surprise. His home had been completely cleared out.  The impressive inventory stolen included warming pans, a dresser, and cookware.  Rew, found his cupboards bare, and exclaimed they left him “not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers”  During the night Roger Orvis and Samuel Warner cleaned out his house, and divvied up the goods hiding them under the floor boards of their homes.

...not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on...” Quote from John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on…” Quote from John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

When the men were hauled in front of the judge they claimed Rew’s wife, Hannah, had given them permission to take the items. The argument John Rew made to get back his goods was a final blow to his wife, whom he claimed could not settle his debts, “for she is not a person in law.”  He argued that when bound to a man she did not have to power to dispense with his goods, even those brought as dowry.  The sad case of Hannah Norton, assaulted by her neighbor, disgraced by her husband, whose husband questioned her legal identity, is a story of both women’s oppression and women’s resistance.  One can only hope Hannah’s story had more happiness than the courts revealed.

...for she is not a person in law...” Quote form John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…for she is not a person in law…” Quote form John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

 

Farmington Overlay Map 3

Moving left to right, point 1 is the location of Thomas Thomson’s home where he was killed.  Point 2 is the location of the alleged assault on Hannah North.  The last point is the location of Samuel Wadsworth’s home, where Amy Munn lived.

Recommended Readings about Women and Crime in New England

  • Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960. McFarland, 1999.
  • Hull, N. E. H. Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Mann, Bruce H. Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut. 1st New edition edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Roth, Randolph. “Child Murder in New England.” Social Science History 25, no. 1 (2001): 101–47.
  • Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women in Early America: A Reappraisal.” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 129–51. doi:10.2307/744005.