In May 1787, George Washington arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention. One afternoon, as he waited for the other delegates to show up so the convention could begin, Washington accompanied some ladies to a public lecture at the University of Pennsylvania by a woman named Eliza Harriot Barons O’Conner.
Eliza Harriot, as she signed her name, had led a transatlantic life steeped in revolutionary ideas. On that May afternoon she argued in favor of the radical notion of Female Genius, the idea that women were intellectually equal to men and deserved both equal opportunity for education and political representation.
On today’s show, we dive deeper into Harriot’s story as Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder, who joins Jim Ambuske to discuss her latest book Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2022. Bilder is the Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. And as you’ll learn, Harriot’s performance that day may have inspired the new Constitution’s gender-neutral language.
Interview published: May 19, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder, Boston College Law School
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library.
In May 1787, George Washington arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention. One afternoon, as he awaited for the other delegates to show up so the convention could begin, Washington accompanied some ladies to a public lecture at the University of Pennsylvania by a woman named Eliza Harriot Barons O'Conner. Eliza Harriot, as she often signed her name, had led a transatlantic life steeped in revolutionary ideas. On that May afternoon, she argued in favor of the radical notion of female genius. The idea that women were intellectually equal to men and deserve both equal opportunity for education and political representation.
On today's show, we dive deeper into Harriot's story as Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder joins me to discuss her latest book, Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution published by the University of Virginia Press in 2022, Bilder is the Founder Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. And as you will learn Harriot’s performance that day may have inspired the new Constitution’s gender neutral language.
So cancel your afternoon plans and let's attend a lecture on female genius with Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder.
I wanted to actually begin with something you note in the book that kind of, I think you said stopped you in your tracks or persisted in your mind for a very long time, that in many ways became the genesis of this project, which was a May 1787 diary entry by George Washington. And I was wondering if you would read that passage and then we can talk a little bit about it, about what captivated you and what kept you coming back to it?
Mary Sarah Bilder: This passage in Washington's diary really stuck in my mind, and Washington's diary from the summer of 1787 is my favorite of the many records we have from the summer of 1787 when the Constitutional convention was in place and Washington never wrote anything about what happened inside the convention, but he kept track of what he was doing outside of the convention.
And the diary has two versions, the short version that Washington kept that summer, and then a longer version where he rewrote his entries when he returned to Mount Vernon. And this is from the long version, the fair copy. Friday 18th, the representation from New York appeared on the floor today. Dined at Grace Ferry and drank tea at Mr. Morris's after which accompanied Mrs. Morris, and some other ladies, to hear a Mrs. O'Connell read a charity affair. The lady being reduced in circumstances had had recourse to this expedient to obtain a little money. Her performance was tolerable at the college hall.
Jim Ambuske: What’s going on in this passage?
Mary Sarah Bilder: So, first of all, the date is very significant.
Washington had shown up in May, along with the rest of the Virginia delegation, uh, ready to begin at the convention, but everybody else hadn't shown up. The Virginia delegation sort of had to cool their heels while they waited. It was important for the history of the convention because they created the Virginia plan, which will be the significant plan.
And it's a Friday night and Washington did a lot of interesting things on Friday nights. And he, at this point, is staying with the Morris's, with Robert Morris and his wife, Mary White Morris, and Washington has gone with Mrs. Morris, and I love this phrase, and some other ladies. You imagine Washington sort of surrounded by women, going to hear someone read and he refers to her as a Mrs. O'Connell. So he's remembering in his original draft, he didn't actually even know her name, but he remembers her name, uh, later on. That's actually not her name, but he's given her a sort of, it's almost stereotypical Irish Catholic name here, and I'll return to that. And he says it's a charity affair because she is reduced in circumstance.
So he, somehow, somehow he understands that she was someone who was quite affluent, but no longer had money and that this was a subscription series. So, he, she needs to be making money and she's described as a Mrs., so he has some sense she's married but her husband somehow vanished. Men in this period are supposed to be the primary wage earners and she's instead doing this reading.
And then what's really remarkable is this description of her performance as tolerable. And one of the things that's great about that word tolerable is that's the same description that Jane Austin has Mr. Darcy give to his first meeting with Eliza Bennett. And so tolerable means here, uh, something that is actually somewhat acceptable, you know, sort of it's, it's not quite the word that we understand it to mean it, in some ways it's a more flattering word.
And then this remarkable end at the college hall and that's the college, um, referring to the University of Pennsylvania. That's the largest lecture hall in Philadelphia at the time. So if we circle back, we can now understand that what this means is that George Washington went with women to hear a woman give a public lecture at the college hall.
And he judged her performance pretty acceptable. And this passage made me wonder, like, who is this person? Is this at all ordinary? Or is she really quite extraordinary in giving this public lecture at the university? And how does this fit with Washington's participation that summer at the Constitutional Convention.
Jim Ambuske: Who then is this Mrs. O’Connell?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah. Mrs. O'Connell. Well, her name was not Mrs. O'Connell. Her name was technically Mrs. O'Conner and says something about Washington that he kind of gets this wrong. I actually went back to make sure this wasn't a typo in the transcription, but he gives her the wrong name.
Her name was actually a very large name, Elizabeth Harriot Barons, which is how she was born. And then O'Conner, she was the daughter on her mother's side, a very prominent English family. Her uncles were the governors of New York and New Jersey and a very prominent Admiral in the British Admiralty, Sir Charles Hardy. On her father's side, her dad was Benjamin Barons who was actually a very infamous and important port collector in Boston.
And she marries a gentleman named John O'Conner. Who's an Irish Catholic lawyer in London. And so she gets this big name, Elizabeth Harriot Barons O'Conner. And because Barons was her father's name and O'Conner was her husband's name, in this book, I've decided to call her how she signed herself, which is Eliza Harriot. And so that's her first and middle names, uh, and that's what I call her throughout the book.
Jim Ambuske: What do we know about her early life? It seems like there isn't a great deal of documentary evidence so you had to do some sleuthing to reconstruct the world she lived in.
Mary Sarah Bilder: There's no personal papers of hers that remain outside of five extant letters. Four of them to George Washington, actually, uh, and one to Sarah Franklin Bache, who was Benjamin Franklin's daughter.
She had to be constructed completely out of records and newspapers. I was lucky in that her family, the Hardy’s, which was her mother's family, were very prominent in England. Uh, and so there's a lot about them. There is no known portrait of her, maybe one will emerge, but there are two wonderful portraits of her uncle and one of her cousins.
And so we have a sense of the family, the larger extended family in which she grew up, which was a very prominent, wealthy sort of gentry family. Clawing its way up in the British Admiralty, and we can understand then that she's a sort of sophisticated participant in, sort of patronage politics. And that will be very important to understanding her.
But as a young girl, she also reminds us of the way in which the Atlantic loomed much larger for many people. She goes back and forth across the Atlantic several times. She's actually born in Lisbon, Portugal in the British factory, which was an outpost, a trading outpost of the British. So she's sort of part of a, of a mercantile world, of an admiralty world, of a world where through admiralty and sort of merchant service, you might be able to make up for the fact that your family hadn't been born lords and ladies in the peerage, and her uncle is actually knighted Sir Charles Hardy.
Washington's right when he says she's somewhat reduced in circumstance because she really is a quite prominent, of a prominent family. Uh, and then through marriage has sort of fallen away from that.
Jim Ambuske: Central to your book is the question of female education and this idea of female genius in the Atlantic world.
Mary Sarah Bilder: One of the things that's wonderful about Eliza Harriot is we know where she was educated because she refers when she opens her first school to following the practice of a Mrs. Alesworthy. And Mrs. Alesworthy’s school was in Chelsea, and it was a quite prominent school for young girls. And we know two other students who would have been there at the same time, the very famous John Wilkes, who's a kind of British radical reformer, he sent his daughter there. Tobias Small, uh, the great writer's daughter, was there also.
And they were contemporaries of Eliza Harriot, and it was a very small school. So she, they might have been her best friends, which would have been a fascinating, uh, little friend group. And it was a school that was quite enlightened with respect to women's education.
They'd imagined women as participating in the types of enlightenment education that had become typical, both for young men and young women in that period. And very importantly, it was a school that emphasized French. Although French will become understood in a later period as part of a sort of almost elite finishing school education, that wasn't how it was understood in this period. It was understood as a sort of cosmopolitan language that would allow people to participate in a larger trans-European type of political economy. And for girls in particular, it was a very important language. Because many interesting French women's writers were in French only hadn't yet been translated.
It's sort of an expansive cosmopolitan language. It's a language obviously of the political enlightenment, right? All, so many great liberal political people wrote in French. And then also, particularly for women, it's a really fabulous language to learn. So she's sort of educated in this kind of elite important political reformist tradition and that's part of the tradition that she's going to bring with her.
So one aspect is her own education. And then very importantly, when she marries her husband in 1776, her husband, John O'Conner is Irish Catholic. And he represents, whether truly or not, he certainly appears to represent the ties to the kind of great royal families that had once ruled Ireland, and it's in the 1770s that these families begin to really come back into prominence in part because the British had begun to repeal some of the terrible penal liabilities that had been put on the Irish Catholics.
O'Conner is educated also, and, uh, after their marriage, they go back to Dublin. And Eliza Harriot in Dublin seems to have picked up or, or perhaps she becomes acquainted with a whole movement around reading and political oratory that was called the art of speaking or the art of reading. And this movement was promulgated by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Thomas Sheridan.
The idea was that you could through learning to speak properly through learning, to, uh, read out loud, you could actually sort of become a great political orator and Sheridan, Thomas Sheridan, produced a series of books where he promoted this both for men and for women. She sort of embraces both this very elite important girl's education and then combines it with this very interesting sort of enlightenment male education,that's expanding to women about public speaking and she brings those two with her.
Then in terms of the idea of female genius, one of the things that's fascinating is in this same period, really in the 1770s, we can begin to see that as people are imagining larger representation, some women are beginning to understand that for the first time, they might actually be able to shed this idea that women were inferior. And there’s this phrase female genius that appears in so much writing around women in this period. And it takes the word genius, which had been the idea of capacity, which had traditionally applied to men and it adds this word female in front of it. And the idea is that women had equal capacity and they could therefore participate in the same educational or political activities that men did.
And so I use that phrase, female genius, which we see in political pamphlets and poetry in this period to sort of encapsulate this, you know, at the moment, somewhat radical idea.
Jim Ambuske: As some folks are articulating this radical idea, I would imagine then that some other folks are pushing back against that one in particular seems to be Benjamin Rush.
What's the counter-argument that folks like Rush are making to the idea that women do have this capacity to aspire intellectually to the same levels as men?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah, so, on the one hand, we have this significant outpouring on both sides of the Atlantic arguing for women's political participation, their equal capacity.
This is a moment when women debating societies flourish in England, and they're actually in London articulating the arguments for women's participation as voters and office holders, and for women participating in the same education. In Philadelphia, where Eliza Harriot will meet Washington that summer, Benjamin Rush and other gentlemen had begun to found a new school for female education.
And this is a very famous school. The Young Ladies Academy, which really comes into its own in this same summer of 1787. And Rush's idea along with the other founders of this school was that women should be educated. They should be educated, but they should be educated for particular purposes, [00:15:00] for their role as wives and daughters.
And so Rush thinks they should not have the same education as men. They should have a subordinate education, and Eliza Harriot's perspective is no, they should have the same education as men. And so these two very different theories of female education sort of collide in the summer of 1787.
Jim Ambuske: And they're colliding in a moment that you call the Age of the Constitution.
What does that mean? And I'd love to get into, to the idea of the distinction between the Constitution, as we now understand it, and what folks back in that period would have understood as a Constitution.
Mary Sarah Bilder: We think of the Constitution as something you can pull out of your pocket and point to as a set of words on a written page.
And particularly since the 1980s when originalism was sort of first invented as a form of Constitutional interpretation, we tend to imagine the Constitution as something very semantically bound, where, where each word has this intentional, meaning. That wasn't at all how people imagined the word Constitution in the period in which the Constitution was actually formed.
The Constitution was understood as a system of government, and this is still the understanding of the Constitution that the British have. The British have what we think of now as an unwritten Constitution. That's what everybody understood the word Constitution to be, to be the form of government, great documents like Magna Carta, the petition of right, the bill of rights in England, and also the way that system of government had been understood over time.
The Americans who begin to draft documents in this period that we come to know as Constitutions are understanding them as efforts to write down systems of government. And not everybody writes down systems of government, Rhode Island and Connecticut keep their old charters in this period. And when we think about what happens in the summer of 1787, when Americans begin to redraft the Articles of Confederation was their first effort to create a system of government. What is so important is to understand that the idea about Constitution in this period, isn't yet a discreet piece of paper, or to put it differently, there's a piece of paper, but the idea is that piece of paper is describing a system of government.
That is, it is just the Dawn of the Constitution in the modern sense, it's just the beginning of this idea that it's actually just the piece of paper that's important. And so what's really important in thinking about the Constitution as a system of government in an age of the Constitution, in a moment where people are re-imagining Constitutions as being increasingly representative, is we can think about the act that who participates in that Constitution, who that Constitution describes, what are the modes of participation are all more open and contingent than we might imagine.
Jim Ambuske: So as we've got these twin things developing, right, we've got on the one hand greater calls for the capacity of women and the female genius. The other hand, we've got a rethinking of Constitutionalism. What Constitutions mean? What systems of governments means?
Where does Eliza Harriot fit in, in all of this? How does her life in this period help us understand how these two ideas are intersecting with each other?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah. It's such a great question.
The system of government that we understand is developing in the 1780s hasn't worked out all sorts of questions that we think it must have. So we think, oh, they must have known what it meant to be a citizen, what it meant to participate in the political system, who's going to be allowed to vote, what set of political rights are required to participate in this system,what does the political system give you?
But all of those really important, interesting questions hadn't been figured out at all. And what's so exciting to me about this period is that when we go back to this period, we can see that, that they're really thinking hard about what does it mean to be a participant in the political state? What's really interesting is what did it mean to have the right of suffrage, to vote for example, or to be recognized by the political system? And this is, uh, a moment where particularly in England, the rules that prohibited you from participating look very different than our rules.
So they tended to involve having property, often a great deal of property, and they tended to involve religious faith. So most of the prohibitions on people participating had been religious. And so the gender and race prohibitions that we tend to think must have existed in this period, aren't yet uniformly in place.
We know this actually, because in the 1770s, the first Black voter in London votes, Ignatius Sancho, because he meets the property and religious qualifications. So the system's kind of weirdly more open and expansive, not in reality. In reality, of course, most women don't vote. Most people of color don't vote.
Most men who don't have any property don't vote, that most men in England don't vote at all. But the technical limits on that aren't in place. And so what's very exciting to me as Eliza Harriot comes to Philadelphia, she's in Philadelphia at a moment when we know the federal Constitution is being drafted, and we can see in the Constitution that the Constitution’s words originally reference sex and gender.
In the draft, we actually see very importantly, the words he or she in an amendment to the draft that's put in place in August that refers to people who would escape from slavery. And it's a really a testament to African-American women's agency in escaping slavery that the person who drafted this, possibly Pierce Butler, couldn't imagine putting forward who was going to escape from slavery without imagining women escaping.
So he says he or she, you know, and we think of someone like, uh, Oney Judge, who's gonna escape from Washington, being the type of person who's first and foremost in their mind. Um, to be at these moments in the draft where, where we see gender or sex references, so Congress has referred to in a draft as two bodies of men.
But all of those vanish in the final draft, and in the final draft of the Constitution, the Constitution has rendered gender neutral in the terms of the 1780s and the classification that is used to describe people, becomes persons. And the pronoun used for that as he, and he is a gender neutral pronoun.
We know that because another part of the Constitution that allows people who commit crimes to be returned across state lines refers only to he and otherwise women like myself could get off scot-free and like escape. Um, so, uh, so we know this person, he is a gender neutral. This possibility of reading the Constitution in this expansive way in which all of the requirements are rendered gender neutral, suggests that the Constitution is altered to be possibly open to being read in this way of incorporating female genius. Now, we can't prove that. But the fact that Eliza Harriot is there that summer, that she gives these very prominent lectures that Washington is understood to tolerate them to participate every day of that summer her advertisements for this kind of expansive idea of both education and public speaking by women appear in the newspapers and then the Constitution, instead of rejecting that, seems to embrace it. That's very significant.
Jim Ambuske: What is Harriot lecturing about? She's on a series of lectures she's giving these talks, one of which Washington attends. What is she talking about?
And do we have any of these surviving speeches?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah. Unfortunately, I would love to have a surviving speech by Eliza Harriot. She had no children and so her papers were not, there was no family to keep her papers. Her speeches are completely reconstructed out of her advertisements that she placed that summer and correspondence to the newspapers about what she spoke.
And that is a lot because she places over 150 advertisements in newspapers just that summer, so there's a lot of evidence about it. And that also tells us that in order to understand what she was doing, you didn't actually have to attend her lecture. If I can figure out this idea of expansive female genius that she was proposing so could everybody else that summer.
And one of the things that she does that summer is she promotes a sort of enlightened idea about public lecturing. She's to my knowledge, she's the first female lecturer, public lecture, in the United States. She's the first female lecturer in a university setting or prominently declared in the university, so she's really significant.
It will be a number of years before another woman comes along to lecture in the same style. And she gives lectures that involve both reading poetry, but also she describes it as criticism, so this is showing a kind of intellectual capacity to analyze readings and she includes very traditional authors like Shakespeare and Milton, Alexander Pope.
She includes a number of authors who were political reformers, so the person who writes “Rule Brittania,” James Thompson, is read. She includes women. So she always includes a play by Madame [Duchesne Lee] and Madame [Duchesne Lee] was the first woman appointed to be a teacher or tutor to parts of the French monarchy, very, very important.
She reads the poetry of Sir William Jones, who was understood to be a very important political liberal, and, uh, had translated poems that were understood in the, what we call the Oriental tradition. And so sort of almost nowadays, we would think of as a multicultural kind of poet, and she actually is the first person in the United States to promote Jones's poetry.
Importantly, she changes some of the lines of those poems to praise Washington. And so they're then reprinted in multiple newspapers associated with the lady who lectured in the university and George Washington. So she's really kind of amplifying her capacity. And all of this is to emphasize that women can participate in this activity that we tend to think in this period as associated with men with these kinds of public lectures.
Perhaps most significantly, she gives the Prayer on the Crown, the Oration on the Crown from Demosthenes. And this was the key speech that many of the people who we think of as sort of Founding Fathers cited to. What's so exciting about her version of the Demosthenes Oration on the Crown is newspapers picked it up as a critique of the Rhode Island delegation’s failure to show up at the convention. Here, we have the lady lecturer linked to Demosthenes, the classic male political text for oration and the convention by criticizing the Rhode Island delegation. And that again, almost goes viral. It actually shows up in Rhode Island, in the newspapers.
Jim Ambuske: Everyone's always dunking on Rhode Island in that period.
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah. Yeah. Well, they decided that the Constitution wasn't going to help them, which they were probably right about, but maybe not showing up wasn't the best approach to dealing with.
Jim Ambuske: Well Harriot and Washington have a continuing relationship after this first encounter. And what did that look like
Mary Sarah Bilder: One of the things that's so interesting about her, this comes from her family, was she was very sophisticated about understanding how Washington's political power could be used to amplify her own message.
Her own family had been very sophisticated about rising in a British political world where you had to have a great patron. And Eliza Harriot understands that Washington and Franklin are the only two people in this period with that kind of clout. On the one hand, she reaches out to Franklin's daughter and there's a letter to Franklin's daughter asking Franklin’s daughter to help support her efforts.
But very importantly, she and her husband eventually moved to Alexandria and she starts a school in Alexandria, and this is O'Conner's Female Academy. And she asks Washington to be on the board of that school. He says he'll support it, but he has no time to be on the board, but he's actually supportive of the school that summer.
And her school is quite successful and she uses the female exams from that school to, again, publicize her efforts. In the fall of 1788, she actually visits Mount Vernon for five days in order to talk to George and Martha Washington about her husband's plans to leave and her need to shut down her school. This is a wonderful moment in their relationship because she writes back and forth four letters.
First, she actually gets herself invited to Mount Vernon, which I'm not sure everybody would have done in this period. And then when Washington says, please come to Mount Vernon, she writes back explaining that she would love to accept the invitation, but she doesn't have a carriage. Washington has to send the carriage to get her.
And in this space of getting herself invited, and basically saying, yes, to send the carriage, we hear the kind of self-confidence that she had. You know, she doesn't have money in this space. She didn't have real political power, but she clearly saw herself as, in some ways, as close to an equal of Washington's as one could be in this period.
And that's a really quite extraordinary moment. They may also meet again, she eventually ends up in Charleston and she was running a very prominent school. Uh, and when Washington does his Southern tour, um, in 1790, they may cross paths again. But we, but we don't have any evidence for that. Washington met hundreds of women as he described it in his diary when he was in Charleston.
And I assume that somewhere, she managed to cross paths with him.
Jim Ambuske: That was one of the more interesting aspects of the book is Harriot and her husband's itinerancy, I guess you could say they are very geographically mobile. Why was that? Was it a function of, uh, as you point out that she may have had some means, but not enough means? What are they hoping to achieve?
Mary Sarah Bilder: I think one of the things that her life story really reminds us is how difficult it was for many people, particularly for people who immigrated to this country and didn't have sort of family resources behind them, to create a stable existence. And here we're obviously talking about people who are white.
Her husband had lots of great plans. He sort of imagined himself as a literary and political figure, but he never had enough money. And I assume that most of the time they were fleeing debts by moving state to state, or sort of looking for the next opportunity. And in every town, they moved to, she's the primary earner, stable income for them.
And she engages in what Granville Ganter calls, entrepreneurial lecturing, they land in a place and she starts trying to raise money by giving these lectures because you had to then pay an advance, and then she hopes to open a school. So she uses the lecture money to try and fund the school, but you have a sense that they're also skipping debts.
And so they leave Charleston, for example, when the economy collapses in 1792 and promptly move across state lines to Georgia. So you assume that there's some kind of, uh, effort to avoid debts. This is a very hard aspect of being a married woman in this period, because you have no right to own property in your own.
You have no right to sort of have an independent economic life and actually says she's forced to pay off his debts. She's very much tied to his aspirational, but not very effective economic activity.
Jim Ambuske: One of the fascinating things, again, about her geographic mobility is she keeps moving South. And so she's traveling throughout the course of her life from places where slavery is present to places where slavery is the dominant labor system and intertwined in the social and economic world of people like the South Carolinians.
What should we make of that
Mary Sarah Bilder: It’s such an important question, such a fascinating aspect of imagining how she related to her larger world. She was described as a Lady, she calls herself a :ady. She has no claim to that technically, but the way she is configured is an image that's only available to white women.
She participates in activities, in running a school, which are more economically successful in an economy where labor was very, very inexpensive. And her most successful school is in Charleston and Charleston's economy completely based on enslaved labor, where there was also significant number of people who were enslaved, who were highered out.
We have to wrestle with the reality that this vision she had, particularly in the 1790s becomes most successful, where it's built in part, out of the bound labor of others. We don't know whether she owned a person, I don't think she did. There's a census from Charleston and she and her husband do not look like they actually own a person.
And she might have been of the political reformed movements who believed in abolishing slavery in this period, perhaps probably also abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. And there's aspects of her husband's writing that suggests that's where they would have fallen on a political spectrum, but that doesn't alter the fact that her activities as a school teacher were made far more economically powerful and successful by the realities of enslaved labor.
And that's a really important thing for us to wrestle with, the way in which her white lady aspects were particularly valuable in a world in which enslaved labor was so dominant.
Jim Ambuske: And does that potential running from debt and lecturing and whatnot, does that define the final years of their lives?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Yeah, they end up in Columbia, South Carolina, and she starts, uh, another school, but she probably ran for quite a long time.
It wasn't as ambitious as her earlier schools. John vanishes after 1793. Uh, and I don't know where he goes. I spent a long time desperately trying to look for him, but there's a lot of people named John O'Conner in the world. I like to personally imagine he went back to Ireland. He had tried to do that.
He went back once to try and raise money. And I love the idea that he goes back in 1793, 1794, and finds himself participating in the nascent Irish Catholic efforts to gain political power. But that, that would be the Hollywood movie version of his, uh, life joining Wolfe Tone and others. I suspect what actually happened to him is he died in one of the yellow fever epidemics that passed through the period.
And Eliza Harriot's economic situation continues to go down. She dies in 1811. At that time she's living in the house, probably of her executor in one bedroom, and she's managed to keep her personal possessions, her reading glasses, some books, her embroidery and needlework, but she's clearly living in much reduced circumstances.
Jim Ambuske: Just to circle back at the end of this segment, then where we started, when you first read that diary entry from Washington, did you ever imagine that there would be this whole world embodied in just those few lines that then you could tease out and reconstruct?
Mary Sarah Bilder: No. You know, one of the things I loved about that diary entry is, reminds us of how many people participated in the Framing moment.
You know, sometimes we tell the story of the Constitutional framing moment as just about the 30-some people in the room. And honestly, we mostly only remember five people in the room, but this is a Constitution that begins in its preamble by saying we, the people and the people was a lot of people back then.
And so I feel very determined to recreate as many stories as I can about who all these people were that summer of 1787 and what role they played in creating or challenging this larger system of government. So she's just one tiny diary entry, and yet we can see how this one entry opens up a whole space of re-imagining the political world.
And this is true for so many aspects of the summer of 1787. That we've kept our focus way too narrow in terms of understanding the really important foundations of this country.
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.
If you want to learn more about the presidency from George Washington to Joe Biden, well, let me tell you about the podcast series The Past, The Promise, the Presidency from the Center of Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Now I did not know Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was not a friend of mine, but the folks who run this show are, and they do a terrific job of unpacking the presidency's impact on American politics and society.
So check out their latest season as they take a deeper dive into the president and the bully pulpit and explore the president's ability to tackle any issue from foreign policy to healthcare, to influence American culture policy and the world beyond, season three of The Past, The Promise, The Presidency is out now.
Be sure to catch up on past seasons and learn more about the program by going to www.pastpromisepresidency.com. And now back to the 18th century,
Jim Ambuske: Mary, what book are you reading right now?
Mary Sarah Bilder: This is such an unusual book to be reading in some ways. I'm really interested in how we remember this period. And so I've gone back to read William Cooper Nell's Colored Patriots of the Revolution, which was written in 1855.
And he goes back to try and recreate and remind us of all the people who participated in this moment. It's a book that's particularly interesting to me because William Cooper Nell lived in Boston on a street that about 40 years later, um, one branch of my family who were Irish Catholic immigrants moved in on.
Uh, and so they lived about three doors up from where this really incredible Bostonian, William Cooper Nell, uh, had lived just a generation before them.
Jim Ambuske: Oh, that's really cool. Well, who is the author you most admire?
Mary Sarah Bilder: A person who lives very much with me in my historical writing is Bernard Bailyn, who I was fortunate to study with.
I very much thought he had this understanding that one of the things the historian needs to understand is that people can't see the future. And for me, that's just an incredibly important space. We sometimes only want to see the strand that leads directly to us. And Baylin really insisted that we always should remind ourselves that people just don't know what the future holds and the historians job in many respects is to, is to put themselves in that space and see all the possibilities of that moment.
Um, many of which get blocked or fall away for contingencies. And that has stuck with me when I go back as a historian to think about it, to really try and imagine the contingency of the moment.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah, absolutely.
Well, as you're thinking about the contingency of moments, what's the most exciting document you've found in the course of your research?
Mary Sarah Bilder: Probably when I was working on my James Madison book, telling the story through his notes of the Constitution. I went to Yale to the Bienecke, and it's not found a document because I knew the document was there.
Madison has a copy of the journal of the Convention. And I went to look at that and that copy confirmed my belief that the last third of Madison's notes were written after the Convention. So they weren't contemporaneous. And that became the key of my prior book. And I still remember when I was looking through that manuscript and I realized that the header for the cover page of that manuscript was actually two thirds of the way through, on August 20th, which is what I had always suspected was the moment. And so from that, you could tell that the manuscript had originally begun there and then he'd had enough time to go back and copy the beginning. And my dear friend Morris Cohen was with me and we both looked at it and we knew right there and then that Madison's notes hadn't been written contemporaneously completely in the summer of 1780.
Jim Ambuske: Finally, how do you hope people remember your work?
Mary Sarah Bilder: I think the Framing period, the Framing generation is such an exciting space and I think there's so much more to learn about that period. You know, we're coming up on the 250th anniversary of the revolution and that will be then followed by the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution.
And so we're moving into a period where we really are going to go back to remember this. And I, I really would like to have people remember my work as being part of a larger body of work that embraces a much more expansive and inclusive notion of that period that really thinks about what I call the Framing generation, not just a group of five or six Framers.
And so I just feel so determined to continue work on that concept.
Jim Ambuske: I think they will. Mary, thank you very much. This has been terrific.
Mary Sarah Bilder: Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for listening to Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer for this episode. We received additional support from Mount Vernon's Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witch's Brew” by C.K. Martin. Please rate and review Conversations on your favorite podcast app.
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Professor / Author
Professor Mary Sarah Bilder teaches in the areas of property, trusts and estates, and American legal and constitutional history at Boston College Law School. She received her B.A. with Honors (English) and the Dean’s Prize from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, her J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, and her A.M. (History) and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization/American Studies. She is the author of Female Genius: Eliza Harriot and George Washington at the Dawn of the Constitution (UVA Press, 2022) and Madison's Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press, 2017).