Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married

  • Nancy Rubin Stuart
  • Beacon Press
  • 264 pp.

Two women who flouted their families’ wishes and married men who played key roles in the Revolutionary War.

The impulse to add women and minorities to the historical canon of dead white males is an admirable one. We know intuitively that biographies of the Founding Fathers don’t give a full picture of how this country came into being. And yet getting beyond those familiar pale male faces can be challenging.

In Defiant Brides, Nancy Rubin Stuart attempts to flesh out the history of the American Revolution with the “untold story” of two women whose lives shared some striking similarities and contrasts.

In 1774, 18-year-old Lucy Flucker defied the wishes of her Loyalist family to marry Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller who became one of George Washington’s most trusted generals and America’s first Secretary of War. 

Peggy Shippen’s family also had their doubts about the Major General who sought their daughter’s hand in 1779, one Benedict Arnold — but not for the reasons you might think. At the time, Arnold’s name had yet to become synonymous with treason. The Shippens may have been more concerned about his modest social background, the fact that he was twice the age of the 19-year-old Peggy, or the rumors about financial self-dealings that were dogging him. But, according to legend, Peggy pitched a hissy fit and got her way.

It’s a great set-up: two young women who were close contemporaries, although they apparently never met, and who ended up on opposite sides of the American Revolution. And yet, there’s a reason these stories have been “untold,” beyond the fact that historians only recently began to focus on women. For the most part, the stories of women who lived in the past are untellable. We simply don’t have enough information.

As members of the elite, Lucy Knox and Peggy Arnold left a far more extensive paper trail than the average 18th-century woman. But that’s not saying much. Abigail Adams, whose extensive correspondence has been well preserved, is very much the exception. Someone receiving a letter from Henry Knox, whose place in history was assured, would have been likely to keep it. A letter from Lucy might not have been treated with as much care.

Stuart has clearly done her homework. Her book is replete with colorful anecdotes and descriptions, and she’s conscientious about linking the geography of the past to the present, particularly as to sites in New York City. She’s also plowed through what letters there are to, from, and about her subjects and has peppered her narrative with quotations from them.

But too often Stuart is reduced to statements like “One can only imagine how Arnold’s turmoil affected Peggy.” Some speculation is necessary in almost every biography, including those of men, but here the actual information is scant enough that it’s hard to form a clear impression of either subject.

What information we do get isn’t particularly flattering. Peggy, for example, tried to mask her complicity in her husband’s treachery by feigning hysteria. And while there may be something admirable about her unflagging loyalty to a man who was eventually shunned even by the British, the beneficiaries of his treason, there’s also something obtuse about it.

Lucy Knox seems to have been remembered primarily for her enormous girth (matched by her husband’s) and her peculiar hairdo, which mimicked the shape of a three-cornered military hat. It was, according to one observer, “all decked out with scarves and gauzes in a way that I am unable to describe.” Beyond that, she seems to have been haughty and preoccupied with living on a grand scale.

Both women endured suffering that should engage our sympathies. Whatever her involvement in Arnold’s treason, Peggy is a pathetic figure towards the end of her life: ill, cut off from her family of origin, and saddled with her late husband’s substantial debts. And in a time of high infant and child mortality, Lucy Knox clearly bore more than her share: 10 of her 13 children died before reaching adulthood. Both women had to endure long and anxious separations from their husbands. But neither of them came alive enough for this reader, at least, to feel their pain.

Inevitably, Stuart’s book is as much a biography of her subjects’ husbands as it is of the women themselves, and here she has more material to draw on. But often Stuart’s narrative is confusing — partly because of the need to jump back and forth between two storylines that rarely intersect in a meaningful way, and partly because Stuart doesn’t always adopt the most straightforward method of conveying information. The fairly momentous fact of America’s victory over Britain, for example, is slipped in almost as an aside. Nor is it helpful that Stuart has quirks such as using “subsequent to” instead of “after.”

Perhaps there are other ways of retrieving from the depths of history the submerged stories of women’s lives. Historical surveys that draw on the traces left behind by a number of women about common experiences — for example, childbirth and infant mortality — may be more successful than biography. In a few cases, such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, historians have been lucky enough to find diaries they can mine for details of women’s lives. And if all else fails, there’s always the option of exploring an individual life in greater depth by fictionalizing it.

Still, Stuart is to be commended for trying to rescue these two women from historical obscurity. Her difficulty is illustrated by a letter from one of Lucy Knox’s own children, years after her death. Asked by a would-be biographer for more information about her mother, Knox’s daughter turned to a sister for help.

“When our dear mother was yet with us,” she wrote, “I did not take the pains I … ought to have done to inform myself of a thousand particulars of her ... life. Anecdotes I have none. Do you recall any?”

Natalie Wexler is working on a novel based on the life of a woman who edited a magazine in early 19th-century Baltimore. She is also the author of A More Obedient Wife, a novel based on the lives and letters of two women in the 1790s, both of whom were married to early Supreme Court Justices.

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