It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the stories of the women who played any part, not matter how big or small, in the founding of America, don’t get told often. Author Nancy Rubin Stuart has written a book that’s being released this week on two little-known, but fascinating, women from the Revolutionary War era entitled, Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married, which shares the stories of the wives of Benedict Arnold and Henry Knox. Stuart provided this exclusive interview for The Broad Side about what got her interested in the lives of these women and why women today should take an interest:
Why did you write Defiant Brides? What’s the significance of the title?
The coincidence of discovering two wealthy eighteen-year old Revolutionary-era brides who married radical patriots over their parents’ objections struck me as the basis for a great story. The impact of their choices – one as the wife of the patriotic Henry Knox, who was the country’s first Secretary of War, the other as the wife of the military hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold — transformed the lives and character of those women. The book’s title has a double meaning. The brides not only “defied” their parents by marrying their sweethearts, but they also remained undaunted by the unforeseen consequences of marriages.
Lucy Flucker insistently followed her husband Henry Knox through the army camps of the American Revolution, bearing and often losing babies along the way. Peggy Shippen supported her husband, Benedict Arnold, in his betrayal of America, tolerated his subsequent infamy, erratic career, and financial instability, ultimately “defying” his bad name by paying off his debts as her own health was failing.
What were the brides like? How were they similar? different? Did they ever regret their defiance?
Both brides were eighteen at the time of their marriages. They were both attractive, educated, intelligent and hailed from wealthy families. The flashing-eyed brunette Flucker was the daughter of the crown-appointed secretary of the British colony of Massachusetts and an heiress to vast land holdings in the district of Maine. The petite blond Shippen was a celebrated Philadelphia belle, the daughter of prominent judge, Edward Shippen, whose relatives were influential in colonial Pennsylvania finance and politics.
The brides were both headstrong and elitist at the time of their marriages. Temperamentally, Lucy was charming, manipulative and prone to hysterics when she didn’t get her way. Her marriage style reflected that, but she could also admit mistakes, lavish tenderness and great love upon her husband, Henry Knox, and their children. While often accused of being haughty to those with less privileged backgrounds, she could also treat others with kindness and generosity.
Peggy was witty, charming, fair-minded and so beautiful that men flocked to her side. As George Washington said to his aide Alexander Hamilton, as well as General Henry Knox and his men during the fateful September morning in 1780 morning, just before the discovery of Arnold’s treason, “I know you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold and wish to get where she is as soon as possible.” Peggy was also a wily and skilled manipulator who often threw tantrums to get her way. Her marriage to the outwardly arrogant, but intrinsically insecure, Benedict Arnold changed that, however. Acutely aware of his fragile male ego, Peggy learned to practice silence, patience and diplomacy as she matured. Both brides regretted being separated from their families because of their marriages, and occasionally wrote about that. Neither Peggy nor Lucy revealed the intimate sorrows and disappointments they felt during their marriages. Both obviously regretted the challenges those marriages presented, but those are implied, rather than stated. Lucy expressed her complaints about her long separations from Henry directly to him; Peggy did so only obliquely to her father, Judge Shippen, when, for instance, she confided her fears about her money troubles and Benedict’s well-being.
What does this biography teach us today? Is there anything modern brides can take away from your book?
Defiant Brides teaches us that romantic love remains one of our strongest drives, no matter how impractical or foolish it seems to outside observers. The romantic attachment Lucy and Peggy had to their husbands presented them with daunting challenges but their marriages remained happy and intact. Through those challenges both women matured in ways that might not have occurred had they wed different men. Defiant Brides delivers two messages to modern brides. First, that marriage is often fraught with unforeseen difficulties – emotional, personal, financial — that must be endured if that union is to survive and to mature. But my book is also a cautionary tale which suggests that family and friends who oppose a marriage may intuitively sense something negative about the prospective mate which may be true. Implicitly, brides to be are thus urged to respect those objections and consider them carefully before assuming that their friends and family are wrong. Beware of marrying out of defiance to the practicalities of life and well-meaning doubts of others.
How did you research the lives and letters of the brides? Does this book add anything to what we know about the American Revolution?
I read as many books and histories as I could about the brides and their husbands. That led me to delve into several relevant archives of the era, including those at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Library of Congress, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, The General Henry Knox Museum, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the New Brunswick Museum Archives and Research Library, the British Library Newspaper Archive at Colindale, England and St. Mary’s Church, in Battersea, London. There are over 8,000 letters in the Henry Knox Collection at the Gilder Lehrman Institute, including many never-before published letters of Lucy Flucker Knox. Fortunately, most of those letters were digitized and greatly facilitated my understanding of her relationship with her husband, General Henry Knox. The Massachusetts Historical Society also holds many original letters – some not included in the Gilder Lehrman, which I was able to access with help from the Society’s superb research librarians and facilities.
While I looked at the relevant Shippen family correspondence at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I discovered that all of Peggy Shippen’s letters were republished in late 19th century and early 20th century editions of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Fortunately, I was able to read them through on-line archival research.
The Library of Congress provided important information about the Revolution, Washington’s relationship with Henry Knox, and to a lesser degree about Benedict Arnold. Once again, I was able to access those letters online. Staff members at the New Brunswick Museum Archives and Research Library, the Archives and Special Collections of New Brunswick Archives Library and other institutions mentioned above also helped me access other on-line resources.
Without modern digitization of those archives, research for Defiant Brides would probably have taken a decade or more, rather than the five years I spent researching the book.
It is often said that world history is the history of men in spite of the recent emergence of women’s studies and the women’s history movement. That said, I hope that Defiant Brides brings to life the “unwritten” history of the American Revolution – that is, how two extraordinary women experienced that turbulent era in mundane terms – falling in love, marrying, forming political opinions, making alliances and raising children.
Tell us about your rich publishing history – in particular why do you focus on women’s issues in your writing alongside historical figures?
The short answer is that women comprise half of human history – the forgotten half.
As a young mother writing under the byline of Nancy Rubin as stringer for the New York Times, I came to understand that if women’s history was ignored or marginalized we continued to be represented as merely sexual, matronly or shrewish figures, and that future generations would face similar struggles for respect and equality.
If you could meet one woman you’ve written about in your many, books who would choose?
I’d elect to meet Peggy Shippen Arnold, that beautiful, brilliant, spoiled young woman who evolved into the tolerant, long-suffering wife of Benedict Arnold. In spite of her many disappointments, Peggy remained a loyal wife. Subsequent to his death in 1800, she paid off his debts as her own health failed.
Are there women today that remind you of the Defiant Brides?
No one replicates them exactly but several of Peggy and Lucy’s most salient characteristics appear in certain modern and or celebrity female figures. Demure, gorgeous, intelligent and practical Peggy Shippen Arnold is a blend of Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe, Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. Blend together Rosie O’Donnell, Diana the Princess of Wales, and Oprah and you’ll have a good picture of Lucy Flucker Knox.
Guest contributor Nancy Rubin Stuart ‘s book Defiant Brides:The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married (Beacon Press, 2013) will be released this week! Stuart is an award-winning author specializing in women’s and social history. She has appeared on national television and NPR and has written for the New York Times, among other publications. Stuart is a board member of the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center and executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. She is also a Huffington Post blogger.