Veteran journalist Cokie Roberts told a Samford University audience that letters written by, for and to women in the early days of U.S. history give a revealing account of their own influence and strength, and a much-needed "three-dimensional" view of the Founding Fathers.
"Letters that the men wrote to each other are serious, with an expectation that they might be saved for posterity, but those written to women are more frank, because it was expected that they would be destroyed," said Roberts, who stopped at Samford May 13 as part of a tour promoting her latest book, Ladies of Liberty.
"But the women's letters to each other about the men are the best," she added.
The book, based on letters Roberts spent years collecting and researching, tells of women and their achievements from the election of President John Adams in 1796 through the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson.
John Adams' wife, Abigail, said Roberts, was a strong, influential mate who was her husband's political eyes and ears. Her political sense was excellent until he became president, and then she lost her political instinct, said Roberts.
"People get elected and then develop a bunker mentality. They come to hate the opposition and the press," said Roberts, a senior news analyst for National Public Radio and a regular contributor to ABC News. For six years she was co-host of "This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts" on ABC.
Mrs. Adams, said Roberts, was like many women of the time who, though that had no voting rights, were both patriotic and passionate about the new nation.
During the days when the capital was newly located in the District of Columbia, women tried to "bring people together and make them behave" because political division and regionalism were so severe, said Roberts. "Somebody had to exert a civilizing influence."
Dolley Madison's social graces played a role in James Madison's 1812 re- election, in which the unpopular candidate continued his presidency only because of the Electoral College.
"Mrs. Madison saved his administration because she had entertained many of the members of the Electoral College in her home, and she is credited with his re-election," said Roberts.
Following the War of 1812, as women influenced the nation's leaders, so did women around the country. "It was a time of excitement, a time of cohesion, and women started working to create social safety nets as writers, educators, and organizers of benevolent institutions in order to turn the nation into a more caring and compassionate society," said Roberts.
"All the great social movements, such as abolition and suffrage, started in this period and were led by these women.
In Congress today, Roberts sees women crossing party lines more readily than men to pass legislation that is helpful to women and children.
Roberts underscored the importance of women being involved in the public and private sector. "Where women really need to be is the boardroom, because that's where the decisions are made."
Regarding the current presidential campaign, she noted that the nation's early leaders had trouble designing a nomination process that would be both democratic and party building.
"Figuring out a nomination process has always been hard. The fundamental problem is that parties want to pick a winner, but also build the party," said Roberts, who grew up "breathing and eating" politics at the family dinner table.
Her father, the late Hale Boggs, was a Congressman from Louisiana until he was killed in a plane crash and succeeded by his wife, Lindy Boggs. Mrs. Boggs, now in her 90s, later served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.
"Children were not excluded from the conversation," said Roberts of her childhood in Washington. "It was a useful way to grow up for the job I'm doing now."
Roberts is married to Steven V. Roberts, a journalist with whom she writes a weekly column syndicated by United Media.
Her Samford lecture, sponsored by Alabama Booksmith, was attended by a mix of students, faculty and off-campus guests.
Samford freshman Nancy Vander Veer took a break from final exams to hear Roberts for a second time. The journalist had visited Vander Veer's high school in Raleigh, N.C., several years ago to promote her book Founding Mothers.
"I had forgotten how funny she was," said Vander Veer, a classics and music double major who admires Roberts' ability as a news journalist.
"I think it's great how bi-partisan she is, and the depth of her insight of history and today's political situations," said Vander Veer as she got in line to meet the author at a post-lecture book signing.