J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Cornwallis and the Women of America

While Ben Franklin’s World host Liz Covart was at Mount Vernon recently, an interpreter gave her a paper with this quotation attributed to Gen. Cornwallis: “We may destroy all the men in America, and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

That line appears in Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, which says Cornwallis wrote it during the war. However, most other recent sources, including a couple of textbooks, state the words came from a British army officer speaking or writing to Cornwallis.

Among the publications describing the statement is a 1965 government booklet for people becoming U.S. citizens titled “Our Government.” So the quotation certainly appears to have authority behind it—governmental if not historical.

I went looking for an early appearance, one which specifies the speaker or the specific circumstances or the documentary source for these words. The first appearance of the exact quotation that I could find was Camille Benson Bird’s article “Women of Revolutionary Times in New England” published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the American Monthly Magazine in 1908.

However, back in 1896 that same magazine had published Mary Elizabeth Springer’s “Men and Women of the Revolution,” which rendered the quotation slightly differently:
While the British held Charleston, the women wore homespun, disdaining to wear foreign manufactures, and furthermore they displayed their patriotism by wearing on their breasts ribbons and bows resembling the flag with thirteen stripes. They would have nothing to do with the English officers, and Cornwallis’s proud boast that he would bring the Southern beauties to time was not accomplished. A British officer once remarked to him, “If we destroy all the men in America, we still would have enough to do to conquer the women.”
Versions of the quotation are thus over a century old. But those versions are also still a century removed from the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, neither of those appearances offer any documentation to show the quotation is authentic.

I was thinking about a posting on the evolution of the tradition from 1896 to now and the various ways authors have used it to bolster different causes or interpretations. But then I found a lead that got me all the way back to 1781.

TOMORROW: An actual contemporaneous source!


Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for tracking this down, John - I look forward to tomorrow's post!

Byron DeLear said...

Interesting, great post, thx John -- Have you seen any other reference to women wearing flag ribbons like the flag with thirteen stripes in contemporary sources? I have not, and this story seems likely to be an anecdotal and historical flourish reporting a hundred years after the events (when the British occupied Charleston, late 1775-early 1776).

J. L. Bell said...

As I describe in the subsequent posts, the story dates from 1781, but I'm skeptical that it describes actual behavior in Charleston.

I have read other stories of American making a totem of the number thirteen during the war, but I can't recall any form tied so closely to the U.S. flag.