Women in Colonial America Were More Powerful Than We Give Them Credit For
During the first act of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Aaron BurrHis mother Esther Edwards Burr is remembered with an intense, almost apotheotic affection.
“My mother was a genius
Respect was something my father taught me.
They left no instructions when they passed away.
Just a legacy to protect.”
A musical in which women are widely celebrated and yet not admired for their intelligence was set in a world that valued women’s intelligence. Their relationships with men define them.), the word “genius” pierces through the song like a clue to be solved. Esther Burr was who exactly?This compels you to keep asking. How did she manage to leave her son with such an inferiority complex that it would have a negative impact on his life?
Esther was brought into the world by her father Jonathan Edwards in February 1732. He was just about to begin leading one of America’s most significant evangelical revivals. The First Great Awakening. Growing up in Northampton, Mass., she witnessed thousands of “unconverted” souls flock to her father’s church, where he sermonized on the need for repentance and God’s power to “cast wicked men into hell.”
As the third of Edwards’s 11 children, Esther was hailed as a “great beauty”—the so-called “flower of her family”—though her allure extended well beyond the cosmetic. According to Samuel Hopkins, a frequent visitor to the Edwards parsonage (and Jonathan Edwards’s future biographer), she was not only an engaging conversationalist who “knew how to be facetious and sportive,” but also a highly intelligent woman who possessed a “sprightly imagination” and “an uncommon degree of wit.”
Jonathan Edwards was raised by an erudite mom and four sisters. Esther received the same treatment as her husband Aaron Burr Sr. at 20. Yet even so, Esther’s schooling only went so far. Per Calvinist doctrine, Edwards prioritized Esther’s education primarily as a means to save her soul, believing all children to be “heirs of hell” who must be “born again” through endless introspection and self-castigation. And while he and Burr, Sr., each conceded that men and women were spiritually equal before God, they worked hard to ensure that this idea never invaded their social and familial relationships, for fear that—in the words of the Reverend John Adams—“too learned Females [would] lose their Sex.”
Today’s historians have few details of the colonial experiences of women as they are inheritors from this patriarchal order. A striking exception is Esther Burr’s 300-page journal—considered to be the earliest continual record of female life in the colonial America. Composed as a series of letters sent to Esther’s closest friend, Sarah Prince, between 1754 and 1757, the journal is naturally quotidian, featuring commentary on domestic labors and tasks, though it also suggests real frustration with women’s place in society. Struggling to find “one vacant moment,” Esther describes her experience with early motherhood as isolating, constrictive, and even claustrophobic: “When I had but one Child my hands were tied,” she wrote after the birth of Aaron Burr, Jr., in 1756, “but now I am tied hand and foot. (How I shall get along when I have got ½ dzn. or 10 Children I cant devise.).”
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Adding to the challenges posed by raising the young Aaron, whom Esther called “mischievous” and “sly,” was the sense that her home was a sort of “solitary” prison. This confinement, however, was liberating in some important aspects.. Sequestered from the male gaze, Esther’s letters to Sarah allowed her to participate in an organic exchange about God, politics, literature, and war, thus liberating what she called her “other self” from the person she was conditioned to be.
However, this freedom came with some anxiety and doubt. Esther expressed her fear of men discovery in writing to Sarah. Having internalized her father’s puritanism, she also voiced guilt over the intensity with which she wrote and felt, indicting herself as “worldly minded” and thus “unfit” to “ap[p]roach the Lord’s Table.”
Esther continued to write until the sudden passing of Esther at 26. From start to finish, her letters track her empowerment as she engages in “free discourse” with her father and even speculates whether women should assume control of the colonies. In one of her last letters to Sarah, she delivers perhaps her most powerful defense of her sex, recounting a conversation with a male acquaintance, who argued that friendship – then considered to be the highest form of intellectual expression – was only possible for men: “I retorted several severe things upon him before he had time to speak again. He Blushed and seemed confused…[and] I talked him quite silent.”
Nearly three centuries after Esther’s death, her journal endures as an indispensable historical document. Her journal foreshadowed the rise of a new literary genre that focuses on private work, namely the poetry of Esther. Emily DickinsonIt makes Esther an author. Inspired by Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels Virtue is Rewarded(1740) Clarissa (1748), Sarah and Esther (whom Sarah affectionately called “Burrissa”) numbered, copied, and saved each of their letters, all with the intention of creating their own narrative—and cementing their own interpretation–of life in the Atlantic world. While they would never have sought to publish, their letters allowed them to participate in the male “spheres” of authorship and friendship, affording them the space to register their experiences and validate their perspectives.
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They are introduced to the 1984 edition of Esther’s journal, Carol Karlsen and Laurie Crumpacker underscore the role Esther’s faith played in this validation, framing it as “at once a cause of her oppression, an obstacle to overcoming it, and a source of strength under it.” Anticipating modern feminist theology, Esther was able to redefine her friendship with Sarah—as well as the writing that helped it flourish—as a form of divine “communion,” so much so that She believed it “aught to be a matter of Solemn Prayer.” “Inkindled” by this “spark from Heaven,” sheThus, he wrote to not only question the patriarchal system but to also foster a stronger self.
Yet even so, Esther’s identity as a “feminist” remains less predictive than realized. “You’ll notice that we did not use the word ‘feminist’ in our introduction,” Karlsen, now a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, tells TIME. “There were certainly ‘feminist impulses’ [in Esther’s journal],” she adds, “but we were hesitant to use the word, so we relied on this idea of ‘imminent feminism’ instead.”
Much like the way mainstream feminism has historically emphasized the experiences of white women, the “imminent feminism” reflected in Esther’s journal also bears a dark stain in its exclusion (and exploitation) of Black and native people. Certainly, Esther’s assumed complicity with her husband’s purchase of a slave in 1756 makes her a perpetrator of the white patriarchal hegemony that undergirded slavery as much as she was a victim herself.
Years after Esther’s death, then-senator Aaron Burr, Jr. would Call for the immediate cessation of slaveryWhile prioritizing, even privately, the education of his wife and daughter. “Be assured,” he wrote to his wife Theodosia after reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s An affirmation of the rights of women (1792), “that your sex has in her an able advocate. It is, in my opinion, a work of genius.”
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We cannot view Aaron Burr’s call for emancipation as an atonement of his parents’ sins, nor can we necessarily infer a direct link between Esther’s influence and Burr’s support of women. Yet in Burr’s life and career, we can see echoes of Esther’s precocity, resolve, and sense of “peculiar” destiny. The musical Hamilton It seems that her legacy haunted him everywhere he traveled.
After the American Revolution, it was written that “American literature boasts so few productions from the pens of ladies.” Even today, the writing of women like Esther—together with that of Phillis Wheatley, Mercy Otis WarrenPlease see the following: Judith Sargent Murray—remains largely unacknowledged, perpetuating the idea of women as passive victims whose stories don’t need to be told.
But as Esther’s writing, life, and legacy show colonial women were more powerful than we give them credit for. They fought patriarchal control through their secret labors and discoveries. This allowed them to take back their destiny as well as the lives of their children. Even though their stories were not widely read at the time they wrote them they deserve to be heard today.