Ellet, Elizabeth (Fries Lummis)

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ELLET, Elizabeth (Fries Lummis)

Born circa 1812, Sodus Point, New York; died 3 June 1877, New York, New York

Daughter of William N. and Sarah Maxwell Lummis; married William H. Ellet, circa 1835

Overlooked in traditional chronicles of military and political events, Elizabeth Ellet is the first historian of American women. She is also important as an early social historian. Her first significant work was The Women of the American Revolution in two volumes (1848), supplemented by a third volume (1850), and by the Domestic History of the American Revolution (1850, the two original volumes were reprinted in 1974 as The Eminent and Heroic Women in America).

Noting a dearth of sources, fragmentary anecdotes, meager correspondence and documents, the distortions of reminiscences, and other scholarly handicaps, Ellet also observed that "women's sphere is secluded" and "in very few instances does her personal history, even though she may fill a conspicuous position, afford sufficient incident…and salient points for description," in contrast to the actions of men. Ellet's work, then, is primarily episodic, and the methodology of it a result of the limitations she recognized.

Scrupulous in the use of reliable accounts, Ellet provides contexts and settings for the remarkably varied activities of women in the "heroic age of the republic." While she concentrates on the wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters whose existence was devoted to the men fighting the war of American independence and forming a new nation, Ellet also presents many remarkable instances of the independent exploits of women.

Beyond the pervasive sympathies for the American cause by which the subjects are measured in contrast to British and Native American "depredation," Ellet speculates on whether the matrons of the republican era were intrinsically superior in strength and spirit to "those of the present," or whether the same circumstances would "now create such heroines." She dares one generalization: almost all the women were "noted for piety. The spirit that exhibited itself in acts of humanity, courage, magnanimity, and patriotism was a deeply religious one."

Achieving success with the histories, Ellet further explored the lives of American women by writing three books that obviously reflect the range and vigor of a developing country: Pioneer Women of the West (1852), The Queens of American Society (1867), and The Court Circles of the Republic (1869). Having grown up on the Lake Ontario frontier and having lived in both the South and the North, Ellet took a broad, liberal view of regional and human diversities. She also had an eye for the specific: she reported on food (sometimes boiled acorns); furnishings (the first carpet on the floor or the first piano west of the Alleghenies); the oppressive silence and the influence of solitude (appropriate for reading the Bible and hearing wild birds sing or Native Americans powwow); and the chores (making cartridges, grinding wheat, splitting wood, looking for lost children—the responsibilities of pioneer women).

But what of the queens of American society? A Boston woman entertained 300 officers of the French fleet at breakfast; others shaped or controlled public events and fashions, "although never desirous of the distinctions of the female politician." Some were patrons of public or private charities—and one of them, Marcia Burns Van Ness, who founded the Washington City Orphan Asylum, was the first American woman to be buried with public honors, in 1832.

The thesis of Court Circles is that "a fair idea" of a political administration can be gained from the fashionable life and everyday habits of a president and those who surround him. Consequently, Ellet describes the attitudes, practices, and influence of successive social circles from Washington to Grant. Antics and the ambience of entertainments, conversations and orations, balls, teas, weddings, funerals, and inaugurals suggest differences in the character and spirit of the nation's leaders. Perhaps the best written of Ellet's books, Court Circles is based on letters, journals, and gossip with a bold and easy style. There are good moments—one president has his butcher to dinner, another a country merchant; the black servant of an American foreign minister speaks French or German or Russian so guests will feel at home; a president's wife reports that Charles Dickens looked bored when he visited her, and she preferred the company of Washington Irving; two suffragettes argue on the street about whether women should wear pantaloons. It is ironic Ellet is often remembered as a gossip; she was expert at putting together true stories for the historical record.

Other Works:

Poems, Translated and Original (1835). Rambles About the Country (1847). Family Pictures from the Bible (1849). Summer Rambles in the West (1853). The Practical Housekeeper (1857). Women Artists in All Ages (1859).

Bibliography:

Bayless, J., Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1943). Beard, C., and M. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1927). Conrad, S. P., Perish the Thought (1976). Conway, J. K., The Female Experience in Eighteenth-and Nineteenth-CenturyAmerica (1982). Moss, S. P., Poe's Literary Battles (1963). Poe, E. A., The Complete Works of Poe (1902).

Reference works:

Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

—ELIZABETH PHILLIPS

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Ellet, Elizabeth (Fries Lummis)

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