In April 1789, New York City became the seat of government when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. In July of the following year, Congress passed the Residence Act, designating Philadelphia the capital for a period of ten years, until the permanent capital could be surveyed and built along the Potomac River. Under the Constitution, the president and the members of Congress — all men — shared power as elected representatives. In the early years of the republic, when many distrusted partisanship in government, preferring consensus, social events provided the opportunity for unofficial politicking. Women had essential roles at these events, which brought together the new country’s elites, foreign dignitaries, and elected officials. We present a gallery of twenty-five women who were active in public life in the early years of the new nation. The portraits all appeared in Rufus W. Griswold’s The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington, which D. Appleton and Company first issued in 1855. A new and revised edition appeared in 1856, both as a monograph and serially in twenty-five parts, each part containing a plate.
Martha Washington’s Friday evening receptions (known as levees) were formal events at which guests were presented to her as First Lady. After the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Abigail Adams wrote of a city filled with parties, balls, and other social occasions “equal to any European city,” and she, as a president’s wife, hosted receptions there. Less ceremonial, and more lavish than those of Mrs. Washington or Mrs. Adams, were the assemblies organized by Anne Willing Bingham at the Binghams’ Philadelphia mansion. In 1800, when the government moved to Washington, the city was barely ready for habitation. The following year, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a widower, the receptions of Dolley Madison, the wife of Vice President James Madison, became important events in a city with few opportunities for people to meet socially. Then, after Madison became president in 1809, Mrs. Madison opened the White House on Wednesday afternoons to one and all; unlike the gatherings of Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Adams, the guests circulated freely. Arguably, it was Mrs. Madison who defined the role of First Lady as a political helpmate for the president.
Griswold’s The Republican Court expressed the nostalgia for the “better world” of the post-Revolutionary era that pervaded American culture in the 1850s, amid fears of an imminent civil war. A few years later, engraver Alexander Hay Ritchie commissioned artist Daniel Huntington to recreate one of Mrs. Washington’s levees in a large-scale painting. Finished in 1861, Huntington’s The Republican Court, or, Lady Washington’s Reception Day (Brooklyn Museum) circulated widely in Ritchie’s subsequent print. In creating his composition, Huntington followed the European tradition of court paintings rather than a more democratic idiom. The print, issued in 1865, offered an elegant depiction of a harmonious past to the war-torn nation, as did the 1867 edition of Griswold’s Republican Court. Similarly, authors such as Elizabeth Ellet, who wrote The Women of the American Revolution (New York, 1848), portrayed the world of the women who lived during the late 18th century as one of sophistication, culture, and grace.
However, these romanticized historical writings and art of the mid-19th century fail to acknowledge the 18th-century Americans’ ambivalence about courtliness among elites. During the early years of the republic many criticized the elite social gatherings as vestiges of court life under a monarchy, and thus inappropriate for a republic. For example, the lavishness of the parties hosted by Mrs. Bingham, who had visited France in the 1780s, seemed suspiciously French, as did Mrs. Madison’s interest in fashionable attire.
Moreover, not all women of the Republican Court led enviable lives. For example, Harriet Chew Carroll, the daughter of prominent lawyer and politician Benjamin Chew, married the son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence — the sort of advantageous match that often helped both the political and the business interests of elite families. However, Mrs. Carroll was forced to return to Cliveden, her childhood home near Philadelphia, after her husband proved to be an abusive alcoholic.
We hope that this digital project will invite a re-examination of the lives of the women of the Republican Court, their place in history, and elite culture generally. The inspiration for the Women of the Republican Court project originated, in part, with the “Picturing Women” exhibition, a multi-institution exhibition that was the culmination of many years work by art historian Dr. Susan Shifrin. Curator of Women’s History Cornelia S. King developed the concept and oversaw the completion of the Republican Court project. Anne Turner, as an intern from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, created most of the text for this online resource. Annie’s choice to add bibliographic references improved the project greatly, given how much later historical interpretation affects our understanding of these women’s lives; plus, her own skill as a graceful writer augurs well for her future. As an intern from Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology, Cheryl Klimaszewski created records in the Library Company’s digital repository. Emily Toner, an undergraduate art history student at Brown University, wrote drafts of some of the sketches and scanned the portraits while volunteering at the Library Company. Also as a volunteer, Janet Hallahan wrote the final set of sketches (including the one for Martha Washington), and performed a final editorial review of all the sketches. Her thoughtful and thorough approach helped bring the website to its current form. Many others helped with aspects of the project, especially Chief Information Officer Nicole H. Scalessa, the staff of the Print Department, former Curator of Printed Books Wendy Woloson, former Library Company archivist Sandra Markham, and Phillip Seitz, the Curator of Cliveden of the National Trust.
 Biographical sketch of Daniel Huntington in “Living American Artists,” Scribner’s Monthly, v. 2, no. 1 (May 1871): 47.
Allgor, Catherine. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2006).
Branson, Susan. These Fiery Frenchified Dames (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
Ellet, Elizabeth F. The Women of the American Revolution (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1848).
Griswold, Rufus W. The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed. (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1856).
Wharton, Anne H. Salons Colonial and Republican (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1900).