Women had a profound impact on the Revolutionary War and helped shape the identity and voice of the United States in the midst of its early, turbulent years.
Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, for example, broke ground as one of the first prominent women in the country’s literary scene, composing poems that captured the idealism behind the United States’ founding. While she was widely respected for her talent and patriotism, her reputation suffered a blow during the Revolution due to the activities of her loyalist husband, Henry Hugh Fergusson.
Elizabeth was born to Thomas and Anne Diggs Graeme on Feb. 3, 1737. As a widely respected and successful physician, Thomas was active in Philadelphia’s top social and political circles, which influenced Elizabeth’s upbringing. As a young adult, she grew enamored with Benjamin Franklin’s son William, entering into an engagement with him in 1756. The relationship fell apart, however, thanks largely to a feud between her father and the elder Franklin.
In the 1760s, Elizabeth traveled to England, meeting prominent families and attending salons. Upon her return, she began throwing salons of her own at her family’s estate near Horsham, attracting a number of prominent cultural and political figures, including Benjamin West, Francis Hopkins, and Benjamin Rush. As an energetic participant in the region’s intellectual circles, Elizabeth saw her literary fame begin to grow.
Her poetry expressed a number of ideas and philosophies popular with the movement for independence. Take, for example, these lines from her poem “The Dream”:
“My Pennsylvania flourishd fair to view; Divinely Waterd with Celestial Dew. No cramping Bigot dard prescribe harsh Rules From the proud Customs of Tyranic Schools”
But Elizabeth’s pride in this “Divinely Waterd” land — and her distaste for the “harsh Rules” of tyrants — would be called into question after Henry Hugh Fergusson entered her life. She met Henry at one of her salons and developed a relationship with him shortly afterward. Against her father’s wishes, she married him in 1772.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, Henry began working in various posts within the British government, regularly sailing across the Atlantic on official business. He traveled abroad in September 1775, shortly after war had broken out in the colonies. Two years passed before Henry returned to the colonies, publicly affirming his allegiance to the British government. He worked for the British forces during the war, most infamously as the commissary of American prisoners.
Though aware of his wife’s political leanings, Henry nonetheless sought to leverage Elizabeth for the loyalist cause. He had her deliver a letter written by the Rev. Jacob Duché to George Washington seeking his disavowal of independence. Duché’s plea offers a pessimistic view of the war’s outcome: “How unequal the contest! How fruitless the expence of blood! Under so many discouraging circumstances, can Virtue, can Honour, can the Love of your Country, prompt you to proceed?”
In 1778, colonial authorities in Pennsylvania enacted confiscation laws that required loyalists to renounce their allegiance or have their property seized and — potentially — face capital punishment. Declared a traitor, Henry fled, leading to the confiscation of Elizabeth’s estate. The two saw each other only once more, in New Jersey, before Henry permanently left for Britain, ending the marriage.
After a legal battle, Elizabeth regained her land in 1781, no doubt thanks to her pro-independence bona fides, which were readily apparent in her published work. She spent much of the remainder of her life at her estate near Horsham, continuing to publish everything from essays on current events to poetry.
She passed away on Feb. 23, 1801.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. email@example.com