Resource

Life Story: Margaret Bayard Smith (1774–1848)

Wielding the Power of the Pen

This resource is adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Saving Washington: The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848 curriculum.

Margaret Bayard Smith

Charles Bird King (artist), Margaret Bayard Smith, ca. 1829. Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island, Gift of the artist.

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Margaret Bayard Smith was born on February 20, 1778, on a farm in Pennsylvania. Her father, John Bubenheim Bayard, served under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. Her mother, Margaret Hodge Bayard, died when Margaret was only two years old. John sent his daughter to a boarding school, where she received an excellent education.

At the age of 22, Margaret married Samuel Harrison Smith. Samuel was a journalist, and President Thomas Jefferson invited him to Washington, D.C. to start a newspaper. Margaret and Samuel moved to the capital. After the birth of their first child, they bought a farm just outside the city limits. Over the next decade, Margaret gave birth to three more children.

When they first arrived in Washington, Margaret and Samuel were invited to dinner at the White House. Among the guests were Dolley and James Madison. Margaret liked them immediately. Before long, Margaret and Dolley were trading books, exchanging gifts, and sharing political news. Their friendship lasted all their lives. Margaret Bayard Smith was never in the limelight like Dolley, but she was part of the capital’s social elite. Her access to the nation’s most powerful people gave her insights that very few Americans had.

Margaret was a talented and prolific writer. She privately recorded her observations on Washington, D.C.’s social and political scene. But at the time, women were not encouraged to be writers or comment on politics. They were expected to devote their time to caring for the home and raising their children to be good citizens. In fact, participating in politics and public life was strongly discouraged. Margaret needed to tread carefully to avoid being accused of forgetting her place.

Margaret began her career as a writer by publishing articles in her husband’s newspaper. Most were published anonymously to protect her reputation. She wrote about topics that were considered appropriate for women, but she let details about politicians’ homes, parties, and personalities tell a political story. When her work was embraced by the public, she began to publish under her own name, and her fame only grew. In the 1820s, she published two books using her real name and became the most popular woman writer of her generation.

At the time, women were not encouraged to be writers or comment on politics. They were expected to devote their time to caring for the home and raising their children to be good citizens.

Margaret used her platform to shape Americans’ perceptions of their government. In the Federal period, Americans were not yet sure that their new government would last. Margaret published pieces that reassured them that the people in charge were trustworthy. In 1809, just after Thomas Jefferson left office, she described him as a loving grandfather with no interest in regaining power. She described the new president, James Madison, as plain, friendly, communicative, and unceremonious. Dolley Madison, his wife, was welcoming, informal, and unassuming. With these details, Margaret reassured her readers that those in power were not so different from them and that they all respected the new government.

Margaret’s published writing followed public expectations for women, but her private journals were more open and honest. She was especially opinionated about the expectations of women in the new nation. She confessed that she loved society, but not Washington society, which was “barren of enjoyment” and often left her exhausted. Margaret was a wealthy woman with servants, but she still felt constrained by the responsibilities assigned to women, writing “every day alike, every day the house has to be put in order, the food prepared & the clothing made or mended.” She wanted time to think and read and write. She wanted to “plunge into . . . the daring enterprises of life.” A man’s sphere was unlimited, she wrote, “but I am a woman. And society says, ‘Thus far and no further [shall] thou come’—Why then has nature given me a mind so active and enquiring?”

In 1834, Margaret profiled Dolley Madison for the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Dolley cooperated, but she was privately nervous. She knew that Margaret was very familiar with all her flaws after decades of friendship. Dolley wanted people to see her as a good wife and helpful partner to her husband. And she wanted to be remembered for rescuing the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812. Margaret knew that Dolley was not perfect, but she also knew women needed to tread carefully and that their reputations mattered. When the profile was published in 1836, Dolley was pleased. Margaret wrote to her sister, “all I say [about Dolley] is true—but I have not of course told the whole truth.”

Margaret’s legacy as a political writer was secured in 1906, 62 years after her death. Her journals, letters, and articles were collected and published in The First Forty Years of Washington Society. Historians realized that Margaret’s writings offered an unparalleled peek into the inner workings of the capital in the founding era. Her writings are still used to shed light on the Jefferson and Madison administrations today.

Vocabulary

  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • War of 1812: A war between the U.S. and Britain fought between 1812–1815.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did Margaret publish her writing anonymously at the start of her career?
  • What advantages did Margaret have that other women of the Federal period lacked?
  • What does Margaret’s story teach us about the opportunities and limitations for women in the Federal period?
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Suggested Activities

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; AMERICAN CULTURE

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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