New Online: Margaret Bayard Smith Papers

This is the first of two related guest posts by Cassandra Good, associate editor of the Papers of James Monroe and author of “Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic” (2015), and Susan Holbrook Perdue, director of digital strategies at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and adviser to a variety of historical editing projects.

Margaret Bayard Smith

For anyone interested in the founding era in Washington, D.C., the writings of Margaret Bayard Smith (1778–1844) and Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (ca. 1775–1865) and are essential sources. Both lived their entire adult lives in the capital city and, as members of the city’s elite, were friends with one another and important political figures of the era. Their proximity to power made them unusual, but their writings also illustrate what it was like to be a woman in the early republic.

The papers of Smith and Thornton are in the Library’s Manuscript Division, and now they are online for the first time. This post focuses on Smith; a second post will cover Thornton.

Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1778 to Margaret Hodge Bayard and Colonel John Bayard, who served in the American Revolution, Pennsylvania Assembly and Continental Congress. She was educated at a private school for young women in Bethlehem, Penn., and as a young woman spent time in New York City as part of a circle of young intellectuals, including the popular novelist Charles Brockden Brown.

In 1800, she married her second cousin Samuel Harrison Smith. The couple moved to the new capital city at Washington, where her husband began publishing a newspaper, the National Intelligencer, at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson, whose political views the Smiths supported. Through this position, the couple entered early Washington’s elite social circles, and Bayard Smith met and befriended many of the prominent political figures of the era, including James and Dolley Madison, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and their wives.

Despite her prominent social role, Smith preferred to spend time at her family’s country home, Sidney, on the site of what is today the Catholic University of America. She was a prolific writer, describing public affairs and social life in letters to her sister Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick and recording her private thoughts and poetry in her commonplace books (notebooks with copied extracts, drawings and personal reflections) as she raised her four children.

In the 1820s, with her children older, she began publishing her writing. She wrote two novels: “A Winter in Washington” (1824) and “What is Gentility?” (1828), both set in Washington, and her essays and stories appeared in magazines, including the popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

In 1900, Smith’s grandson, John Henley Smith, who had inherited her papers, presented some of her letters to the Columbia (Washington, D.C.) Historical Society and worked with Gaillard Hunt, later (1909–17) chief of the Library’s Manuscripts Division, to publish a highly selective edition of 107 letters, most focused on important men, from Smith’s papers. That edition, “The First Forty Years of Washington Society,” published in 1906, became the standard source on Smith. Over the past century, historians have often cited it—in fact, it is one of the most frequently referenced works in histories of the capital in the early republic—and it shaped Smith’s historical image.

In 1910, Smith’s papers were donated to the Library of Congress. Unusually extensive for the papers of a woman of Smith’s era, they contain much more material than the published volume, totaling approximately 3,600 items, including letters, diaries and commonplace books that offer a very different perspective on her personality and feelings. Unlike the cheerful published letters, Smith’s other writings show she was often unhappy and disliked political society. She declared that her commonplace books were “a true history of my life, a transcript of my heart.” In them, she recorded her personal struggles and her poetry, copied essays from published sources and pasted newspaper clippings.

Beyond revealing her emotions and private life, the papers are rich with details of the politics of the early national era. Readers can get a further taste of the richness of Smith’s writing in her 1809 accounts of James Madison’s inauguration (original and published transcription) and her visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (original and published transcription). Those looking for political references will find the most in the correspondence with her sisters, Maria Bayard Boyd and Jane Bayard Kirkpatrick. Discussions of religion and slavery are found throughout the papers. The eight reels of microfilm now online are helpfully broken down by date, correspondent’s name or both in the finding aid.

We are certain other researchers will be as grateful as we are now for the opportunity to easily delve into the life of this remarkable woman.

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