Sophie Hall should be in France at present, enjoying her retirement from medicine at the Sorbonne. She was a proto-feminist in American colonial times. But now a fascinating new biography is catching up with her on her journey of liberation from a slave and a lover and provides vivid evidence for the idea that the American Revolution came into being thanks to a single warrior woman
“She was almost constantly in conflict with her husband. … The Revolutionary War became a matter of survival” for Sophie, Born Charlotte Easton, and her sister-in-law, Claire Anna Easton, profiled in Marta Dorr’s wonderful new book, Sophie St. Vincent. These influential women worked hard to educate themselves and to educate the children of their enslaved and other African American servants in the ways of both science and history, hoping to pass the information on to their husbands. Sophie did so in her own way. The father of the book, most people probably already know, was Dr. Benjamin Franklin.
And it was Franklin himself who wrote a letter in 1776 to his mother, complaining about the institution of slavery, which ran in his household like a page in his cloth and natural history magazine, Academie di Franklinium. It was a big deal for him that the colony’s military independence could not be assured without making sure that slaveholding was no longer part of the state. At a time when this was not well known in his lifetime, Franklin wrote to his mother:
I intend to make the object known to the people by the proper mouthful….Because it may hardly be believed, as Mr. Franklin seems to know, that slavery is bound to be abolished, our standing with the inhabitants of these former American colonies, for whom we have fought, has been put upon a remote and trepidative account. So far as my words are any testimony, the effect of these letters may prove to be more than small.
In less than 100 pages, Henry Adams provides clues to who — among Franklin’s high-born and literate staff — the revolutionary leader was looking to. Sophie in particular had a revolutionary project in mind. As David James, her medical student, soon discovered, she looked deeply into the scientific and literary materials that Franklin had encouraged her to study.
The dynamic redhead wrote this on their first date:
I have never had a bigger sensation in my life, other than the high excitement one gets when one undresses to show oneself to a potential lover. It is all quite a sensation and I tremble on every occasion….
She read aloud his words, and exclaimed, “I’m a virgin. But I’m not unworthy of you.”
This was some 20 years before Horatio Alger turned that common image of a uneducated teenager into something passed from village to village to mill town to prairie to factory town. Saint Vincent was accepted in every prestigious graduate and post-graduate school in France — some hoped she would be an American empress. In her overweening confidence, she was the strong woman who always knew what was right. Her book has been reviewed by some of America’s best-known historians. I highly recommend Dorr’s winning portrait of a woman who could also seem unrelentingly radical.