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Cover for the book The Most Learned Woman in America

The Most Learned Woman in America

A Life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson Anne M. Ousterhout, and Introduction by Susan Stabile
  • Publish Date: 11/24/2003
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 416 pages
  • Illustrations: 6 illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02311-3
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-05850-4

Hardcover Edition: $49.95Add to Cart

Paperback Edition: $29.95Add to Cart

The Most Learned Woman in America is a delightful addition to the growing corpus of knowledge that we have concerning America’s ‘Founding Mothers.’ Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was famous in her time, virtually unknown in our own. Yet, as Anne Ousterhout points out in her painstakingly researched work, she was a woman who was known in her own right; she was never merely an appendage of the men to whom she was related. Fergusson’s literary salon in Philadelphia placed her at the very center of the cultural and intellectual world of colonial America.”
“Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson's contemporaries recognized that the story of her life was extraordinary. Only now, however, has anyone succeeded in narrating the tale of the presiding genius of colonial America's greatest salon. Anne Ousterhout's book provides a concise, reliable, and readable account of the life of this woman gifted with wit, troubled with a volatile heart, and drawn to aristocratic political intrigue.”
“This book is a thoughtful and well-researched biography of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia.”
“Anne M. Ousterhout in The Most Learned Woman in America contributes significantly to correcting any notion that women were absent from the religious and political engagement—in words and deeds—that led to the founding of the United States of America. Through a style that is appealing both to the scholar and the general reader, Ousterhout encourages a complex reevaluation of this revolutionary era for evidence of the contribution of other women like Mrs. Fergusson.”
“This a beautiful book. The restrained sepia tones of the book jacket give way to vibrant orange endpapers embossed with vines and flowers. The floral designs of the chapter headings are replicated in the page headers. The few illustrations are full-page, clear, and sharp. Other presses might note that academic books need not be carelessly produced and ugly.”
“Thus, this biography both introduces us to an intriguing woman intellectual and serves to further the understanding of eighteenth-century American literary culture.”
“Ousterhout's study is an example of biography at its strongest: it provides a window into the detailed life of one woman and illuminates how she fit into the broader social, intellectual, and political communities around her.”

During the era of the American Revolution and long after, the name Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was well known in Philadelphia, recognized as belonging to one of British North America’s most illustrious women of letters. One admirer dubbed her "the most learned woman in America." In this, the first full-length biography of Fergusson, Anne M. Ousterhout brilliantly captures the life and times of America’s first great female savant.

Born in 1737 to a wealthy family, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson excelled from an early age. Although women in her day were denied higher education, Fergusson read widely, educating herself in literature, history, and languages, even reading classical literature in the original tongues, an unusual ability for a colonial woman. She wrote prolifically—often until midnight or later, spending but a few hours sleeping—and published her poetry. Her journals of a trip to England and Scotland circulated widely among admiring Philadelphians. During the 1770s she hosted a Saturday evening salon at her home that was unrivaled in the colonies for its brilliance.

Yet despite her achievements, Fergusson’s life was fraught with financial woes, bad romances, and treasonous plots that hounded her throughout her life. After her father forbade her marriage to Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, she secretly married Henry Hugh Fergusson, a British Loyalist who left her before the Revolution. Henry’s actions, together with Elizabeth’s own political indiscretions, earned her potent enemies, leading to the confiscation of her family estate, Graeme Park. Although she eventually succeeded in reclaiming her property, her reputation was tarnished in the process. Her efforts to justify her actions were tireless, alienating friends and making the last fifteen years of her life miserable.

The Most Learned Woman in America masterfully narrates Fergusson’s efforts to live an appropriately genteel life, even as she struggled against the limits that her society placed on its women. In the process, we can begin to understand the conflicts—internal and external—that women of the Revolutionary generation faced.

Anne M. Ousterhout was Professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University when she died in 1997. She is the author of State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution 1987).


Foreword by Joseleyne A. Slade

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction by Susan Stabile


1. Sweet Period of Vernal Youth

2. Love, Politics, and Rejection

3. This Bewitching Country

4. The Most Learned Woman in America

5. Very Tender and Painful Emotions

6. Everybody Is a Whig or a Torie

7. Attainder

8. Confrontation and Confiscation

9. Between Constitutionalists and Anti-Constitutionalists

10. The Deserted Wife

11. Femme Savante

12. The Final Narrowing Circle



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