July 30, 2014

Women of Doubt:
Anne Newport Royall was a free-thinking common scold

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There's few things in life I would love more than to be remembered as a badly-behaved woman.

You see, coming from a Christian upbringing that praised falling in line, being submissive, and living in meekness, I have an insatiable love for rebellion.

So when I read the story of Anne Newport Royall, I see a kindred spirit. A woman who chastised religionists, presidents, congressmen, writers--she was most definitely "badly-behaved" in the most amazing ways.

Who was Anne Newport Royall?

Anne was born on June 11, 1769, in Appalachia. At age 16, she and her mother became servants in the house of William Royall, a major in the Revolutionary War. Wikipedia has this to say about young Anne and Major Royall:
Royall, a learned gentleman farmer twenty years Anne's senior, took an interest in her and arranged for her education, introducing her to work of Shakespeare and Voltaire, and allowing her to make free use of his extensive library. (1)
They lived well together for fifteen years until his death. After his death, his family contested his will that left much of his property to Anne, claiming the two were never truly married. Seven years would go by, but the will would be nullified, leaving Anne penniless. (1)

For the remainder of her life, she would travel the United State quite extensively. In the four years after her misfortune, she travelled the state of Alabama and charted its formative years in Letters from Alabama, which was published in 1830. (2)

She began her writing career with a tome of travel tips that addressed regional mores and behaviors: Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the United States. She found that she was able to support herself through writing, and her novel The Tennessean followed in 1827. (2)

Royall's homebase of sorts was Washington, D.C., where she had travelled to petition Congress for her widow's pension. She stayed on to fight for a change to pension laws to allow widows to receive it without having to petition Congress directly. It was during this time that she befriended John Quincy Adams and his wife. (1)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
In 1831 she began to publish Paul Pry, a Washington newspaper; it was succeeded by The Huntress(1836–54). In those newspapers Royall crusaded against government corruption and incompetence and promoted states’ rights, Sunday mail service, and tolerance for Roman Catholics and Masons. John Quincy Adams called her a “virago errant in enchanted armor,” and she gained widespread notoriety for her outspoken and often controversial views. (3)
Anne also published a play called The Cabinet.

Encyclopedia Britannica also describes her as a "traveler and writer and one of the very first American newspaperwomen." (3)

Anne was among the first to ever petition Congress on separation of church and state matter. She also wrote quite critically of religion in her works. Because of this, public reception of her personally and professionally was quite mixed. While many revered her, there were far more who found her threatening:
When invited to speak, she was often either mobbed or refused admittance to the town; over the years she was arrested, fined--ten dollars in 1829--and once pushed down a flight of stairs. (2)
When Anne died on October 1, 1854, she was still nearly penniless. She was buried in a then unmarked grave in the Congressional Cemetery.

What did Anne have to say?

I find that the whole weight of relieving human misery and distress falls on the shoulders of those Heretics and Infidels; and though great part of this distress has been occasioned by those ravening wolves' hopeful converts, ... These Heretics are the men that feed the hungry, cloth the naked, taken in the stranger, visit the sick and the prisoner.
-- Black Book (5)

Fanaticism and bigotry require any food but common sense and reason, which would break the charm of those spellbound fanatics.
-- Black Book (5)

What think you, Matt, of the Christian religion? Between you, and I, and the bed post, I begin to think it is all a plot of the priests. I have ever marked those professors, whenever humanity demands their attention, the veriest savages under the sun. --Letters from Alabama (2)

There are many, many more worth exploring, but I think this is a fine sample for the moment.

What was Anne's influence?

Anne's influence is far wider than one would think. Jeff Biggers explains how she made an impact on Washington:
By the late 1820s, she single-handedly claimed the mantle as the witty and often ruthless literary scourge of the growing evangelical Christian movement in the United States, and the great defender of the separation between the church and the state; for a quarter of a century, as a pioneering female newspaper publisher and muckraker in Washington, DC, and a self-declared enemy of despotism, Royall's wrath made both houses of Congress "bow down in fear of her," according to a contemporary editor. (4)
She also had an impact on journalism:
Often dismissed as an "eccentric character" of the period, Royall's role as a pioneering female writer and publisher shattered the barriers for women in journalism and politics, and raised the standard of interviewing and fact-based "pen portraits." Royall was not only the first woman to interview the president of the United States, but every president from John Adams until Franklin Pierce. Royall is also credited with introducing the quotation mark in published interviews. (4)
She also impacted feminism and the women's rights movements:
Anthony's insistence on paying homage to Royall is significant. In some ways, the self-taught writer could be called the Southern godmother of feminism, an autodidactic intellectual of the Southern Appalachian frontier, who carved out her singular role as a woman to be reckoned with on her on terms, in her own idiosyncratic ways, in the most hallowed and male-dominated coven in the country--the Halls of Congress--a generation before Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton emerged on the national stage. (4)


I don't know about you guys, but I would definitely not mind making legislators in quake in fear. Anne Newport Royall was a woman behaving badly, making a stir and creating a shitstorm in defiance of a time when she should have meekly faded into the background.

May she live forever in the hearts of those of us that would love nothing more than to be hellraisers.


I'd like to take a moment to not only recognize these sources, but also to thank the authors of them that put the effort into gathering the information together. This piece is but a small collection of the facts of Anne's life, and each of these sources is well worth a visit of its own to learn more.

(1) "Anne Newport Royall". Wikipedia. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Royall> July 30, 2014.

(2) Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubts and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 380-381.

(3) "Anne Royal". Encyclopedia Britannica. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/511648/Anne-Newport-Royall> July 30, 2014.

(4) Jeff Biggers, "America's First Blogger: Anne Royall". Huffington Post. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-biggers/americas-first-blogger-an_b_106397.html>  July 30, 2014.

(5) "Positive Atheism's Big List of Anne Newport Royall Quotations". Positive Atheism. <http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/royall.htm> July 30, 2014.

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