Who Was Deborah Sampson?
Meryl Streep's speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night was not only inspiring, it was educational. Streep's remarks began with her telling the story of "the first woman to take a bullet for our country," and left listeners with two important questions: who was Deborah Sampson, and why didn't Meryl Streep teach my ninth grade history class? Forget about Paul Revere, let's hear more about the woman who disguised herself as a man in order to "defend a document that didn't fully defend her" in the American Revolution.
According to the National Women's History Museum, Sampson, born in December of 1760 in Plymton, Massachusetts, fought in the Revolution under the name Robert Shurtlieff for two years, and just like Streep described, she really did take a bullet. John Quincy Adams once lauded her service as "virtue of supererogation of the very highest and noblest order." In 1983, 200 years after her honorable discharge from the Continental Army, she was named the official state heroine of Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker also declared May 23, 2016 to be Deborah Sampson Day. And still, most people hadn't heard of her until Streep's speech on Tuesday night. One can't help but wonder if having a woman president would lead to more stories like Sampson's being shared.
Descended from Governor William Bradford and Captain Myles Standish, Sampson was one of Jonathan Sampson, Jr. and Deborah Bradford's seven children born into poverty. When she was 5, her father abandoned the family and moved to Maine. With her mother unable to provide for the children, Samson and her siblings were sent away to various families, and she eventually became the indentured servant of Jeremiah Thomas. Although she had no formal education, she learned to read and write well enough that when she turned 18 and her conscription to Thomas ended, she was able to make a living as a schoolteacher.