WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“mutually engaged in the same agreeable employment”

Sometimes writing a letter to someone seems like communing with the intended recipient. When it turns out that the recipient had been writing to you at the same time, the question of ESP comes into play. Strange, mystical perhaps. This is what SARAH LIVINGSTON JAY observes in a letter to her husband John who is in Philadelphia participating in the Continental Congress. She is pensive and sad. The ending is poignant.

Eliz[abeth town]. Town Jany 18th 1779 A thousand thanks are due to my ever amiable friend for the many marks of your distinguishing esteem; among which your favors of the 26th of Decr. & 3d. of Jany. are recent instances. I could not but observe with pleasure by the date of yr. last that we were at the same time mutually engaged in the same agreeable employment. How often, could we observe each other’s thoughts should we find them in quest of ourselves, tho’ you must allow mine to be more frequently employed in recollections of that nature; since ye business of your station demands a greater share of your attention than is claimed of mine by any other objects. I wrote you a short bill of health as I may style it (since little else did it contain) on the 9th or 10th inst. . . .
Mr. Ferguson is at Eliz. Town on a visit to his lady who has travelled quite from Philadelphia un-accompanied at this inclement season of the year to take leave of her husband who is soon to sail for England—poor lady, I fear it’s a final adieu, for I am told she is in a declining way. How few in these calamitous times are exempt from trouble. Fervently, very fervently do I wish for the restoration of peace & tranquility to these unhappy States. Then my dear, among the numerous blessings that such an event would be the means of dispensing may I not indulge the pleasing expectation that we shall no more be thus seperated, that I shall not again be deprived of my friend & counsellor: In short my love when you are absent I distrust my discretion so far that I even decline visiting lest by acting with impropriety I lessen the general opinion of your discernment. Hasten therefore my love to take again under your own wi[ng] your
ever affectionate Wife

To clarify for those not familiar with 18th century dates and abbreviations: inst. means “this month,” from the Latin “instante mense,” while “ult.” is “last month” and derives from “ultimo mense.”

Sarah’s letter is in the Digital Library of the Papers of John Jay at Columbia University and can be found HERE.

posted February 15th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Jay, John, Jay, Sarah Livingston

“great severities from the Frigidness”

John Jay, having been named minister plenipotentiary to Spain, sailed for Europe on October 20, 1779, accompanied by his wife Sarah. Their ship Confederacy met with severe weather and barely made it to Martinique where there was a considerable layover until another vessel could be secured. Catharine (Kitty) Livingston wrote, on 13 February 1780, to her sister from Philadelphia, expressing her concern.

How my dear sweet Sister was you supported in the hours of trial and danger; the appearance of death in so terrible a manner must have awaken[ed] every fear. You have indeed seen the wonders of the deep, and experienced in a remarkable manner the goodness and mercy of an indulgent providence. Your Friends have all reason to bless and thank God for his interposition in your favor, and it ought to console and encourage us to trust in the Author of your Salvation—For he spoke and it was done. he commanded and it stood fast.

Kitty continued, recounting details of the severe winter the country was enduring, envying (when she had thought Sarah was safely in Spain) “the temperance of your climate, whilst we were exposed to great severities from the Frigidness of ours.”

Our Winter set in earlier and with more Severity than is remembered by the Oldest liver among us. The year thirty five, and forty is agreed from circumstances not [to] be compared to this; in neither of those severe Seasons was the Chesapeake at & twenty Miles below Anopolis a firm bridge as is and has been a long time the case. In Virginia it has impeded all Trade, several of there Vessels have been cut to peices and sunk by the ice. The Merchants here think many of there Vessels that they expected in have perished on our coast, the last that got in was the Jay*; and that was in November, and she was much injured by the Ice and it was expected for several days that she and her cargo would be lost.

To the Eastward the Snow impeded all traveling to the State of New York—it cut of[f] Communication from Neighbour to Neighbour. The last accounts from Fish Kill it was four feet deep on a level. Numbers of Families in this City have suffered from its severity altho many among them made great exertions for their releif. In New York the want of fuel was never known like it, they cut down every stick of timber on Mr. Byard’s place** and would not permit [him] to keep any tho he offered to buy it. Several gentlemen went upon long Island and felled the trees, and after bringing it to town with their own horses it was seized for the Kings Troops [New York was occupied by the British], its reported of two families that the want of wood obliged them to lay a bed a week . . . .

You shall hear from me by every opportunity; at least I will write by every one. This letter is going to New London. I shall write to morrow by a Vessel that is to sail from Boston—till then I bid you adieu

* The ship, the Jay, was a Pennsylvania vessel of eighteen guns. There were three other vessels in the Continental service named Jay. One was Lady Jay. They saw action in the Revolution.
** William Bayard was a New York merchant who, initially sympathetic to the Patriot cause, ultimately became a firm Loyalist.

And we complain of the frigid weather and snow we have had recently (and, no doubt, more to come) when most of us are comfortable in our heated houses and can stay warm under our electric blankets!!

Kitty Livingston was not exaggerating in her description of the winter of 1779-80. George Washington, from his winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey, wrote to Lafayette in March 1780, “The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.” There were twenty-six snow storms in New Jersey, six of which were blizzards. The illustration shows the type of hut soldiers encamped at Jockey Hill near Morristown occupied.

According to historian Ray Raphael, writing in the American History Magazine 2/4/2010:

In January 1780 . . . Mother Nature transformed America into a frigid hell. For the only time in recorded history, all of the saltwater inlets, harbors and sounds of the Atlantic coastal plain, from North Carolina northeastward, froze over and remained closed to navigation for a period of a month or more. Sleighs, not boats, carried cords of firewood across New York Harbor from New Jersey to Manhattan. The upper Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and the York and James rivers in Virginia turned to ice. In Philadelphia, the daily high temperature topped the freezing mark only once during the month of January, prompting Timothy Matlack, the patriot who had inscribed the official copy of the Declaration of Independence, to complain that “the ink now freezes in my pen within five feet of the fire in my parlour, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Kitty’s letter is in The John Jay Papers in the Columbia Digital Library Collections and can be seen HERE.

“I put your letter into his hands . . . “

For this post I am opting out of my mission of bringing readers the words of women from the American Revolution and the early national period. Instead I am posting a letter that Alexander Hamilton wrote not to Lady Kitty Alexander Duer (see previous post) but to another Kitty, this one CATHARINE LIVINGSTON (1751-1813), daughter of the Governor of New Jersey, sister of Sarah Livingston Jay and cousin to Lady Kitty. Coincidentally, Kitty Livingston, like her cousin, was concerned with a flag of truce, not for herself but for some friends who wanted to leave British occupied New York City to pay a visit to New Jersey. Kitty Livingston made her appeal to her friend Alexander Hamilton, who gave it to General George Washington for whom he was an aide de camp. Hamilton was instructed by Washington to reply to Kitty’s letter. His response is mildly flirtatious, flattering, fanciful, and wordy. In fact it is the longest letter I have come across that can be summed up as “No”. There was an exception, as you will discover.

Headquarters, March 18, 1779.I can hardly forgive an application to my humanity to induce me to exert my influence in an affair in which ladies are concerned, and especially when you are of the party. Had you appealed to my friendship or to my gallantry, it would have been irresistible. I should have thought myself bound to have set prudence and policy at defiance, and even to have attacked wind-mills in your ladyship’s service. I’m not sure but my imagination would have gone so far as to have fancied New York an enchanted castle—the three ladies so many fair damsels ravished from their friends and held in captivity by the spells of some wicked magician— General Clinton, a huge giant, placed as keeper of the gates—and myself, a valorous knight, destined to be their champion and deliverer.

But when, instead of availing yourself of so much better titles, you appealed to the cold, general principle of humanity, I confess I felt myself mortified, and determined, by way of revenge, to mortify you in turn. I resolved to show you that all the eloquence of your fine pen could not tempt our Fabius [Washington] to do wrong; and, avoiding any representation of my own, I put your letter into his hands and let it speak for itself. I knew, indeed, this would expose his resolution to a severer trial than it could experience in any other way, and I was not without my fears for the event, but if it should decide against you, I anticipated the triumph of letting you see your influence had failed. I congratulated myself on the success of my scheme; for, though there was a harder struggle upon the occasion between inclination and duty, than it would be for his honor to tell; yet he at last had the courage to determine that, as he could not indulge the ladies with consistency and propriety, he would not run the risk of being charged with a breach of both.

This he desired me to tell you, though, to be sure, it was done in a different manner, interlaced with many assurances of his great desire to oblige you, and of his regret that he could not do it in the present case, with a deal of stuff of the same kind, which I have too good an opinion of your understanding to repeat. I shall, therefore, only tell you that whether the Governor and the General are more honest or more perverse than other people, they have a very odd knack of thinking alike; and it happens in the present case that they both equally disapprove the intercourse you mention, and have taken pains to discourage it. I shall leave you to make your own reflections upon this, with only one more observation, which is that the ladies for whom you apply would have every claim to be gratified, were it not that it would operate as a bad precedent.

But, before I conclude, it will be necessary to explain one point. This refusal supposes that the ladies mean only to make a visit and return to New York. If it should be their intention to remain with us, the case will be altered. There will be no rule against their coming out, and they will be an acquisition. But this is subject to two provisos—1st that they are not found guilty of treason or any misdemeanor punishable by the laws of the State, in which case the General can have no power to protect them; and 2dly, that the ladies on our side do not apprehend any inconvenience from increasing their number. Trifling apart, there is nothing could give me greater pleasure than to have been able to serve Miss Livingston and her friends on this occasion, but circumstances really did not permit it. I am persuaded she has too just an opinion of the General’s politeness not to be convinced that he would be happy to do anything which his public character would justify in an affair so interesting to the tender feelings of so many ladies. The delicacy of her own ideas will easily comprehend the delicacy of his situation;— she knows the esteem of her friend.

A. Hamilton.

The General and Mrs. Washington present their compliments.

Hamilton’s letter can be found HERE. Portrait from Find A Grave.

“a fine woman . . . with most accomplished manners”

More on “LADY” KITTY ALEXANDER (see previous post). Kitty was married to Colonel William Duer on July 17, 1779, at the family home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with George Washington in attendance. After the war, the Duers made their home on Broadway, in New York City, not far from Wall Street. William Duer was an investor, stockbroker, and speculator always looking to turn a quick profit. The couple were active in the social life of the city and Lady Kitty was a popular hostess. After attending a dinner party at the Duers in 1787, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler noted:

Lady Kitty, for so she is called . . . is a fine woman, though not a beauty, very sociable, and with most accomplished manners. She performed the honors of the table most gracefully, was constantly attended by two servants in livery, and insisted on performing the whole herself. Colonel Duer . . . lives in the style of a nobleman. I presume he had not less than fifteen different sorts of wine at dinner, and after the cloth was removed, besides most excellent bottled cider, porter, and several other kinds of strong beer.

When George Washington became president in 1789, he and his family occupied the Samuel Osgood house at 2 Cherry Street in New York City, the nation’s first capital. Lady Kitty was one of the women consulted on the decor and furniture. Sarah Franklin Robinson, in a long letter to her cousin Catharine Wistar, wrote: “Aunt [Mary] Osgood & Lady Kitty Duer had the whole management of it.”

I went the morning before the General’s arrival to take a look at it—the best of furniture in every room—and the greatest Quantity of plate and China that I ever saw before—the whole of the first and secondary Story is paperd and the floors Coverd with the richest Kind of Turkey and Wilton Carpets—the house realy did honour to my Aunt and Lady Kitty; they spared no pains nor expense on it—thou must Know that Uncle [Samuel] Osgood and [William] Duer were appointed to procure a house and furnish it—accordingly they pitchd [settled] on their wives as being likely to do it better—

Unfortunately Kitty’s husband’s speculations caught up with him in 1791 and 1792 and involved the sale of stock in the newly formed Bank of the United States. Promises of huge dividends and a guarantee that the bank could not fail because of its political connections led to a buying frenzy, causing prices to skyrocket. Bankers, in an attempt to stabilize the market began to cut credit to investors eventually resulting in a crash—the Panic of 1792. Having borrowed large sums of money that he could not repay, Duer found himself in debt to the tune of $3,000,000. He landed in debtors’ prison where he would die in 1799. In greatly reduced circumstances Kitty moved with her children to a small house on Chambers Street where she took in boarders. Her subsequent marriage to William Neilson produced several more children. She died in 1826.

One of the positive results of the Panic that Duer and friends had precipitated was a meeting of a group of concerned bankers and investors who pledged to conduct their securities business in an honest way. This was the beginning of the New York Stock Exchange.

Information about Kitty Duer, as well as Cutler’s observation, can be found HERE. Details concerning Washington’s relocation to New York City can be found HERE. The excerpt of Sarah Franklin Robinson’s letter can be found on pages 296-97 of In the Words of Women. A description of Duer’s part in the Panic of 1792 can be found HERE.

” . . . . I think we may call our Jaunt an agreeable one”

New York City was occupied by the British from 1776, when George Washington’s campaign against the British failed, until 1783, the end of the war. In September 1776, a terrible fire, suspicious in origin, broke out and destroyed almost a quarter of the city. Large numbers of residents had already fled to avoid being caught in the fighting. (See post called “this deplorable cyte”.) Most Patriots departed when the the British occupied the city, while a few stayed to try to hold on to their property. Loyalist refugees flocked in as did escaped slaves who thought to obtain their freedom by fighting for the British. New York City became the command center of British military and political operations in North America. The wealthy and well connected, including British officers, restored a semblance of the social scene which featured plays and parties, dinners and dances.

On occasion members of certain families were allowed by the authorities to visit friends and relatives in New York City under a white flag of truce. CATHERINE ALEXANDER and her mother were granted this privilege. Catherine was the daughter of William Alexander, a major general in the American army who was called “Lord Stirling” because of his claim (never validated) to be a Scottish earl and Sarah Livingston. (Sarah’s brother was William Livingston, governor of New Jersey.) The couple had two daughters, Mary and Catherine. In 1776 Lord Stirling was in White Plains, following the American defeat in New York City. His wife and daughter Catherine called “Lady Kitty” joined him there and the two women obtained permission to enter New York City to visit the elder daughter Mary and her husband Robert Watts who were resident there, living quietly and trying to be neutral. “Lady Kitty” wrote the following letter to her father from New Jersey where she was visiting the family of her uncle William Livingston which had relocated from Elizabethtown to Persippany for safety’s sake. It gives some indication of what life was like in New York City during the British occupation.

I have made several attempts to perform an injunction [request], laid on me by my dear Pappa, in a letter to Genl. Maxwell but have always been interrupted, or entirely prevented by some trivial accident which tho’ important enough to prevent my writing are scarce worth mentioning to you, Coll. Livingstons [Brockholst, Kitty’s cousin, son of William Livingston] going to camp at last furnishes me with an opportunity of acquainting you with every thing that my memory retains of our Jaunt to N.York.

In the first place we had the satisfaction of being civilly treated by the British officers, one indignity indeed we receiv’d from Genl. Grant who order’d a Serjeant to conduct the Flag to town instead of an officer but we were so happy at getting permission to go on that we readily excused his want of politeness in that instance—our acquaintances in town were also, in general, very polite to us: many indeed were remarkably attentive—but whether it proceeded from regard to themselves or no, is hard to determine—the Truth is, they are a good deal alarmed at their situation, & wish to make as much interest as possible on our side. [T]he sentiments I really believe of a great number have undergone a thorough change since they have been with the British Army as they have had many opportunities of seeing flagrant acts of injustice & cruelty which they cou’d not have believed their freinds capable of; if they had not been witnesses to, & which convinces them that if they conquer we must live in abject slavery.

Mamma has I suppose mention’d to you the distressed situation, in which we found poor Mary, the alarms of the Fire & explosion added to her recent misfortune kept her for several days in a very weak state—but we had the satisfaction to leave her perfectly recovered. [T]he Child she now has is one of the most charming little creatures I ever saw— & by all accounts more likely to live than either of the others. Mr. Watts, I was very glad to find is among the number of those who are heartily sick of British Tyranny, & as to Mary, her political principles are perfectly Rebellious.

[S]everal Gentlemen of your former acquaintance in the British Army made particular enquiries after you . . . .

Upon the whole I think we may call our Jaunt an agreeable one, tho’ it was checkered with several unlucky circumstances[,] for my own part I liked it so well that I cou’d wish to repeat it in a few months if my Sister does not get permission to pay us a Visit—I left Mamma very well two days ago [at the family home in Basking Ridge, New Jersey] to pay a Visit to the Governors Family who sent the Coll down with an absolute command to fetch me—they all beg to be remember’d to you but believe me to be my dear Pappa with greater sincerity your
very affectionate D[aughte]r. C Alexander
Persipany Septr 6th. 1778

The New-York Historical Society, W. Alexander Papers, vol. II, #95, written in a small neat hand and including the red wax seal. The portrait is of Kitty after she had married William Duer in 1779. Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Lady Catherine Duer (Lady Catherine Alexander, daughter of Lord Stirling)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2b5b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.


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