Archive for the ‘Letter-writing’ Category

Deciphering Eighteenth Century Handwriting

Part of what attracted me to research in the era of the America Revolution was the excitement of handling and reading the actual letters of the participants and of the general public, with an emphasis on women. I was not only interested in the content but also in the handwriting itself, which I found to be a powerful manifestation of the writer, capable of establishing a personal connection between that writer and myself.

To read a letter one has to decipher the handwriting, to become familiar with the styles and customs which prevailed. In this regard I urge you to read the two topics listed in “About the Blog” on the right: “Letter-writing and More” and “Reading Old Documents”.

I recently came upon a series which concerns itself with “Deciphering the Handwritten Records of Early America” presented in “A State Archives of North Carolina blog.” Part I presents a section dealing with abbreviations, shorthand, and lettering which will be useful to anyone trying to read 18th century manuscripts. Names are often difficult to make out. These are the ones that appear in the article.
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Note the use of colons and the practice of shortening names and words by removing certain letters, frequently all but the first and last, and using superscript for the last letter(s). Note, too, the use of an “X” for “Christ” in Christopher.

Often there was no indication of what letters were missing as in this sentence which was the standard closing of a letter: “I am sir yr most obt and hble servt” that reads “I am sir your most obedient and humble servant”.

One characteristic common to handwriting at the time was the persistent use of the ampersand—&—for “and” as you will have noted if you are a reader of the letters in my blog posts. I find that quite charming for some reason, perhaps because I am interested in typefaces and the versions of the ampersand in the different fonts, many of which are beautiful. Of course these differences are not generally evident in handwriting.

More in the next post.

posted October 20th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Letter-writing,Reading old documents

“I am quite a country boy”

Following is a letter from Elizabethtown dated 18 July 1781, in the handwriting of SUSAN LIVINGSTON but signed by Peter Augustus Jay, to Sarah Jay in Madrid. Peter was only five so he couldn’t have written the letter no matter how precocious he may have been. It is charming.

I thank my Dear Mama for her kind letter, and good advice, and my dear Papa for his remembrance.

I hope when you return to our Country you will find your little son as you expect, and not be disappointed,

Aunt Susan teaches me to read; every hour the bell rings, and then I go in the office to say my lesson. Aunt Caty [Catharine Livingston] sends me books from Phila. I learn in a very pretty book of Tales, one page has a picture and the opposite one a tale to explain it, all the book through. I have finished with the Continental Primmer. . . .

As soon as I read well Aunt Susan will teach me to write, and then I can have the pleasure of writing to my absent friends. I have a pocket-book full of letters that Grand-Pa printed for me last winter. Every fortnight allmost I received a letter from him, and last month Grand-Mama and I went to meet Grand-Papa and spend a few days with him at Cousin David Clarksons, who lives three miles this side of Princeton. It was a long ride for such a little fellow as me.

Aunt Caty sent me a top, and Uncle Watkins [the husband of his aunt Judith Livingston] made me a Kite for pastime. I am quite a country boy clad in a striped linen waistcoat and trowsers, and sometimes I hoe in the garden and gather the gooseberries and currants, and I help to rake hay on the Lawn in the hay harvest.

We have plenty of fine fruit this summer, while we had cherries, the boys collected from all parts of the Country here, not less than fifty in a day, and soon stripped our trees.

Mama says I must write her what I wish her to bring me. I should like a hat, a pair of shoe and knee buckles, and a pair of sleeve buttons—if she pleases.

Hannah [PA Jay’s nurse] says I must not forget to mention her, but she won’t tell me what to say about her. She has not left me, and is very good to me, and gives her love to Mama. She has received the fine handkerchief and is much obliged to Papa for it. . . .

Please to give my love & duty to Papa & my love to Uncle Henry [Brockholst Livingston] & Cousin Peter [Munro, the son of John Jay’s sister Eve].

I am dear Mama, Your very Affecte. Son,

Peter Augustus Jay at age 21:

See the whole letter at the Columbia University Digital Library Collection of the John Jay Papers HERE. The portrait is by James Sharples and is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

posted November 3rd, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Children,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Letter-writing,Livingston, Catharine "Kitty",Symmes, Susan Livingston

” I write now in great haste”

On 27 May 1781 SUSAN LIVINGSTON wrote from Elizabeth Town, New Jersey, to her sister Sarah Jay who was in Madrid where her husband John had been sent on a diplomatic mission. At that time Sarah was the only wife of an American diplomat who went abroad with him. The Jays left their young son Peter Augustus with the Livingston family; it was Susan who assumed the major responsibility for his care and education. In her letter Susan remarks on the difficulty of keeping in touch by mail. Writers and recipients usually began their letters by noting the dates of letters they had received. Letters destined for Europe were often carried by friends who were going abroad. Duplicates were frequently sent by different means in the hope that at least one letter would get through. They were often entrusted to the captains of ships bound for cities in Europe where they would be forwarded to their destinations. Letters had first to reach the port of departure; remember that the voyage across the Atlantic took at least six weeks, more in bad weather, and there was always the danger of the vessel being captured by the enemy or by privateers, as Susan describes.

It has given me real concern to find that of all my letters to my Dear Sister one only has reached her. I cherished a hope that some written last Summer would undoubtedly have gone safe. . . . It is impossible to recollect the number I have written, nor can I account for the miscarriage of all of them, without suspecting that some have never reached Phila and others never left it; the carelessness of People with respect to these letters is really unpardonable, many have been lost betwixt Kitty and me since her residence in Philadelphia by Gentlemen that one would have imagined would have made a point of honor out of their safety.

I penned a number of sheets last July at Baske [Basking Ridge just west of Elizabethtown], part of which contained a particular detail of British maneuvres in this State the preceding month. . . . While the enemy lay at the Point . . . we all made good our retreat, except Mama and Mrs. Linn [Susan’s sister Mary who was married to James Linn]. During the 3 weeks they were at the Point, our House was between two Fires. . . . Mama had a forced march 5 miles across the Country. She was so terrified that she was sure she could not survive. . . . Your little Heroe was here when they first pushed into the Country, and was much amused with the sight of such an Army. He shook hands with a British Gentleman who bid him not be afraid, and said he supposed the Child had been taught to think they would tear him to pieces. . . .

You must do me the justice dear Sister to believe that I have wrote very frequently to you since the last mentioned Letter. In the Fall I gave you an account of Arnold’s Perfidy, and several other interesting matters in Letters that went with Colonel Palfrey who sailed from Phila with some other Gentlemen in a new Merchantman, the best that has been built since the War; Mr. [Robert] Morris was principal owner. There’s great reason to think the Ship is lost, as she has never been heard of since; one that sailed in company with her was captured and carried to England. It is said that General Arnold was to be recompensed for his treachery by the value of the Stores at West Point which amounted to ƒ30,000. He has carried on the War with great acrimony to the Southward. Does Spain furnish any examples of such finished Villains?

I wrote you the 10th of this month . . . I write now in great haste, otherwise I shall lose the opportunity of sending this to Phila. Harry [Henry Livingston, Jr.] recommends it to us to send our Letters from Newberry Port as the safest Channel of conveyance, but the risk they run of being lost, in such a long Journey is almost equal to the dangers of the voyage. . . .

The three unarmed Vessels Harry wrote by from LOrient are all safe in Port; he reasoned prudently when he declined sending any thing in those Ships, and prefered the Luzerne, but our wisest measures are often baffled by events; the Luzerne was captured 9 Days after she left France. I can only say we are truly unlucky. Mr Morris is a great loser by the Capture, her Cargo was very valuable. . . .

Adieu my dear Sister. God bless you, and all that are dear to you.

Source: John Jay: The Making of a Revolutionary, 1780-1784, edited by Richard. B Morris (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 185-187.

posted October 31st, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Arnold, Benedict,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Letter-writing,Morris, Robert,Philadelphia,Symmes, Susan Livingston

“the relation of lover and mistress”

ANGELICA SCHUYLER CHURCH was the sister of Alexander Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth, usually called Eliza or Betsy. They were the two eldest of the eight children—Angelica one year older than Eliza— of soldier and statesman Philip Schuyler and Catherine Van Rensselaer both of whose families were wealthy Dutch landowners. The Schuylers lived in Albany where the girls were educated by their mother and private tutors.

Alexander Hamilton met Eliza in Morristown, New Jersey, the Continental Army’s winter quarters, in 1780 where she had come to stay with relatives. Hamilton was smitten; he wrote to his friend John Laurens in March 1780:

I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good-hearted girl who, I am sure, will never play the termagant. Though not a genius, she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty she has fine black eyes, is rather handsome, and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy.

Hamilton married Eliza but he was also drawn to her sister Angelica whom he also met in 1780. Angelica was gay, witty, vivacious and interested in politics. In 1777 Angelica had married John Church, an Englishman who left for America under suspicious circumstances. Since her father did not approve of the match the pair eloped. Church made a fortune in the Revolution; after the war he and Angelica settled in London where John became a member of Parliament and Angelica established herself as a noted hostess. Angelica and Hamilton corresponded frequently during her stay abroad.

Angelica also made a friend of Thomas Jefferson who was serving as minister to France. Although they were on opposite sides of the political scene in America—Federalists vs Republicans—the two also corresponded. They had discussions about the appropriate roles for women, Jefferson expressing the view that “French ladies miscalculate their happiness when they wander from the true field of their influence into politics.” (Recall the exchanges Jefferson had had with Ann Willing Bingham on this subject here, here, and here. Angelica and Jefferson also corresponded in language that is quite intimate and flirtatious. They worked together to assist victims of the French Revolution.

Hamilton’s letters to Angelica in London were also intimate and flirtatious. Just after the Churches left in 1785 he wrote:

You have I fear taken a final leave of America and of those that love you here. I saw you depart from Philadelphia with peculiar uneasiness, as if foreboding you were not to return. My apprehensions are confirmed and unless I see you in Europe I expect not to see you again.
This is the impression we all have; judge the bitterness it gives to those who love you with the love of nature and to me who feel an attachment for you not less lively.

He wrote on December 6, 1787, thanking her for some information she had sent him.

. . . I can not . . . resist the strong desire I feel of thankg you for your invaluable letter by the last packet. Imagine, if you are able, the pleasure it gave me. Notwithstanding the compliment you pay to my eloquence its resources could give you but a feeble image of what I should wish to convey.
This you will tell me is poetical enough. I seldom write to a lady without fancying the relation of lover and mistress. It has a very inspiring effect. And in your case the dullest materials could not help feeling that propensity.

More about Hamilton and Angelica Church in the next post.

Sources for LETTER to John Laurens and Hamilton’s letters to Angelica: “From Alexander Hamilton to Angelica Church, [3 August 1785] also Alexander Hamilton to Angelica Church, [6 December 1787 Founders Online, National Archives, last modified July 12, 2016, [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 3, 1782–1786, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 619–620 and pp. 374–376.] The portrait of Angelica Schuyler Church, son Philip, and a servant is by John Trumbull (1785).

posted July 14th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Bingham, Anne Willing,Church, Angelica Schuyler,French Revolution,Friendship,Hamilton, Alexander,Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler,Jefferson, Thomas,Letter-writing,New York

“My Dearest Friend”

I’m putting off writing about Alexander Hamilton’s friendship(?) with his sister-in-law until next time because I want to draw your attention to a performance of an opera based on the letters of Abigail and John Adams called My Dearest Friend to be performed this weekend (July 2) at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. I wish I were able to go but since I cannot I am hoping that some of my readers might. I have always loved the Adams correspondence and compliment Patricia Leonard for using selected letters as lyrics. Featured will be soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer as Abigail and baritone Charles Taylor as John. I was alerted to this performance by J. L. Bell’s excellent blog Boston 1775.
When my colleagues Louise North and Landa Freeman and I were mulling over titles for our book about the correspondence between John Jay and his wife Sarah Livingston Jay, we decided on My Dearest Best of Friends, a salutation frequently used in their letters. Our publisher sadly nixed it opting for the rather dull and academic Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay. We always thought that the Jay letters rivaled the Adams correspondence, a close second perhaps. Maybe someone will do an opera based on the Jay correspondence.

posted June 30th, 2016 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Adams, John,Jay, John,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Letter-writing,Primary sources

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