John Cleves Symmes’ land in Ohio called the Symmes Purchase was poorly surveyed and badly managed; portions were sold to settlers before Symmes and his associates had finalized the contract for them. Meanwhile Symmes went about building a home in North Bend, Ohio, during which time Susan Livingston Symmes and Symmes’ daughter Anna went to stay with her older sister Maria Short in Lexington, Kentucky. There Anna Tuthill Symmes met William Henry Harrison and fell in love. The couple married in 1795. Harrison went on to become President of the United States.
SUSAN LIVINGSTON SYMMES became disappointed in her marriage rather quickly. Her husband did not consult her on their place of residence nor did he honor his promise to allow her to visit Morristown frequently. He also sought control of the money she brought to the marriage and decided that she could not “receive the interest or transfer the Stock” at her own discretion; she had wanted to use her money to repay her sister Kitty Livingston Ridley for debts incurred before her marriage. Susan contacted an attorney for assistance but it turned out that the lawyer was a friend of her husband’s who violated client confidentiality by passing along information to her spouse. Here is the letter she wrote to Judge Robert Morris at New Brunswick.
North Bend March 4, 1796Sir
I feel myself greatly embarrassed, & distressed at addressing a Gentleman so much a Stranger to me, & upon so delicate a subject, & nothing but my confidence in the benevolence of your disposition; & the apparent necessity for vindicating my own & Sisters character should have induced me to trouble you upon this occasion—Happening to cast my eye this morning over a paper that the Judges’s [Symmes] nephew was reading, & observing my own name, it excited a curiosity to join in the perusal, when to my surprise I found it to be a letter from the Judge in answer to one of yours respecting Mrs. R. [Ridley’s] business; in which I find he labours under several mistakes—It will doubtless appear singular to you, that I should not rather endeavour to convince him than you—& I think myself obliged to assign the reasons, one is, that the Judge has not been pleased to communicate your letter or his answer; tho’ the most important is, least the ungrateful subject should bring altercation, & interrupt that harmony which I wish ever to maintain–
He asserts that I transferred the 2400 dol. [to Mrs. Ridley] at Phil[adelphia], when on my way thro’ to N.Y. with him, (which was some time in June or July)—The fact is they were transferred the preceeding Spring at Baltimore, the certificates being on the books at Annapolis, could not I believe have been transfered at Phil—This transaction I acquainted Mr. S. with, no person being privy to it, tho I had no objection to its being public, & at the same time shewed him my accounts which was within a very few days after our marriage—& told him that the certificates (on the books of Pennsylvania) which I then shewed him, were Mrs. R[‘s], that I must make them over to her before I left the Country. His displeasure was great, he insisting upon it that it was all a gift of mine [from Kitty]—There was no more occasion to inform Mr. S. before our union that I pd. Mrs. R. than that I had pd. my other Sisters & Brothers. . . .
Mr. S. saw the account with the list of the other property I had & yet says I gave Mrs. R. three forths of my property—It was my intention to settle with her whenever stock rose that I could sell to advantage, & either divide the profits (if any accrued) with her or pay her the sums I had received on her account with interest from the time of receiving them. The Spring I made over the 2400 dollars, certificates were selling at 16s & Mrs. R. took them at par, so that she should complain if any one—I never made a mystery of any thing, I always told the Judge that my fortune was inconsiderable, but that Mrs. R. & myself by living together could be comfortable & independent—when conversing about property so shortly after our marriage he told me he had been informed I had six thousand pounds, & was greatly disappointed to find that I had not the half—that was no fault of mine—Certain it is that I have never spent a shilling either of his money or what was mine, but I have been a prudent, industrious, obedient wife, accommodating myself entirely to his manners & way of life, which are very different from what I have been accustomed to before our marriage—The transition was great indeed! & unspeakable is my mortification to find Mrs. R[‘s]. opinion of the Judge better founded than mine—Mrs. R. is a woman of the strictest veracity; & most rigid honor, & would not lay claim to property which was not her right. . . .
What I have said on this subject to you Sir, I have never hinted to any one of my own family—Your own delicacy will suggest to you the propriety of keeping the contents of this letter a most sacred secret—
I am Sir
With the greatest Respect
It seems strange that Susan had not settled the matter of her money with her husband before their marriage or arranged for a prenuptial agreement; without one, according to the practice of the time, all property—real estate, stocks, money—belonging to the wife would be controlled by the husband. It is interesting that Kitty Livingston did not have a high opinion of Symmes.
Next time, the letter Susan had written earlier to John Cleves Symmes on this subject.
American Women Writers to 1800. Contributors: Sharon M. Harris – editor, (New York: Oxford University Press,1996), 92-94.