Archive for the ‘Capital of the United States’ Category

“Mrs. Adams’s drawing room”

ELIZABETH STODDERT, the daughter of Rebecca and Benjamin Stoddert, President Adams’s secretary of the navy, wrote to her aunt in January 1800 from Philadelphia describing the memorial held there for George Washington who had died in December.

There was a funeral eulogium last Thursday pronounced by General Lee, and the most splendid procession ever seen in America. . . . Mamma was not well enough to go to the procession. . . .
I must not omit to tell you, that though mama has not been as yet to wait on Mrs. Adams, that good and handsome old lady called to see her this afternoon, with her daughter Mrs. Smith, and brought more plum-cake for the children than all of them could eat. You may be sure after this she is a great favorite of the whole family.

REBECCA STODDERT wrote to her sister on February 23, 1800 of her visit to Mrs. Adams levée.

. . . . I have been to . . . Mrs. Adams’s drawing room, which was a very full one, and well worth going to . . . . Mrs. Adams was extremely kind. . . . she not only desired me to move from a window where I was sitting, but in the course of the evening sent to me to know if I would have some drops. From my pale looks she took it in her head that I was going to faint, which brought a little red to my cheeks. . . .
I have been kindly and prettily asked by both Mr. and Mrs. Liston [Robert Liston was the British minister plenipotentiary to the United States] to go to their house the public day of having company, which is something like Mrs. Adams’s drawing room, only that Mrs. Liston sometimes has dances and at others cards. She mentions in the winter when they commence, and that is looked upon as an invitation, and all of her acquaintances go that choose it or that wish to show her respect. I go because I respect them both extremely.

Mrs. Stoddert wrote again in April 1800:

I saw Mrs. Washington when she was in Philadelphia for the first time in my life. I visited her in the morning at Mrs. Powell’s where she stayed, and in the evening she very politely called on me, but I could not prevail on her to stay to tea. She left the city the next morning, and is expected to return the first of May, when I hope I shall see her again. She appears to be a mild, lady-like woman. I should like to hear her sing. I am sure I have heard she excelled in both playing and singing.

Congress met in Washington for the first time in the fall of 1800. In 1791, it had passed the Residence Act designating an area along the Potomac River as the site of the capital of the United States. (It was in the center of the country at that time.) Land was donated from both Maryland and Virginia and the city to be built there was called Washington, often referred to as the “Federal City.” It was in an unfinished state when Abigail Adams took up a brief residence in the president’s house. See her amusing description of its condition she penned to her daughter Nabby.
When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, Mrs. Stoddert briefly returned to her home in Georgetown but she and her husband shortly moved to Bostwick in Maryland which Rebecca had inherited from her father. She died there in 1802. The family’s finances were much reduced by Benjamin Stoddert’s speculation in land by the time he died in 1813. Husband and wife are buried in Addison Chapel in St. George’s County, Maryland.

Kate Mason Rowland, “Philadelphia a Century Ago, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1898, pages 815, 817-18. Henrietta Liston’s portrait is by Gilbert Stuart, 1800. My colleague and friend Louise North has compiled and edited The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2014). It is a great read.

posted May 16th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Capital of the United States,Philadelphia,Smith, Abigail "Nabby" Adams,Stoddert, Benjamin,Stoddert, Elizabeth,Stoddert, Rebecca Lowndes,Washington, George

“I have good chickens”

Writing from Trenton, to which the Stodderts moved with the government to avoid exposure to yellow fever in Philadelphia , REBECCA STODDERT recounts her efforts to adjust to a new location. She tries to find sheet music that her niece Eliza requested and she goes on to describe the house the family lives in until they return to Philadelphia in the fall.

September, 1799My Dear Eliza,—It will give Betsy [her daughter] much satisfaction to get you the music you say you shall want, or anything else, indeed, that you may need. I did suppose one could supply all their reasonable needs in Philadelphia if one had but money. I find I was mistaken. I had made Betsy try all the music shops to get “Miller” for Harriet and Nancy, but to no purpose. I tried myself, too, at one or two shops, but all in vain. I hope I shall be more fortunate in my endeavors to serve you. She has the “Chase” by Haydn, and says it is much easier than Fisher’s “Rondo.” We brought the instrument with us from Philadelphia; but for want of a teacher, I wish Betsy may not lose what little she has gained by Mr. Taylor.

If I was a “gad,” I should enjoy myself very much here. The inhabitants are very sociable and very polite to strangers. I have been visited by several, and in one instance met with much kindness.

The governor’s lady I have not seen (this is the seat of government, you must know), because I have not waited on her. When I return the ladies’ visits which I have received I shall wait on her.

I suppose when I tell you that this house, which I find fault with, contains nine rooms, you will think I am very unreasonable to be displeased with it, but if you were to see it you would think of it as I do. Down-stairs are two rooms and an entry, as they call passages here and in Philadelphia; upstairs are seven rooms, but you must not suppose they are only over the above-mentioned two. One is over the kitchen, and another over a store which we have at the end of the house. The greatest evil I have to complain of is a number of small ants, which are troublesome. But I have good chickens, which, for my life, I could not have till I came here. It is the practice in Philadelphia to buy them at market alive and kill them the same day. I do not suppose half a dozen families think of fatting them up before they kill them. This, by way of specimen of what is done in large cities. Houses and furniture as clean as possible; but there all cleanliness ends, I daresay. How I shall wonder at myself when I get home again—you know where I mean, don’t you?—that I was ever able to eat particularly!

Kate Mason Rowland, “Philadelphia a Century Ago, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1898, pages 813-14. The chicken illustrated is one of several breeds raised at Colonial Williamsburg.

posted May 12th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Capital of the United States,Food,Music,Philadelphia,Stoddert, Rebecca Lowndes,Trenton, New Jersey

“. . . descended with him, without repining”

It is not fair to MARY WHITE MORRIS, or you the reader, to abandon her without giving some information about subsequent events in her life.

The Morrises were among the first families of Philadelphia after the Revolution, entertaining the nation’s leaders as well as distinguished visitors and diplomats from abroad. During the constitutional convention held there in 1787, George Washington stayed at the Morris House— Robert Morris made the motion for Washington to preside over the convention. After the Constitution was ratified, Morris was chosen by the Pennsylvania legislature to be one of its two senators in the new government.

Martha Washington did not attend her husband’s inauguration as president in April 1789 in New York City but subsequently made her way north, honored and feted along the way. She stayed for several days with Mary Morris in Philadelphia, who then accompanied her to New York where Mary was present at the first levée held by Mrs. Washington in May.

Robert Morris declined the position of Secretary of the Treasury which President Washington had offered him, preferring to tend to his personal business. When the capital of the United States was moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Morris gave up his house to the President and moved to an adjacent dwelling. The hot air balloon described in an earlier post was launched from his back garden in 1793. At the end of his second term in 1797, Washington gave a farewell dinner at which he presented Mrs. Morris with a portrait miniature of himself.

During this period Robert Morris’ financial troubles multiplied as a result of excessive spending and bad investments. He rashly speculated in western lands in several states and overextended himself right before the Panic of 1796-97. His creditors caught up with him and in 1798 he was sent to debtor’s prison in Philadelphia where he remained for more than three years. Mary, the loyal wife, visited her husband daily and often took dinner with him. Morris was released from prison in 1801 with the passage of a new bankruptcy law. Gouverneur Morris (no relation), perhaps the closest of their family friends, arranged for Mary to have an annuity of $1500 a year that allowed the pair to live in modest circumstances until Morris’ death in 1806.

Lafayette, touring the United States in 1824, visited Mary in Philadelphia and at his invitation she attended the ball given in his honor. Mary died in 1827 at the age of 78. This passage taken from her obituary describes her well: Morris’ “deceased widow, after having enjoyed with him without arrogance the wealth and the honours of the early and middle years of his life, descended with him, without repining, to the privation incident to the reverses of his fortune towards the close of it.”

The portrait of Mary White Morris was painted by John Trumbull in 1790 and hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A summary of the life of Mary White Morris is included in an ADDRESS delivered in 1877, which includes the obituary.

posted July 27th, 2015 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Capital of the United States,Lafayette, Marquis de,Morris, Mary White,Morris, Robert,Philadelphia,Trumbull, John,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

The travels of Henrietta Marchant Liston

My friend and colleague Louise North—we collaborated on both In the Words of Women and the Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay—has compiled and written a new book, The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, that will be available on December 15. Louise has compiled a travelogue for this blog to run during the month of December based on materials from her book.


Today, travelers do not hesitate to make journeys of many miles “over the river and through the wood.”* on (mostly) decently marked roads, innumerable places at which to eat or stay, and emergency help available if necessary. But have you ever wondered what such journeys would have been like in the late eighteenth century? How might you travel or procure a bed for the night and food for yourself and your horses when no inn is to be found?

Consider the tale of Henrietta Marchant Liston who, with her husband Robert (the second minister from Great Britain to the young United States), began a trip southward from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina on 1 November 1797 on “one of those fine days the American autumns so often present bright clear Sun & elastic air.” They traveled in their own carriage accompanied by family members and one servant.

Crossing the Susquehanna River by ferry, the Listons spent two days in Baltimore before continuing south on 6 November: “the worst peices of road we had travelled.—but an excellent Breakfast at Spurriges, a fryed chicken, tea, Coffee & eggs &c recruited our spirits.” Arriving in Washington City the next day (it was then under construction), they

found this beautiful spot almost a desert, in appearance, though now containing more than six hundred Houses, but so scattered as to give the look of Country ones, Horses & Cows feeding sumptuously in the Principal streets, & Partridges are shot in the very Centre of this future great City.

The travelers then visited at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington for several days. They sent their carriage back to Philadelphia as they would continue to Norfolk, Virginia

in a small Sloop . . . [and] found no difficulty setting out from Mount Vernon, Vessells drawing thirty feet water can lye within a hundred yards of the House.

This Voyage which is generally made in forty eight hours, & for which Mrs. Washington’s kindness seemed amply to have supplied us with provisions was not, from accidents, completed till the ninth day, two days we were aground on a Sand Bank, on which we were driven during a short severe Storm, two days in the Rappahanock River, where we took shelter during a violent fog, & the last night nearly lost in a Gale.

The Listons reached Norfolk on 24 November and “found our friends much alarmed about us.” When Mrs. Washington heard about this near disastrous voyage, she wrote [22 Feb. 1798]: “Your voyage from hence to Norfolk was of a length hardly ever known before, this accompanied by bad weather, and short allowance of provisions . . . must have rendered your situation very unpleasant.**

* Line from poem by Lydia Maria Child published in 1844.
** Martha Washington’s words are from the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

More to come in the next post.

Henrietta’s comments are taken from “1797. Tour to the Southern States—Virginia, North & South Carolina” in The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800, published in hardcover and eBook. The portrait of Mrs. Liston is by Gilbert Stuart (1800); it is at the National Gallery, Washington, DC. The illustration of the crossing of the Susquehanna River titled Wright’s Ferry (ca. 1812) is by Pavel Svinin and is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

posted December 4th, 2014 by Louise, Comments Off on The travels of Henrietta Marchant Liston, CATEGORIES: Capital of the United States,Liston, Henrietta Marchant,Travel,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“a general Illumination took place”

Another take on the inauguration of George Washington in New York City in 1789. Sarah Franklin Robinson described the festivities to her cousin, Catharine Wistar. For Quakers, the “4th Month” is April, and the “fourth day” is Wednesday, Sunday being the first.

New York 30th of the 4th Month [1789]Great rejoicing in New York on the arrival of general Washington, an elegant Barge decorated with an awning of Sattin 12 Oarsmen dressed in white frocks and blue ribbons—went Down to E[lizabeth]. Town last fourth day to bring him up—a Stage was erected at the Coffee house wharf covered with a carpet for him to step on—where a company of light-horse or of Artillery & most of the Inhabitants were waiting to recieve him they paraded through Queen Street in great form—while the music of the Drums and the ringing of bells—were enough to stun one with the noise.

Previous to his coming Uncle Walter’s house on cherry Street was taken for him and every room furnishd in the most elegant manner—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—

After his excellencys arrival a general Illumination took place except among friends [Quakers] and those styled Anti Federalists—the latters windows sufferd some thou may Imagine—as soon as the General has sworn in—a grand exhibition of firworks is to be displayed—which it is expected will be to morrow—their is scarcly any thing talked of now but General Washington & the Palace—and of little else have I told thee yet tho have spun my miserable scrawl already to great length—but thou requested to Know all that was going forward.

This excerpt of Sarah’s letter can be found on pages 296-97 of In the Words of Women. The illustration is at the New York Public Library.

posted July 22nd, 2013 by Janet, Comments Off on “a general Illumination took place”, CATEGORIES: Capital of the United States,New York,Robinson, Sarah Franklin,Washington, George,Wistar, Catharine

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