Tranquil Pleasures vs Empty Bustle?

Anne Willing (1764-1801) was one of the most beautiful women in Philadelphia and William Bingham was one of America’s richest men. The two married in 1780 when she was sixteen. The couple traveled to Europe in 1783 where they spent three years impressing and being impressed by both English and French nobility. Thomas Jefferson who was serving as American minister to France became one of Anne’s friends. Anne admired French salons, the elevated level of discourse on a variety of topics, including politics, that characterized them, and especially the women who organized them. When the Binghams returned to the United States in 1786 Anne determined to become a political hostess in Philadelphia. She promised to let Jefferson know within a year’s time whether a woman’s life in Paris or in America ought to be more admired. He wrote the following letter to her on February 7, 1787 reminding her of her promise. It’s a wonderful and amusing piece of writing that is worth sharing.

I know, Madam, that the twelve month is not yet expired; but it will be, nearly, before this will have the honor of being put into your hands. You are then engaged to tell me, truly and honestly, whether you do not find the tranquil pleasures of America, preferable to the empty bustle of Paris. For to what does that bustle tend? At eleven o’clock, it is day, cher madame. The curtains are drawn. Propped on bolsters and pillows, and her head scratched into a little order, the bulletins of the sick are read, and the billets of the well. She writes to some of her acquaintance, and receives the visits of others. If the morning is not very thronged, she is able to get out and hobble round the cage of the Palais royal; but she must hobble quickly, for the coeffeur’s turn is come; and a tremendous turn it is! Happy, if he does not make her arrive when dinner is half over! The torpitude of digestion a little passed, she flutters half an hour through the streets, by way of paying visits, and then to the spectacles. These finished, another half hour is devoted to dodging in and out of the doors of her very sincere friends, and away to supper. After supper, cards; and after cards, bed; to rise at noon the next day, and to tread, like a mill horse, the same trodden circle over again. Thus the days of life are consumed, one by one, without an object beyond the present moment; ever flying from the ennui of that, yet carrying it with us; eternally in pursuit of happiness, which keeps eternally before us. If death or bankruptcy happen to trip us out of the circle, it is matter for the buz of the evening, and is completely forgotten by the next morning. In America, on the other hand, the society of your husband, the fond cares for the children, the arrangements of the house, the improvements of the grounds, fill every moment with a healthy and an useful activity. Every exertion is encouraging, because to present amusement, it joins the promise of some future good. The intervals of leisure are filled by the society of real friends, whose affections are not thinned to cob-web, by being spread over a thousand objects. This is the picture, in the light it is presented to my mind; now let me have it in yours. If we do not concur this year, we shall the next; or if not then, in a year or two more. You see I am determined not to suppose myself mistaken. . . .
Shall I fill [a] box with caps, bonnets, &c.? Not of my own choosing, but—I was going to say, of Mademoiselle Bertin’s, forgetting for the moment, that she . . . is bankrupt. They shall be chosen then by whom you please; or, if you are altogether nonplused by her eclipse, we will call an Assemblee des Notables, to help you out of the difficulty, as is now the fashion. In short, honor me with your commands of any kind, and they shall be faithfully executed. The packets now established from Havre to New York, furnish good opportunities of sending whatever you wish.
I shall end where I began, like a Paris day, reminding you of your engagement to write me a letter of respectable length, an engagement the more precious to me, as it has furnished me the occasion, after presenting my respects to Mr. Bingham, of assuring you of the sincerity of those senti-ments of esteem and respect, with which I have the honor to be, Dear Madam,
your most obedient and most humble servant,

Read Anne Willing Bingham’s reply in the next post.

Find Jefferson’s letter online HERE. The portrait (1797) by Gilbert Stuart is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

posted April 7th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Bingham, Anne Willing, Bingham, William, Fashion, Jefferson, Thomas, Paris


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