“our Lady Presidentess”

After the death of her child in 1789, JUDITH SARGENT STEVENS MURRAY and her husband John embarked on a six-month journey, via horse-drawn carriage, from Gloucester to a Universalist convention in Philadelphia. She wrote letters to her parents describing her encounters along the way. In 1790 she wrote from New Rochelle, New York, describing a meeting with Martha Washington in New York City, which was then the capital of the United States. This is a repeat of a blog posted in 2011.

About Six O-clock we took a coach for the presence … Colonel Humphry’s, offering his hand, ushered us into the drawing room, a number of Ladies were with Mrs Washington, and her matronlike appearance, and Lady like condescension, soon dissipated every painful idea of distance—taking my hand she seated me by her side, and addressing herself particularly to me, as the only stranger present, she engaged me in the most familiar, and agreeable Chat—. … Mrs Washington’s face is an index of a good heart, and those Virtues which I am told she eminently possesseth, are impressed upon every feature—need I add, that her countenance is irresistibly prepossessing. … Thursday, very unexpectedly opened another scene—I was sitting in my little apartment, alone, and buried in thought—strange that I possessed not the smallest presentiment, of the distinction which awaited me—but so it was … Mrs Washington, and Mrs Lear [the wife of Tobias Lear George Washington’s secretary and friend] were immediately ushered in. If any thing could exceed my surprise, it was the charming freedom with which Mrs Washington took her seat—The unmeaning fopperies of ceremony seem to make no part of this Lady’s Character, inborn benevolence, beams upon her countenance, points her address, and dictates the most pleasing expressions to her lips—one whole hour she condescendingly devoted to me, and so much friendship did her salutations connect, so interesting and animated was our conversation, that a bystander would not have entertained an idea of the distance between us, would hardly have supposed, that we met but for the second time, thus benignly good, and thus adorned with social virtues is our Lady Presidentess, and I confess that in a way perfectly correspondent with my feelings, I have been most highly gratified. …”

Note the use of the word condescension” above. It has a pejorative connotation today, but in the eighteenth century its use was intended to be flattering, connoting the virtue of “generosity.” Judith Murray continued to speak out and write on social and political issues. She wrote plays that were performed at the Boston Theatre on Federal Street and she was the first woman to self-publish a book, The Gleaner, in 1798. After John Murray died Judith went to live with her daughter and her husband Adam Lewis Bingaman in Natchez. She died in 1820 at the age of 69.

This excerpt is from From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790: Observations, Anecdotes, and Thoughts from the 18th-Century Letters of Judith Sargent Murray, Bonnie Hurd Smith, ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Judith Sargent Murray Society and Curious Traveller Press, 1998), pages 246, 248-250, 254. Portrait from Phebe A Hanaford, Daughters of America (Augusta: True and Company, 1882), page 109,

posted June 16th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Murray, John, Murray, Judith Sargent Stevens, New York, Washington, Martha


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