” 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.


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