Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Old Wives' Tales: Mary Stevens Livingston

Fourth of July always brings about some research for me as I investigate charactors that will be brought to life for special tours. Margaret Beekman Livingston is a "must." Her leadership of the family through the difficult times of the American Revolution and the exceptional efforts of our impersonator mean that there is no doubt that she will be accepting guests at the mansion.




This year one of my enterprising young guides has volunteered to play Mary Stevens Livingston, the Chancellor's wife, and Margaret's daughter-in-law. Mary and Robert R. were married on September 9, 1770. She was an heiress from a wealthy New Jersey merchant family, an "exemplary wife," according to historian Cynthia Kierner, and excelled at the social graces of the day. At 25 years old, Mary staid with her husband in the Hudson Valley during the tense summer of 1777 and fled the burning of Kingston with him that October, only days before their house at Clermont was burned by the same general. Her life was filled with the fears of war, glamour of a high-class social life, and love of close family.

But we know little of this woman's life, character, or personal being. So little has been written of her that she did not even merrit her own reference in the index of the definitive biography of her husband by George Dangerfield. Where is Mary's story?


Though letter writing plaid an important part of social life for the well-to-do of the eighteenth century, I have been unable to locate and letters either from or to her. In the Library of Congress, I found reference to one letter written to her by her husband in one he sent to her father John Stevens (now a fellow member of the Continental Congress) in 1780 when she would have been put somewhere safe while giving birth to her first child. Livingston asked that Steven pass along an account of war events along "with the Letter to Polly" (at least we know she had a nickname). Sadly, the letter Livingston refers to no longer exists. Was she one of the many people who burned their correspondance for privacy?


Mary's father and Robert R.'s father worked together on the protest to the Stamp Act in 1765. As socially-elite traders, the two gentlemen probably had many reasons to bump into one another in New York City society. Is this how she met her eventual husband?


If I have nothing of her own words, what did others have to say of her? In Traders and Gentlefolk, Kierner quotes that Mary was a "polite, wellbred, sensible woman of one of the best families in the State, and who brought a great property into the family." I unfortunately could not find the source of this quote. Again we come back to the fact that Mary was good at being a social ornament. Not very personal, but given the amount of work and training that were required to acheive this status, at least we can get an idea of one thing that was important to her.


I also found references to Mary made by her sister-in-law Nancy after the war in the the early 1780s. Mary and her husband had a house in Philadelphia (where Nancy was staying with her parents) and often provided her company and comfort during the difficult marriage she had entered into with Henry Beekman Livingston.


"It being a very fine day I rode out & took Betsy & the Child with me--Called upon Mrs Robert R. Livingston--but found only Mrs. Montgomery at home, Mrs. L came later. The made me happy by praising my darling Child--& Caressing it very much."

This passage also seems to indicate that Mary's other sister-in-law Janet Livingston Montgomery (of later Montgomery Place fame) was visiting with her. Mrs Montogmery and Mrs Livingston figure frequently into the social scene described by Nancy Shippen: visiting, gossiping, card-playing, and comfort. It fits with out other description of Mary Stevens Livingston as an adept hostess and social creature.

So for now at least, I have as much of an answer as I can get: Mary Stevens Livingston was perfectly suited to the stresses and requirements of eighteenth century high society. Many inferences can be drawn from this, based on what we know of women's social lives during this period, and for the time being I will have to fill in the remaining details with what I know of her life as connected to Chancellor Livingston.
My writing challenge (to now make a script from this) is set before me, and my interest is piqued enough that I will have to keep my eye out for any further that I can find. I will be certain to share whatever appears.

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