Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Young Wife: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 3

The Shippen family had much to celebrate on New Year's Day in 1782. In the 18th century, New Year's Day was celebrated with social events, dancing, dinners, and gifts, often overshadowing the smaller, more religious holiday of Christmas (quite the reverse of today).

Their only daughter Nancy could not take part in these social events. Having successfully managed the frightening ordeal of childbirth, she was still in bed "lying-in.". For a period ranging between a week and as much as a month, Nancy would have rested in bed, accepting visits from well-wishers (hopefully bearing gifts!) and friends as she regained her strength and got to know her "little stranger," as babies were often reffered to in the 18th century. (for more images of motherhood, like the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Mrs. Griffin Gatliff & daughter at right, visit here).


Motherhood in the late 18th century had changed a bit for aristocratic women, and Nancy expected to build a close personal relationship with her daughter. Baby Peggy quickly became "sweet Peggy," the "Darling Baby," and the "Angel child." The practice of nursing children (instead of having a wet nurse) had also become popular again for wealthy women in Nancy's mother's generation, and enlightment practices lead to viewing children more and more as little people in need of individual attention instead of little savages needing stearn discipline. Nancy spoke with tenderness of her relationship with Peggy. She describes "caressing" her, dressing her (instead of letting the nursemaid do it), nursing her through illnesses, and interupting her own activities to respond to the girl's cries.

Nancy was glad to be back home in Philadelphia after her six-month stint as a new wife at Clermont. She was close with both her mother and father, and she found that she needed them all the more now that she was a wife. Her marriage to Henry Beekman Livingston was proving to be more difficult than expected.

She was now aware of his rages and his controling demeanor. Soon, her mother-in-law informed her of Henry's sizable brood of bastard children (some of mixed race, a touchy issue in the 18th century). But conventions of the 18th century made her believe it was her own responsibility to earn her husband's faithfulness. In her own words, all a woman could do was:

"...do not hope to bring back a husband by complaints, ill humor, or reproaches. The only means which promise success, are patience & softness...In sacrificing your own will, pretend to no right over that of a husband..."

And so, like many other elite wives in similar situations, she decided to pack up and return with her daughter to Clermont. Perhaps she could still win him back. She was, after all, a pretty young woman who had just given him a child. And besides, if she did not return to him, she few legal rights. As her husband, he had all of the rights over their finances (and her parents were still feeling the wartime pinch themselves so their support may have been limited), and worse still he had legal right to custody of their child to the extent that he could even completely deny her access if he saw fit. If she did not return, she faced the risk of becoming a deserted charity case, living off friends and family and never seeing her child.
During this time back at Clermont, we lose the written record of Nancy's life. No letters between she and her family survive, and she had not yet begun the journal that is so descriptive later on down the road. We know that Nancy's relationship with the family matriarch Margaret Beekman Livingston strengthened, and she built closer bonds as well with the other nearby wives--particularly Janet Livingston Montgomery (the Chancellor's older sister, now a widow) and Mary Stevens Livingston (the Chancellor's wife who was also a transplant to the Hudson River Valley from New Jersey). She also turned to the packet of letters she had kept from her courtship with Louis Otto for comfort, though she did not yet re-open communication with her old beau. She was going to make the best of this situation.

Until she found out Henry's latest plan: to gather all of his children (legitimate Peggy alongside the other non-elite children) in one house and raise them together. Combined with the verbal and emotional abuse she probably suffered, it all became too much for her in the early spring of 1783. She packed up her one-year-old Peggy and fled back to Philadelphia to be with her parents.

Facing an uncertain future with possible social, financial, and personal ruin, it was at this time that she began to pour her feelings into her journal. This is the most vivid part of Nancy's life that we have recorded, and it begins with sad entry, showing her father's support and tardy recognition of the poor choice he had lead his daughter to:
April 10th--"After breakfast rode out with [my father]. Had a conversation about [Henry and Louis Otto]. His sentiments corresponding with mine made me extremely happ--wou'd to God it was a happiness that would last--but the die is cast--& my life must be miserable! [Father] sees the consequencies of my unhappy choice too late..."

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