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..."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Angel Child: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 2

A full week of festivities would most likely have left the Shippen family exhausted and exhilarated in March of 1781. They had much to celebrate. Their daughter Nancy had, at 18 years old, secured herself into the prominent Livingston family, and to her fate must have seemed secure.

Nancy, her new husband Henry, and her father took advantage of the relatively peaceful spring in the northeast to travel up the North River to Rhinebeck (don't forget, there was still a war going on, though most of the focus had moved south with the English army that year). By carriage and sloop, the trio most likely made it by the end of the month to introduce the pretty young girl to her new family where she was safely deposited. By this time, Nancy was already pregnant with her first child.


Letters went slowly back and forth between Nancy and her family. She was busy with introducing herself to local society ladies and getting her house organized, as was expected of her. "If you encourage your natural good temperment, tis calculated to make every body happy around you & love you," advised her father. It was only half in jest when he told her he would be "much dissapointed" if she were not to become a popular and successful wife.


There were many people to meet. Janet Livingston Montgomery, she, and the Chancellor's wife Mary Stevens Livingston were all to become good friends. Her mother-in-law and the matriarch of the family, Margaret Beekman Livingston (at right) also took to the girl quickly.


In spite of enduring the difficulties of the war and still being in the process of rebuilding her house after a British attack, Margaret (or as Nancy affectionately called her "the Old Lady") was quick to sympathize with Nancy's situation. It wasn't just being pregnant at 18 that was going to be difficult for the girl. In fact, although she was a little young on the young side for marriage at that point in history, pregnancy was still considered a blessing--if a somewhat frightening one.

The problem was that Henry was already the black sheep of the Livingston family, news that had apparently not been adequately carried down to Nancy's home in Philadelphia. He had a small collection of illegitimate children and a temper which could get him in trouble. In the 4th new York Regiment he had been known for being quarrelsome in camp and been reprimanded for making unflattering remarks about a senior officer. He was proud, controling, and could be violent on occassion.

When Nancy attempted to return to her parents' comforting arms to give birth to her baby, trouble arose. At first it was hoped that Henry would come with her. "We insist on the Colonels accompanying you and staying here as long as he can..." wrote her father in July. it only made sense. She would need protection and company on the road, and her parents would have loved to see the "happy couple" together.
But the situation deteriorated. Henry refused to go. Her parents encouraged her to use her "influence," but to no avail. Her mother was particularly upset: "I have sent [to] France for Baby Linnen but you must expect nothing from me unless you come here." Perhaps, they relented as a last resort, they would come to New York to get her without her husband.
In October, about six months pregnant, Nancy was becoming fightened: Henry now refused to let her go either. "Col. L. has told me positively I shall not come," she wrote on Oct 4, 1781. "O!--my dear Mama what a cruelty to deprive me of being with the best of Parents at such a critical period."
Finally, with a great deal of convincing and the exchange of official "papers," Henry allowed her uncle Joe to fetch her to Philadelphia. It would have been a long, cold, and painful ride for a woman in her condition (in any condition it would have been at the least uncomfortable), but at least she woul dhave the comfort of her family around her through the frightening ordeal of labor.
On December 26, 1781, Nancy gave birth to her first and only child, a girl she named after her mother-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston. She was instantly called her mother's "angel child."
This ordeal was not the end of Nancy's woes however. A new child would not calm Henry's temper. "Peggy" was to become the center of her world and, more ominously, the center of a major custody battle that involved multiple families, more trips between Pennsyvania and the Hudson Valley and many tears.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Lover and the Suitor: the Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen Part 1

I have alluded several times to the sad story of Nancy Shippen but always avoided it on the blog because I try to stay at least a little upbeat. But Nancy's story is interesting in so many ways, and her richly-detailed journal adds depth to the story. Since it is such a good story, I will drag it out into a few parts, beginning with how her marriage to a Livingston started all her woes.

Anna Home Shippen--Nancy to her friends and family--was a Philadelphia socialite with plenty of charm and good prospects. Her family was wealthy and well-connected. She grew up in a fine brick home on Locust Street, got a lady's education, and hob-knobbed with many names still familiar to even the most casual Revolutionary War scholar: Washingston, Lafayette, and of course the Livingstons.

Nancy divided her time between a dizzying array of social visits and tea with with friends, shopping, and pleasant entertainments at home in the parlor. "Miss Nancy before the teatable, in an artfully neglected Dress, her hairs flying a little upon her neck, appearing sometimes to be absent, sometimes forcing a laughter by a soft inclination of her back and head, and by hiding her face with her hands, probably in order to shew them without being suspected of vanity; changing her Seat several times, but always pretty far from the the candel..." she was described in 1779.

In the spring of 1779 Nancy's very pretty cousin Peggy secured an excellent marriage to the well-respected Bennedict Arnold, coupled with the deed to an fine home. Her fortunes and future seemed to be secured. A romantic 16-year-old herself, Nancy was well aware that it was time for her to be looking around for a good man too, and she quickly wrapped several around her fingers.

Bennedict Arnold's friend Henry Beekman Livingston (the Chancellor's younger brother) had had his eye on Nancy for a little while now. A bit of a ladies man, he was 29 and had established a somewhat dubious career in the Continental Army, alternately winning commondations for his successes and stirring up ugly troubles with his hot-headedness. Nevertheless, coming from the extremely prominent and wealthy Livingston family gave him a lot of merrit as a pontential future mate. He was a regular guest in the Shippen parlor at the front of the house, where he took the opportunity to visit with Nancy.

Henry probably did not realize (or maybe he did) that his visits were beginning to supplant those of Louis Otto, a 25-year-old Frenchman, with whom Nancy had been exchanging tokens of love for several months now. Louis was working as a secretary to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, a French diplomat living in the city. Louis's prospects were still shakey, and Nancy's father was not as sure that Louis would be as well suited to take care of his daughter and future grandchildren.

Nancy's mother was more keenly aware of something else though. The two youths had been exchanging letters, music, and sappy poetry with great fervor. "Never was pleasure equal to mine when I read the few flattering lines," responded Louis to one of Nancy's letters. He began visiting daily for tea, and the two could often be found together before the harpsichord playing the music he had written her, his thick French accent adding exotic charm to the family parlor.
The letters the two exchanged were thick with the heightened sentimentality that was popular in the day. The two appear to wait with baited breath for the other's next word: "I studied your conduct since I have the pleasure of knowing you, nothing escaped my watchful eye. Lovers are very quick sighted; every little unmeaning favour is precious for them; this Evening I received my tea from you own hands whilst the rest of the Company was served by a black Servant. Perhaps you did not think on it, but I have valued it more than any thing I ever received from another hand," wrote Otto once. Even if their language was a little over-dramatic, it was clear that Nancy and Otto had developed strong feelings for one another.

"But aye, there's the rub," as they say, because we've already noted that Otto's prospects were not all that stable: he was not guaranteed to advance in his position, and if he did marry Nancy--which was the goal for any romances at this point--you have to wonder if he was going to whisk away Dr. Shippen's little girl to some far-off land. Henry, on the other hand, came from one of the wealthiest and best-established family's in New York, if not in the whole fledgling nation.

Parents did not usually arrange their children's marriages in the 18th century, but parental approval was still important. And Dr. Shippen, as head of the household, did have ways to encourage his daughter to favor one man over the other: He continued to allow Henry to visit at his pleasure, but limited Louis's visits to only twice a week.

Louis was sad, but still confident that Nancy prefered him over Henry. From his letters, it appears that the two had already agreed to get married. Now with limited access, he started taking daily walks by the Shippen house, now peering sadly in through the parlor windows, where once he had sat warmly receiving tea from the hands of his dear lady. Spending more time with Henry seemed to be increasing the bond between Nancy and her father's preferred suitor, but Louis did not know how much yet.


"I had not the courage this Evening of seeing you, for fear of acting against the command of your Mama, but I walk'd close by your house, as I do every Day," wrote Otto. "I pass'd just when Mr L...happened to hold one of your hands and to look very happy; you seem'd to be very happy yourself and this unhappy Discoverie mad[e] me, for one moment, the most miserable creature in the world; I felt in the time every torments of jealousy and all my old suspicions were revived."


What was a girl to do? Marriage was a decision that was going to affect the quality of the rest of her life so a wise choice was important. Louis Otto knew this was an obstacle. "Your P[apa] knows that my Fortune can not be compared with that of [Livingston] therefore he prefers him," he later wrote. Unable to have a career of her own that would influence her station in life (as modern women can expect), Nancy's financial situation in adulthood would be entirely dependant on her husband. Selecting one with uncertain prospects could affect the health and well-being of herself and any future children she had. Especially as her own family's fortunes were feeling the pressures of the ongoing war for independence, this was a critical decision to be made by a 16-year-old girl. Perhaps love could grow between she and Henry if she tried hard enough...

In the end, pragmatism or pressure from her family or some combination thereof finally won out. It was Henry Beekman Livingston who won the lady's selection. Louis Otto was devestated. "I do not see for what reason in this free Country a Lady of Sixteen years...must be married in a hurry and given up to a man whom she dislikes..." he wrote in dismay when he found out. The letter was long and ended with the pathetic declaration "My own tears begin to mix with my inck, and forbid me to Continue. I am yours for ever; though perhaps you will never be mind."

Nancy and Henry were married at her father's house on March 14th, 1781. The festivities in connection with the wedding were lavish, lasting a full week. Her brother was away at school and apparently sent his regards in a letter as we can tell from Dr. Shippen's reply "Your Sister thanks you for your good wishes & is much pleased that her choice meets your approbation..."
But perhaps the teenage girl was beginning to feel the gravity of the decision she had made. According to her father, "She insists on my going with her to the North River to see her fixed in her own Mansion..."
Was the fear of leaving her childhood home, family, and friends suddenly sinking in? The realities of the world she was about to face (and which she could never have predicted) were to be far more frightening.