Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Separation: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 6

The morning dawned when Nancy Shippen Livingston was to leave with her daughter for Clermont. On July 7, 1783 she and her mother shared a good cry before she could bring herself to dress and ride out. Her parents and brother accompanied the traveling party a little ways before the time came at last to part.


Nancy's mother still hoped that her daughter would give up on her husband and leave Peggy at Clermont, returning to Philadephia alone. "don't let your love for our sweet baby tempt you to throw your self into Misery," she advised. Her father issued similar advice, but Nancy had convinced herself that the presence of their child would temper his cruelty. More tears and "sobbing," everyone kissed each other and the baby, and finally Nancy was on her way back north



They traveled on horseback through Newark and Hackensack, up to Fish Kill, and paused for breakfast in Newburgh with Mrs. Washington (at Washington's headquarters, pictured above), before spending the night in Poughkeepsie. Here she was disquieted to find out that her story as Henry Beekman Livingston's mistreated wife was already flying around the Hudson Valley.

She'd still had no letter from her husband even acknowledging that she was on her way, and she was beginning to experience jitters about what kind of reception she would receive. Unsure what else to do, she bypassed his house (technically her house too), and headed straight to Clermont. She wrote him a humble letter asking to reconcile, and the same day he responded with a letter so vile that she could not even bear to transcribe it into her journal: he was sending her away. Away from him, and more importantly, away from their child. "O! my heart! what must I suffer! & must I part with you my angel Child?" she wailed bitterly. Even Henry's mother could not convince him to take back his wife, and a week and a half later Nancy was back in Philadelphia with her parents--no husband, no child, no hope.

During her previous stay in Philadelphia, Nancy had developed a routine of reading, needlework, and visiting, but now she was too distracted to concentrate. "I spend my time mostly in my room," she wrote. "I read when I can, but it is seldom I can collect my thoughts sufficiently." She spent much of her time thinking of baby Peggy and crying alone. "I have retir'd, I am now fond of solitude," she wrote in September, a full month after leaving Peggy in New York.

We've already observed that the emotional bond between Nancy and her daughter was particularly strong. After the emotional crisis of her first year of marriage, Nancy's daughter became her main source and recipient of affection. "I feel she is 'close twisted' with the fibers of my heart," she wrote. The absense of the little girl left a large hole in Nancy's life.
She was also missing out on her child's development. She wrote to Margaret Beekman Livingston in October asking "if she [Peggy] can yet walk alone." (At 18 months, she was a late walker) During their trip to New York the previous month, Peggy had spoken only a few words. What new ones had she added to her vocabulary? Her socialization, education, and more were now all in someone else's hands.

Still more frightening was the threat of illness. Peggy was still recovering from the terrifying incident with a snuff box when Nancy left her, and the spectre of death was a constant threat to eighteenth century mothers. Some have estimated the overall child mortality rate in 18th century America as high as 20-30% (Family life in 17th- and 18th-century America), and the risk was the greatest for young children. The possibility that Peggy could become ill and die even die before her mother had a chance to see her again was a nagging fear in Nancy's mind. "I fear she is sick & that your humanity prevents you from letting me know it, & perhaps this is the reason I have not heard by the last two posts..." she cried to "gramama Livingston" in October when she had not heard recent enough news. Again November fear crept into her journal:

I am distressed past all discription at not hearing of my dear Child for so long a time. What can be the reason? is she sick or, what?

She waited anxiously for news of Peggy wherever she could get it. Letters came sometimes from Clermont. "Her looks are much improved, having grown quite fat," wrote her grandmother.

No person espcially Gentlemen enters the Room, but she goes to them and says upe, and sits on their Lap and begins a conversation intirely her own. But her favorite one is her baby that ingroces all her time and her care, next to the Harpsichord of which she is extremely fond.


At other times Nancy gathered information about her child from other society travelers who had visited the Livingstons. The Washingtons were ocasionally guests of Mrs. Livingston and the Shippens and shared their news of the little girl. In December Louis Otto brought her news, "he has been to N.Y. & saw Peggy, and kiss'd her he says a thousand time, & says she looks beautiful." in January she wrote "Mr Willing is return'd from N. York & I have heard from my precious Child. She is well & happy & her grand mama doats on her."

Finally in March Nancy had a chance to see her little girl. Margaret Beekman Livingston and her grand daughter were still in New York City for the winter, and on March 10, Nancy was eagerly packing to go. "How happy I feel in the thought of clasping my beloved child once more in my fond arms, & pressing her to my bosom..." After several fits and starts, Nancy finally arrived at the Livingston's town house on Queen St on March 17th. She had not seen Peggy in five months, and her baby was now a toddler.

The meeting was a tense one, since after all that time away, Peggy no longer recognized her mother.

I beg'd her to come [to] me & call'd her my darling Child & try'd to take her, by forse. All wou'd not do, she wou'd not take [the] least notice of me, nor let me take her from her grandmother; it was more than I cou'd bear, I was distress'd & mortified, & burst into tears.


One can only imagine the scene. As other family members did their best to tempt the little girl to over to her mother, the child only became more distressed by the drama and refused. Finally Nancy won out:
I walk'd to the window to hide my tears, & thought of some trinkets I had in my pocket which I had brought for her. I set down and display'd them upon my lap, & called her to me, the sight of them made her come instantly.

By that evening, the crisis was averted, and Nancy took Peggy (her beloved new maid in tow) to Lady Kitty Duer's house, where she was staying (for an unspecified reason, Margaret had to bow out of housing Nancy). The two spent several happy weeks together, and Nacy had no more time to write in her journal. But the visit had to come to an end sometime. Dr. Shippen had already forbade Nancy from taking Peggy away from her Livingston relatives, and soon Nancy was again facing the bitter prospect of returning home alone.

More resigned now to the prospect, Nancy wrote on May 1st "I parted this morning with my darling Child, and it was dreadful beyond all description, yet it was not near so painful as it was the time before. It was indeed nothing in comparison."

She now had a sick mother to return to, a resurging love for Louis Otto, and ever-deepening problems with her estranged husband. Perhaps in some ways, leaving Peggy in the loving and stable arms of her grandmother was not so bad.

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