Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Chancellor's "Ride"

Reading historic documents can involve a little bit of detective work. The writers and receivers were accustomed to terms and slang that have fallen out of use today, and looking those up can enhance the meaning--even when it seems a trivial side trip.

This was the case when I was perusing fifty years of Livingston correspondance for information about Margaret Beekman Livingston. It's an often-tedious process decyphering two hundred year old script (see below for an image of Thomas Jefferson's handwriting).


The Chancellor's brother John had excellent handwriting though! So when I came across letters of his, I was pleased to read them in their entirety, whether or not they pertained to my research goals.

And so I came across a letter from John to the Chancellor on March 14, 1782. John was in Boston and conversing regularly with the Chancellor who was down with Congress in Philadelphia (while his mother sent him guilt-trip letters about coming to visit her at Clermont).

In it was a rather convoluted paragraph about John loaning his brother a "phaeton." It was in Boston with John, but the Chancellor seemed to have need of it in Philadelphia. There is talk of sending it to Clermont where the Chancellor will pick it up, or maybe sending it to the Chancellor directly in Philadelphia.

A "phaeton"? I had to look this one up. According to the Georgian Index, a phaeton is

A light four-wheeled carriage with open sides in front of the seat, generally drawn by one horse. The term was first applied to classify a carriage during that 18th and early 19th century period in France when it was so fashionable to use classical pseudonyms. Usage of the term spread quickly to England and America. There are few distinguishing characteristics that can restrict the use of the term -- perhaps only that it is an owner driven vehicle with no coachman's seat and that it nearly always includes some sort of top that would shelter, at least, the driver.

So the Chancellor was trying to borrow his brother's sporty little carriage!

A diverse body of carriages exhisted in the 18th and 19th century in the same way that we differentiate between SUVs, station wagons, and cross overs. The Chancellor did own another flashy carriage with a postilion at the head, and he probably would have owned a variety of utilitarian vehicles for use on the farm. But in this one instance he needed something extra-showy to drive himself around Philadelphia where the other Revolutionary hoi paloi were showing their stuff. I suppose he had to compete with Benjamin Franklin parading around town in his extravegant sedan chair (this one is English, from Eaton Hall).

Apparently the carriage served its purpose and went back to John in May or June. On June 4, the Chancellor's mother wrote him "you say you sent John['s] pheaton but I suppose you mean to Boston as it is [not here.]" Perhaps driving himself around was not as fun as he had hoped.

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