Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Archival Treasures: Wedding Remarks

I was scanning through some old research files and was thrilled to come across the transcript of a document written by Margaret Beekman Livingston in 1798. I have been researching "Peggy" for a talk in March and have found precious little written by this driving force of Clermont life.

The remarks were written for Margaret Maria when she married her cousin Robert L. Livingston in 1798, and they speak to both Margaret Beekman Livingston's pride of proprietership in Clermont and her earnest pride as a grandmother.

Instead of over-analizing it, I will instead let Margaret speak for herself, as I'm sure she usually did:

What a truly wonderous day! All of us Livingstons and our guests are foregoing the pleasures of political wrangling which so often usurps our Clermont hours and which I, too, I must confess--adore. For today is dedicated to the blessed happiness of one of my comely grandchildren, 15 year-old Margaret Maria. my dear, you were named for me, Margaret Beekman Livingston, and I have always called you Peggy but I shall never change. Now that you are a married lady the name is even dearer. And I welcome all of your wedding guests to my renounded home, my lovely Clermont. I have received, I have honored and I have entertained here at Clermont many notables before today--notables who, with your father, my don the Chancellor, brought independence and freedom to this great land. George Washington has walked my gardens deep in thought. Martha, his helpmate you knw, has visited me for weeks at a time, and the Marquis de Lafayette has hunted quail in my woods. But never, never have I been filled with more pride than on this day.

Mrs. Cornelia Livingston, my distant cousin and mother of the groom, you, along with my son, the Chancellor, and I have arranged a perfect match, with the blessing of the Almighty, I am certain and we have assured by this marriage that the Livingston name shall forevermore be an inseparable part of Clermont.

Moreover, lovely bride, if my hope and negotiations prove true, your sister Betsy, will follow you into matrimony within the next year directly here at Clermont and with yet another stalwart Livingston cousin. Dear margaret Maria, it is my fervent prayer that both of you lovely granddaughters will have as happy and blessed a marriage as your grandfather, Judge Robert R. Livingston and I had. (It is sad, such a pity you never knew him!) Your own devoted groom bears my beloved Judge's distinguished name. It is as though I am reliving my own cherished wedding. You do know that my father, Col. Henry Beekman of Rhinebeck and your great-grandfather, the Judge's father, also a Robert, Robert the Builder of Clermont, arranged my joyous union. May yours be as fortunate.

And, distant cousin Cornelia, 56 yeras ago when I entered into wedded bliss, I prayed that many grandchildren would someday bless my life. My 10 wonderful children--9 are rejoicing with us today--have honoured me with 21 grandchildren. Margaret Maria, you are the first to bring home a spouse. Bless you.

Remember that when the British destroyed my home during that dreadful War for Independence, I had to rebuild it. Today, I know that nothing but your ancestral home, my Clermont, could have graced your wedding so beautifully.

Dear children, these old eyes behold your true love and this weary heart is strengthened. You shall always have my eternal good wishes.

Cornelia, our family fued which has been waning for years, is finally, finally dissolved. Come, let us celebrate together. Welcome, welcome to all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"The Cries of my Baby": the Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 5

May 28--I was wake'd this Morning at five o'clock with the cries of my baby... I jum'p up--frighten'd half to death--run to mammas room where the child was, & found it almost in fits with pain.


In the middle of an intensly emotional debate about custody of her only daughter, young Nancy Shippen faced one of the most frightening ordeals yet: an accident that nearly took her child's life.

Almost two weeks before, Nancy's father had instructed her to send little Peggy to live with her Grandmother Livingston several days' journay away at Clermont. The news had sent Nancy into a marked depression as she struggled to figure out a way to hold onto her beloved child after she had already fled an abusive relationship with her Livingston husband.

The weekend of May 24th, Betsy, the child's nurse maid got sick with the measles. The highly contangeous virus begins with coughing and high fevers (as high as 104 degrees!) and can include an itchy red rash. It can be fatal, and out of concern for Peggy, the maid was sent to another house to convalesce for the duration of her illness. Nevertheless, Nancy was not worried enough about it to mention it in her diary yet. In Betsy's absense Mrs. Shippen's maid would take on the extra duties of caring for the baby. Crisis seemed to have been averted.


On Tuesday night, May 27th, Nancy distracted herself by having tea with a friend. She couldn't bear to miss a moment with Peggy (and Betsy was gone anyway) so the little girl played at their feet the whole time. When old flame Louis Otto walked by the house, Nancy's heart leapt, and their eyes met for just a moment. But "prudence" reminded her that as wife (who's husband was already jealous and suspicious of this particular man), the best course of action was to let him go. An old flame wasn't going to solve her new woes. Nevertheless, she was "never more happy" than she was that night.


The next day, in the dim of early morning Nancy woke to the most frightening sound of her life: the terrified screams of her baby daughter. Peggy had awoken as usual at "daybreak," and the maid "being very sleepy" (possibly from trying to do two jobs at once for four days) could not bring herself to rise with the child. Instead, she gave the baby a snuff box (perhaps like the English one at right) to play with and went back to sleep. Peggy's tiny fingers worked at the edges until she opened the box and was almost strangled by a face full of snuff, a finely-powdered tobacco product.

Nancy immediately lost her composure and screamed for her father until she almost fainted. She had to be lead from the room so that her parents could deal with the crisis. After an hour of tears and crying, the child was quieted and went back to sleep. Thus the tense vigil of a frightened mother began.


Peggy spent the day waking and sleeping, feverish and ill. Nancy hovered anxiously beside her, leaving only for a few minutes at dinner time. Her father, a respected physician, twice administered "balm Tea & lime juice & sugar," as well as "a dose of nitre." This may have been spirits of niter (also called saltpeter), which could be administered to the skin to cool the fever. Besides this, he only hoped that sleep could cure the girl.

At midnight, exhausted, Nancy poured out her fears to her diary. After recounting the story, she wrote:

It is near Twelve oclock--every creature in the house sleeps but me--I have no inclination. I will watch my dear baby all night--I feel pleasure in doing this service.

What else could she do but wait? She sat alone in the dim of candle light, listening to her daughter's breath and the hourly call of the watchman.


For five days Peggy was so ill "her life has been depair'd off." For another six she remained ill, but improving. Nancy staid by her daughter's side, refusing to let her mother take over the vigil. Nancy wrote only one brief entry in her journal then, repeating her fears and her devotion to the baby. But on June 7, things were finally improving. Peggy was still weak: "She has lost that beautiful color that used to adorn her lovely cheeks..." but she was improved enough that the following day Nancy's mother convinced her to get out of the house and go for "a little ride to refresh me."

While on the ride, she finally had time to once again think of Margaret Beekman Livingston's request that Peggy leave Philadelphia and some to live with her at Clermont. After the events of the past eleven days, Nancy knew she could not give up her baby. "Mrs Montgomery shou'd not take it--that it--if it did go, I would carry it myself," she wrote. Staying by her daughter's side, she had decided, was worth going back into the lion's den at her husband's house.

Nancy immediately began preparations to return to New York. If need be, she would win her husband's love. She wrote him a letter, telling him that she would return to his house. She hired a new maid for Peggy (what became of Betsy? Did measles kill her or was she unable to go to New York for another reason? Nancy does not answer this question).

And Nancy had a portrait of she and Peggy completed by "Mr Wright" (probably Joseph Wright who was working in Philadelphia that year) to help win Henry's love. "She [Peggy] is dressed in White & has a peach in her dear hand...she looks like an Angel." Nancy was dressed in a white gown with a blue sash, "but what adorns me most is my Angel Child sitting in my lap & one of my arms encircling her dear waist."

On July 7th, she was ready to go. A large party gathered to see her off-including her old flame Louis. She dressed her best and baid goodbye over tea and an after-dark stroll in the gardens. Tomorrow, in the heat of summer, she was to bid goodbye once again to her home and friends--only this time she knew what awaited her.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Mother: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 4

For a full month Nancy Shippen Livingston's return to her parents' home in Philadelphia freed her to attend to parenting her little daughter Peggy. The warm April air carried hope as the lilacs and weeping cherry trees began bloom. So what was motherhood like for Nancy?

Like most elite women, Nancy hired a nursemaid--Besty--for her child. Betsy lived with Peggy and cared for the girl whenever her mother wanted time for her own activities, much like a nanny today. Since Peggy was now about 16 months old, her mother was freed from the never-ending cycle of breast feeding. The toddler could now be safely left for hours at a time in the care of her nursemaid while Nancy attended social visits, embroidered (she embroidered most mornings, often on tambour work like that shown in the Gilbert Stuart portrait at right), wrote letters, kept her journal, read, walked, and rode horseback.

April 28--Spent this day with Mrs Bland working Tambour returned about 8 this Even[ing] Found my baby asleep.

With Betsy's assistance, Nancy had time to write in her journal all but six days between April 11th and June 1st. She left the house without Peggy to visit with friends seven days in the first two weeks that are recorded in journal (including once to visit the wife of Chancellor Livingston, who had just given birth April 11th), and she received guests without mentioning her daughter's presence twice. One day she spent "entirely alone, enjoying my own meditations..." When Peggy woke early at sunrise, it was also Betsy's duty to rise with her, take her from her mother's bedroom, and entertain her so that Nancy could continue to sleep.

But all of this time to herself did not mean that Nancy did not feel a strong attatchment to her daughter. On the contrary, Nancy valued a close relationship with her child. Sentimental relationships between parents and children are evident in contemporary literature and portraiture. And whatever her un-recorded ordeals had been with her abusive husband in Rhinebeck the previous year had only deepened the bond that she felt with the girl. Even with the assistance of Betsy, Nancy took time out of every day to be with Peggy.

May 6-- Spent this day at home, w[ith] Lord & Lady Worthy (her parents). We we were all alone--my sweet Child amused us all.

May 7--It being a very fine day I rode out & took betsy & the child with me

As mentioned in a previous blog, Nancy took great pleasure in dressing Peggy and repeatedly describes showing physical affection with kisses and caresses. Sometimes she mentions playing with her and introducing her to friends. Despite having a cradle, Peggy slept most nights in her mother's bed.
When Peggy was "taken sick" with fever on April 29th, Nancy also devoted herself to four anxious days of care. "She will now engross all my time & care," she wrote. Without fever-reducers or anti-biotics, illnesses in the eighteenth century--especially for children--could become serious very quickly, and this must have been a frightening few days for her mother.

Perhaps for the twenty-year-old, the responsibilities and pressures of parenthoodhood still felt daunting. In addition to enertainment and dressing, she was responsible for her daughter's health, socialization, and education. A relatively new mother, she still sought advice where it was needed. On April 21, she spent the entire day with her mother "directing & advising" about child-rearing. "I need it much," she wrote, "for sure I am a very young & inexperienced Mother." During a very serious illness later, she also sought her father's advise as a doctor for her daughter. She also sought advise in books, in keeping with the eighteenth century pension amongst the elite for self-improvement through written material.
Apart from occassional the occassional intrusion of jealous letters from her husband, Nancy, her daughter, and her parents were enjoying a world apart from the harsh realities of the past year. But on May 16th, Nancy was again plunged into despair.

Papa told me at breakfast that I must send my darling Child to its Grandmama Livingston [Margaret Beekman Livingston]; that she had desired Mrs Montgomery to request it of me, as a particular favor. I told him I could not bear the Idea of it, that I had sooner part with me life almost than my Child...When will my misfortunes end! I placed my happiness in her! She is my all--& I must part with her! cruel cruel fate...

But whatever Nancy's attachment to Peggy and the risks of returning her to her father's family, the family's concern was for the child's financial future, as it had been from the beginning when Nancy married Henry in the first place.

He told me it was for the future interest of my baby, that its fortune depended on the old Lady's pleasure in that particular--beg'd me to think of it, & to be reconciled on it.

Nancy spent the next day sealed in her room until dinner, and the following day she still would not leave the house. Her mother tentatively poked around the painful subject, and her father avoided it all together while Nancy made her decision. She had one month; in June Janet Livingston Montgomery would be returning north, expecting to take the little girl with her.

What to do? Nancy's life had already been marked by separation from the one she loved when she selected Henry Beekman Livingston as her husband, leaving behind the sentimental Louis Otto. Now she was faced with a similar choice, but with the added complexity if its effect on her daughter: love or security? Stay with her beloved child or secure her fortune with its "Grandmama." The Livingston fortune had extraordinary leverage that was now prying away at motherly attachment.

While she decided, Nancy's journal became even more filled with words about how much she loved Peggy. "I spend so much of my time with Peggy that I allmost forget I have anything else to do...in short I neglect the day." Time was short, and Nancy knew it.

Time was slipping away, and when Peggy became very ill through an accident at the end of May, the idea of separation became only more heartbreaking.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Back on Track

As some of our followers may have noticed, we've been awfully silent for the past few months--two months to be exact. Well, as the primary blogger for Clermont, I have to appologize! Just when the story of Nancy Shippen Livingston was building to a crescendo with the birth of her daughter, I was sidetracked by the birth of my own child. After two months of maternity leave, I am back at Clermont with my nose in the books, and more installments in Nancy's story will be on their way soon.

In the meantime, I hope you all have had excellent holidays. For those who live nearby, I hope that you made it to see the mansion decorated for Christmas. This was one of our busiest holiday seasons in years with terrifice numbers for A Child's Christmas, the Friends of Clermont's holiday party, and the Holiday Open House.