Louis Otto had been Nancy Shippen Livingston's dearest love since she was a bouncy teenager ballancing the attentions of several suitors. It seemed that their lives had parted irreparably when, in 1781, Nancy followed her parents' advice and married the wealth Henry Beekman Livingston and Louis Otto contented himself with a bride of his own and returned to France.
But now seven years had passed. Nancy's marriage was in a shambles. She was estranged and caught in a conspiracy of deceit to hide her daughter from her husband since the law could offer no shelter.
Louis Otto's wife had passed away suddenly, and he was making return trips to New York. His once shakey career prospects had now morphed into a "future Minister to the European courts." And then he bumped into Nancy. The old flame was not extinguished.
Sometime in the spring of 1788, the two began corresponding again, and letters went between them reliably every two weeks. By February of 1789, Louis wrote to Nancy "Let me [hope] to receive at least every fortnight a Letter from you. I am now so used to this charming corresponance that I expect with anxiety every new testimony of your rememberance."
Nancy needed this kind of love and support. Her marital situation had entered a new chapter: she was finally ready to sue for divorce. This was a controvercial decision and was not supported by everyone in Nancy's life. Because "irreconsilable differences" was just not acceptable reason to break the marrital bond, she was going to have to prove her husband's cruelty to a court presided over by men who as a whole share the common belief that divorce was immoral in the first place.
Nancy's uncle Arther Lee once responded with harsh sarcasm to her request for assistance, insinuating that her divorce was a symptom of the loathsome fashions of the time. Nancy's parents weren't supporting her either. This must have been highly distressing since Nancy was living with them at the time. You have to wonder what dinner conversations were like in the Shippen household when Nancy sat down across the table from her father and his strong opinions.
Oddly enough, her mother-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingson (whose own happy marriage she heralded to whomever would listen) was one of her greatest supporters. She offered moral support, information, influence, and an active public relations campaign on Nancy's behalf. Several time she referenced attempting to get "the ladies" on Nancy's side as a way to influence the opinions of their powerful husbands.
"I dare say no more to you altho their [your parents] conduct is reprobated by every Body for their sordid interestedness," wrote Margaret (more evidence of her lobbying her society friendy on Nancy's side). Another time she comforted her, "Keep up your spirits...Do not sink under your afflictions." She was also writing long letters to Nancy's parents, presumably to prevail upon their sympathies. "I have written 5 pages to your father and now my pen is bad and my hand is tired."
Henry was out to destroy Nancy. Knowing the depth of her attachment to their daughter, he sought every tool possible to get little Peggy away with him. He pushed his brother the Chancellor to intercede, to no avail (the Chancellor was on Nancy's side in all this). He pushed Nancy's father to send the child up (Dr. Shippen agreed, but for whatever reason did not succeed in sending little Peggy out of his house). Peggy did not even make her annual pilgrimage to Clermont because Margaret was afraid that Henry would come and forcibly take her away. "I am not fit now at this period, to encounter the salleys of his turbulent temper," she wrote.
Henry even employed friends to spy and possibly even steal the little girl. "Do not be secure [in your distance from him]. Remember who are his friends..." Margaret advised.
In December of 1788, Maragert also informed Nancy that her son was preparing to spread rumors to ruin Nancy's public persona. Reputation in this society was everything, and loose sexuality could get Nancy branded a pariah and destroy any hope of her gaining legal custody over her daughter. This rumor was going to involve everyone: Nancy, his mother, and Louis Otto.
"He has he says proof of your infidelity before marriage & after this if I am rightly informed (for him I have not seen) He says he will publish Mr O is named &c &c and says he will Publish the treatment he has received from his own family," Margaret informed Nancy. Thankfully, throughout the winter social season, the rumor was slow to carry. When Nancy wrote Louis Otto in February or March of 1789, the rumor had not been published.
Louis Otto was trying to understand the situation only through gossip and letters since he hadn't seen Nancy more than briefly during this whole period. The danger to her reputation and his (including his career) was real if they were to meet. Their early correspondance was restrained, more formal, and Nancy held back some information. When Nancy wrote him of Henry's plan to slender them, she must have made only vague and anxious references to it and the divorce, because Otto responded "...I am at a loss how to advise you. even the enclosed letter does not inform me sufficiently of your situation..." He suggested hopefully, gently that after all his encouragement to reconcile with her husband (the conventional and prudent way to solve this problem), she was finally attempting to free herself through divorce.
But their letters were becoming increasingly impassioned as Nancy gained hope that she could escape her husband and free herself up to be with her first love, Louis Otto. Even acknowledging the highly-stylied and romantic language of the day, they were becoming increasingly more open with their endearments. "I am so good natured that I believe every flattering word you tell me, therefore do not write more than you feel. your affectionate Friendship is now my only ressource and if I could think that you deceive me I should be miserable," Louis wrote her that February.
When Henry redoubled his efforts to create a scandal around them, it destroyed any hope of their being able to meet again soon. "Somtimes...I am pleased to indulge dreams which can never be realised, I wish to go to Philadelphia [to see Nancy] and soon after i think it better not to go," moaned Louis to Nancy. Her mother-in-law continued to advise cautious behavior in Nancy's social life, "Calumny with her thousand toungues can only be escaped by the wary and wise. By them no male Visitants will be permitted to extend their Visit beyond the hour limited by propriety in its strictest sense, especially if the Lady be alone." In other words, "don't do anything that might cast doubt on your reputation."
The following spring (1790), when it was finally safe enough to deliver Peggy to Margaret Beekman Livingston in New York, Nancy wrote to Louis Otto that there was a chance they could meet. He awaited her arrival for weeks, on tenderhooks lest the opportunity to see his beloved be smashed.
But the meeting was brief and strained by the need for propriety. "So much reserve seems to be incompatible with Friendship and if I was not acquainted with the motive of your sudden departure, I should have atrributed it to a change in your sentiments... At least my dearest Friend, I have seen you, I have conversed with your charming little daughter, I have recalled to my rememberance the delightful moments of former times."
This time was a strained and hard one for Nancy, filled with anxiety about protecting (or losing) her daughter, fear of her husband, distress at the lack of support from her parents, and tantalizingly tempted with the faint possiblity of happiness with Louis Otto. If she could only prove her husband's fault in the failure of the marriage, she could extricate herself and finally find emotional fulfillment beside Louis. But the law favored her husband, and she could in the process lose her eight-year-old daughter Peggy, the one person she loved more than anyone else in the world.
Two painted images have been borrowed from the 18th Century American Women Blog, a womderful source for imagery and analysis of 18th century life.