Friday, December 28, 2012

Beau Ned: The Chancellor's Younger Brother

Edward was the youngest son of dear old Margaret Beekman and Judge Robert R. Livingston.  Throughout his life he was known for being extremely even-tempered--so much so that the family tells a story in which, when Edward "was charged with violent conduct" towards a sister, his mother punished the sister since she must have done something pretty dreadful to anger him so.  As an adult he was known for being very active physically, mentally, and socially, and he had an eye towards humanitarianism.  He apparently also had a serious tastes for puns.  If he couldn't find a clever one, than the obvious would do.  I can just imagine what conversations with him were like at parties.

Edward grew up to be a successful lawyer, Representative to Congress from New York and later Louisiana, mayor of New York City, and minister to France.  Nevertheless, I think Edward is often overshadowed by his extremely successful family.  He grew up with his brothers' success all around him.  His older brothers Robert, Henry, and John, were all active participants in the American Revolution.  Even his brother-in-law General Montgomery gets accolades for being the first American officer killed in the war, but Edward-- who was only thirteen in 1777--had his biggest years still ahead of him.


Edward's teenage years were marked by the turmoil of the Revolutionary War.  After the death of his father and both grandfathers in 1775, Edward's mother scrambled to provide a good education for her son.  She first engaged him a good tutor and then later sent him to that same tutor's school in Esopus (present day Kingston).  Most weekends the thirteen year old boy walked home to Clermont--18 miles one way--and then back on Monday.  This school was evacuated when Kingston was burned by the British in October 1777, and of course that's when Edward's home Clermont went up in flames as well.

Edward's 1864 biography states that "he retained vivid and pleasurable recollections to the end of his life" of those long walks back and forth to school.  I imagine that they provided some time for a stressed teenage boy to mull over his thoughts and work out the inevitable inner tumult all of the world's slings and arrows. 

Two years later in 1779, Edward was enrolled at Princeton shortly after it reopened from wartime closure (seen at left in 1764).  By seventeen, he'd finished with his studies there and returned to Clermont, where his mother hired more tutors (this time in French and German), and then after the war he took off for Albany to study law under a practicing lawyer there.  As soon as the British evacuated New York City, he transferred (under his mother's wing) down to New York Cit, where he finally was admitted to practice as an attorney in 1785.

It was in New York that Edward earned the nickname "'Beau Ned,' owing to the scrupulous attention he paid to his dress." (Livingstons of Livingston Manor).  But he was certainly no stick in the mud.  Edward's own writing suggests that he loved literature and theater and the social life.  His biographer says that "he spent his time rather idly at school, and still more so at college..."  A poem he wrote at the time details the opposing pull between his drive for professional success and his interest in more fun "frolic's pleasure's."  Distractions like "[calling] cards and pamphlets," and "plays" all nagged at him, like the playful little voice in his head reminding him that "you're a beau."

And Beau Ned loved the ladies.  He was dallying with the three daughters of a wealthy New York Merchant Charles McEvers: Anna, Eliza, and Mary.  He wrote them a rather terrible poem, which you can find in The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (p 398), but I won't torture you with it here.  In 1788 he finally married the youngest sister Mary, while his brother John soon tied the knot with Eliza (seen at right).

Edward was now twenty-four with the world ahead of him.  He was a practicing layer who was widely-liked, well-married, and well-monied.  He soon had three children to boast of: Charles Edward (1790), Julia Eliza Montgomery (1794), and Lewis (1798).  And he apparently had a pretty good relationship with his wife, one that he said was filled with "uninterrupted felicity" (I guess she didn't mind his puns).  He quickly advanced up the professional line to win a seat in the House of Representatives down in Philadelphia, where he spent seven years being an outspoken Democratic Republican until a disagreement with Jefferson caused him not seek reelection in 1801. 

And this is where everything went downhill for a while.  Although Edward did get appointed to another good job as Attorney of the united State for the district of New York, he lost his wife Mary in March, recording his bereavement in the family bible in words heavy with sorrow.  It was scarlet fever that took her.  The very next year he lost his son Charles Edward at the age of twelve--after years of illness had taken their emotional toll.

Edward soldiered on and (while still holding his other job) got elected as Mayor of New York City (City Hall seen at left circa 1900).  This position held even more esteem than it currently does, and Edward launched into a number of big projects--even writing out a plan for a society that would employ the unemployable: new immigrants, the handicapped, widows and orphans, and even those released from prison.  The idea was to enable the most vulnerable in society to support themselves in gainful employment (we won't get into the working orphans--child labor was a different issue at that time).  But when people realized that the Society could never make money and might be a financial drain on the government, it was turned down.  (All I can think is how the issue is still problematic today).

So then an epidemic of Yellow Fever hit New York in the summer of 1803, and Edward went visiting the sick and supplying health supplies (including his own stock of Madeira for medical purposes) to the poorest sufferers.  It was a nice thing to do, and got him a lot of public popularity, but it also got him sick.  He wound up with Yellow Fever himself of course.  According to The Livingstons of Livingston Manor, every young person (probably women, since they were the usual home nurses) wanted to take a turn caring for him, and a huge crowd gathered outside his house awaiting news of health.

Unfortunately, when he finally woke up a few days later, he found that his subordinates had managed embezzle about fifty thousand dollars (apparently for "riotous living"), which Edward was on the hook for.   A suitably-large scandal ensued.  It took more than three or four days for the theft to occur.  No, as it turned out, the unnamed subordinate had been stealing the money from a too-trusting Edward for quite some time, and Edward seems to have been underestimating the severity of the theft when he said later

The consciousness of a serious imprudence, which created the debt I owe the public, I confess it with humility and regret, has rendered me ...desirous of avoiding public observation,--an imprudence which, ... may ... be accounted for by the confidence I placed in an agent, who received and appropriated a very large proportion of the of the sum, and the moral certainty I had of being able to answer any call for the residue whenever it should be made."

Humiliated, Edward voluntarily resigned from both of his public offices and paid off the debt as best he could with his own money.  He didn't have enough to cover what was now estimated at $100,000 so he signed over everything he had, which was, according to his biography: "his inheritance, his acquisitions, the fruits of his professional industry, to the discharge of his obligation to the Government, and, for near a score of years, gave himself no rest till he had paid it, principal and interest, without defalcation."


Thus a promising career seemed to be dead.  Or was it?  Edward, "Beau Ned," the charming and well-schooled politician stowed his surviving son and daughter with his brother John (whom you  remember was married to their mother's sister) and went to New Orleans to start again...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Few Ways to Celebrate Chirstmas Historically

Christmas, and most winter holidays, have a special sepia tone glow of nostalgia and tradition surrounding them.  With the gentle unwrapping of each and every Christmas tree ornament and the retelling of where it came from, we reaffirm the importance of our own personal histories.  Each time we open the oven to check on the progress of a heralded family recipe, we can rest easy on the continuity of our our families.

As most people know, holiday traditions have changed vastly over the past two or three centuries, but cultural memory tends to only go back two or maybe three generations.  Telling a story from your grandmother's time is one thing; telling one from her mother's time gets more difficult.

So today I've decided to review a few historic ways to celebrate the holidays.  By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive examination of Christmas celebrations.  But at least I can touch on a few now, and maybe (if I get any better at following through on my grand goals for posts in a series) I'll follow up with more later.

Celebrate New Year's Day:  Christmas traditionally was a church holiday, celebrated with small gatherings and long days at church.  This was true in the 18th century and all the way into the 19th.  In 1845, a letter from the Livingstons' neighbor Mary Clarkson wrote "Christmas Eve Clermont [Livingston] and Cornelia were tired for they had been at church all day."   Even Christian people who were not regular church-goers made an effort to get there, and it could be a little overwhelming to the church's capacity: "the Church was very crowded...[with] many strangers who attend on that day..." wrote Clermont Livingston in 1841.  In nearby New England in the early 19th century, Christmas was not celebrated with any particular flare at all.  In the 18th century, gifts were few and small, and generally they were given to the less fortunate or dependents.  St. Nicholas day (December 6th) was celebrated by the Dutch, and that was a more gift-oriented holiday (seen at left).

In New York and elsewhere, New Years' Day continued to get lots of attention however.  Again, some presents were exchanged, and the tradition of New Year's Day visiting was king.  It began with the Dutch, but it was too much fun for everyone else to get left out.  On New Year's Day, young gentlemen went from house to house on brief social calls (remember that the well-to-do were back from their country houses and warmly in the city by this time of year)--especially the houses with pretty, unmarried ladies in them.  The young ladies were responsible for handing out food and lots of drink while looking absolutely stunning.  It was a point of pride for ladies to collect as many gentleman's calling cards as possible, and it was a point of pride for young gentlemen to visit a lot of houses.

By the end of the 19th century, the obvious implications of young men dashing about picking up drinks from their girlfriends as possible began to become unpopular.  Harper's Bazar decried turning the city's best young women into barmaids as well, and eventually the practice fell out of fashion.

Hand Decorate Your Christmas Tree:  I don't know about you, but I always know it's Christmas when I start seeing cars on the highway with big green trees waving around on top.  The Christmas tree has become a crucial part of American Christmas celebration, fraught with deeply-felt household traditions.  Each time a special ornament gets pulled out, we have to retell the story of its origin.  My family was using 20-year-old origami mice and cranes when I was little because those were the ornaments my parents had made for their first Christmas tree together.

You may know that the Christmas tree was a late-comer to English and American societies.  In 1846, an image of Queen Victoria gathered with her husband and family around a Christmas tree (a then-German tradition.) began to spread the popularity of the Christmas tree into America.  For many years, trees were small enough to be set on a table top, much Victoria's (seen at right and below), though by late-century, large trees like the one seen in the 1886 Library of Congress photo below at right, became popular as well.  Notice the funny shape of most historic Christmas trees?  They weren't yet being sheered into the near-perfect cones we've become accustomed to.


Since the trees were new to America, the large industry of ornament production had not developed yet.  Instead, trees could be decorated with a variety of objects--many of them hand-made, toys to be given as presents, or candy.  Note that the 1860s tree above left is covered with toy drums, dolls, and tiny baskets of candy (also note that the presents aren't wrapped.  Wrapping presents in brown paper became popular at the end of the century.  Pretty printed wrapping papers increased in popularity in the 1920s and 30s).  In 1888 Clermont Livingston thanked his brother for the "candy for the tree."  The 1895 Library of Congress photo at right shows popcorn garland still in use (along with tinsel, which was still somewhat new).  Other ornaments could be made from clever cutting of printed materials (trade cards with holiday designs on them) or even hand-sewn from cloth.

Handmade or edible ornaments could be mixed with mass produced. Ball-shaped ornaments became popular early on, and blown-glass ornaments grew in popularity during the 19th century.  Clermont houses a collection of late 19th century tree ornaments, seen at left.  Some of our rare ornaments date back to the earliest production of tree ornaments in the 1860s. Apparently the Livingstons took their tree decorating pretty seriously from early on.  In particular, note the strings of blown-glass beads.  We have a number of these, and I've seen them portrayed on other historic trees.  Apparently the form went out of style in the early 20th century, but I find them quite interesting!


Break Open a Christmas Bag: Christmas stockings were a common means of dispensing presents to children early in the 19th century.  But sometimes stockings for 4-10 children could be overwhelming, and a new practice developed:  "They say that some families, to avoid the inconveniences of so many stockings, hang up a great bag, and St. ’Eclaus is so obliging as to put his presents, properly directed, into the bag," wrote one New Englander in the 1830s.  Christmas bags don't seem to have been recorded at Clermont, but they were widely popular in the Northeastern United States at least until the 1860s.  Much like a Christmas pinata, a little paper bag for of toys was hung in a doorway.  Then a few children were blindfolded and handed sticks with which to poke at it.  When the bag broke open, children scattered around on the floor, scrambling to pick up whatever they could. 




Make the Kids Dress Up:  I've got a closet full of cute Christmas dresses for my daughter, but the 19th century well-to-do wanted something more.  After dinner, the children were welcomed into the dining room (most children didn't share formal dinners with their parents until they were "old enough") to put on a parade or a play.  They dressed up in costumes, made plenty of noise, and did what children are best for: making their parents laugh.  I've seen several references to this holiday tradition, though sadly none at Clermont, and I feel that it is time that this one get revived.  Dinner theater anyone?


So while you are feeling the warm glow of Christmas tradition this winter and yearning for even more, you might take a moment to consider some of the traditions that go "way back."  Victorian Christmas is a buzzword for museums, stores, and anyone trying to conjure up idyllic images of days gone by, but armed with a few historical oddities (and not much money), you can make your season just a little more interesting this year!