Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Lover and the Suitor: the Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen Part 1

I have alluded several times to the sad story of Nancy Shippen but always avoided it on the blog because I try to stay at least a little upbeat. But Nancy's story is interesting in so many ways, and her richly-detailed journal adds depth to the story. Since it is such a good story, I will drag it out into a few parts, beginning with how her marriage to a Livingston started all her woes.

Anna Home Shippen--Nancy to her friends and family--was a Philadelphia socialite with plenty of charm and good prospects. Her family was wealthy and well-connected. She grew up in a fine brick home on Locust Street, got a lady's education, and hob-knobbed with many names still familiar to even the most casual Revolutionary War scholar: Washingston, Lafayette, and of course the Livingstons.

Nancy divided her time between a dizzying array of social visits and tea with with friends, shopping, and pleasant entertainments at home in the parlor. "Miss Nancy before the teatable, in an artfully neglected Dress, her hairs flying a little upon her neck, appearing sometimes to be absent, sometimes forcing a laughter by a soft inclination of her back and head, and by hiding her face with her hands, probably in order to shew them without being suspected of vanity; changing her Seat several times, but always pretty far from the the candel..." she was described in 1779.

In the spring of 1779 Nancy's very pretty cousin Peggy secured an excellent marriage to the well-respected Bennedict Arnold, coupled with the deed to an fine home. Her fortunes and future seemed to be secured. A romantic 16-year-old herself, Nancy was well aware that it was time for her to be looking around for a good man too, and she quickly wrapped several around her fingers.

Bennedict Arnold's friend Henry Beekman Livingston (the Chancellor's younger brother) had had his eye on Nancy for a little while now. A bit of a ladies man, he was 29 and had established a somewhat dubious career in the Continental Army, alternately winning commondations for his successes and stirring up ugly troubles with his hot-headedness. Nevertheless, coming from the extremely prominent and wealthy Livingston family gave him a lot of merrit as a pontential future mate. He was a regular guest in the Shippen parlor at the front of the house, where he took the opportunity to visit with Nancy.

Henry probably did not realize (or maybe he did) that his visits were beginning to supplant those of Louis Otto, a 25-year-old Frenchman, with whom Nancy had been exchanging tokens of love for several months now. Louis was working as a secretary to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, a French diplomat living in the city. Louis's prospects were still shakey, and Nancy's father was not as sure that Louis would be as well suited to take care of his daughter and future grandchildren.

Nancy's mother was more keenly aware of something else though. The two youths had been exchanging letters, music, and sappy poetry with great fervor. "Never was pleasure equal to mine when I read the few flattering lines," responded Louis to one of Nancy's letters. He began visiting daily for tea, and the two could often be found together before the harpsichord playing the music he had written her, his thick French accent adding exotic charm to the family parlor.
The letters the two exchanged were thick with the heightened sentimentality that was popular in the day. The two appear to wait with baited breath for the other's next word: "I studied your conduct since I have the pleasure of knowing you, nothing escaped my watchful eye. Lovers are very quick sighted; every little unmeaning favour is precious for them; this Evening I received my tea from you own hands whilst the rest of the Company was served by a black Servant. Perhaps you did not think on it, but I have valued it more than any thing I ever received from another hand," wrote Otto once. Even if their language was a little over-dramatic, it was clear that Nancy and Otto had developed strong feelings for one another.

"But aye, there's the rub," as they say, because we've already noted that Otto's prospects were not all that stable: he was not guaranteed to advance in his position, and if he did marry Nancy--which was the goal for any romances at this point--you have to wonder if he was going to whisk away Dr. Shippen's little girl to some far-off land. Henry, on the other hand, came from one of the wealthiest and best-established family's in New York, if not in the whole fledgling nation.

Parents did not usually arrange their children's marriages in the 18th century, but parental approval was still important. And Dr. Shippen, as head of the household, did have ways to encourage his daughter to favor one man over the other: He continued to allow Henry to visit at his pleasure, but limited Louis's visits to only twice a week.

Louis was sad, but still confident that Nancy prefered him over Henry. From his letters, it appears that the two had already agreed to get married. Now with limited access, he started taking daily walks by the Shippen house, now peering sadly in through the parlor windows, where once he had sat warmly receiving tea from the hands of his dear lady. Spending more time with Henry seemed to be increasing the bond between Nancy and her father's preferred suitor, but Louis did not know how much yet.

"I had not the courage this Evening of seeing you, for fear of acting against the command of your Mama, but I walk'd close by your house, as I do every Day," wrote Otto. "I pass'd just when Mr L...happened to hold one of your hands and to look very happy; you seem'd to be very happy yourself and this unhappy Discoverie mad[e] me, for one moment, the most miserable creature in the world; I felt in the time every torments of jealousy and all my old suspicions were revived."

What was a girl to do? Marriage was a decision that was going to affect the quality of the rest of her life so a wise choice was important. Louis Otto knew this was an obstacle. "Your P[apa] knows that my Fortune can not be compared with that of [Livingston] therefore he prefers him," he later wrote. Unable to have a career of her own that would influence her station in life (as modern women can expect), Nancy's financial situation in adulthood would be entirely dependant on her husband. Selecting one with uncertain prospects could affect the health and well-being of herself and any future children she had. Especially as her own family's fortunes were feeling the pressures of the ongoing war for independence, this was a critical decision to be made by a 16-year-old girl. Perhaps love could grow between she and Henry if she tried hard enough...

In the end, pragmatism or pressure from her family or some combination thereof finally won out. It was Henry Beekman Livingston who won the lady's selection. Louis Otto was devestated. "I do not see for what reason in this free Country a Lady of Sixteen years...must be married in a hurry and given up to a man whom she dislikes..." he wrote in dismay when he found out. The letter was long and ended with the pathetic declaration "My own tears begin to mix with my inck, and forbid me to Continue. I am yours for ever; though perhaps you will never be mind."

Nancy and Henry were married at her father's house on March 14th, 1781. The festivities in connection with the wedding were lavish, lasting a full week. Her brother was away at school and apparently sent his regards in a letter as we can tell from Dr. Shippen's reply "Your Sister thanks you for your good wishes & is much pleased that her choice meets your approbation..."
But perhaps the teenage girl was beginning to feel the gravity of the decision she had made. According to her father, "She insists on my going with her to the North River to see her fixed in her own Mansion..."
Was the fear of leaving her childhood home, family, and friends suddenly sinking in? The realities of the world she was about to face (and which she could never have predicted) were to be far more frightening.


  1. I have noticed that in the 18th century people spoke with such dramatic zeal. I love it, but it is frowned upon today even in novels of the period. They had a rather interesting way of putting things, of expressing themselves, yet, I seem to totally empathize with the feelings their words convey. Thank you for this very interesting post.

    Penny AKA Sweet Little Angel

  2. To true! We so rarely employ the same kind of poetic prose to describe our feelings in emails or letters today, but at the time it was considered a valued skill to express yourself that way. "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" was the first place I was introduced to this kind of language, and I have since found it fascinating as I research correspondance of the period.

  3. Oh, I love that movie! I've only seen the Glenn Close/John Malkovich version, though. In writing my book, I find enormous difficulty in getting the speech of the characters to sound authentic and interesting. So when I read the letter fragment you included about the man's unhappiness to see his heart's desire being wooed by another man...I could so vividly imagine that moment for him. Sometimes it seems men are emotionally unaffected. In a brief paragraph, what revelation!

    It is good to hear that "Liaisons" is a great start. I have found some correspondence letters for the 19th century but for Late 18th century, I am not sure if I can rely on literary works like The Diary and Letters of Lady D'Arbly for accurate examples of daily life. Do you know of any websites where I might find good samples of 18th century correspondence?

    Anyway, I'll be returning to read other posts here, to see what more I can learn. Thank you for your time and putting together this informative site.


  4. A number of Nancy's letters are available in the full text of the book I use--which is conveniently available online at Google Books

    A quick search on Google Books also gave me a large supply of Abigail Adams letters. And is the Library of Congress website, which has a searchable database of many, many kinds of documents. Try the American Memory section; that's usually where I have the best results.