Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Early Women of Prominence

 

The influence wielded by the women in the early days of our Republic cannot be underestimated. During the colonial period in American history there are some women who shine out conspicuously by their brilliancy and mental attainments. Their influence in public affairs was conceded at that time and appreciated to-day. They were worthy helpmeets of their distinguished husbands and did their part in shaping the affairs of the nation in its infancy and crudity.

In 1749 Mrs. Jeykell was quite a leader socially in Philadelphia. Mrs. Schuyler, a niece of the first Colonel Philip Schuyler, was born in 1702, and married her cousin, Philip Schuyler. The French Canadian prisoners called her the "Good Lady, Madame Schuyler." She kept a liberal table and had much influence in the primitive society of that day. Miss Tucker, who married William Fitzhugh, and from whom the Fitzhughs in Virginia, Maryland and western New York are descended, was one of the influential women of her time.

The first wife of Governor Page, Frances Burwell, may be mentioned among these. At the time Mrs. Washington visited her husband when commander-in-chief of the Colonial forces, it is mentioned that at a brilliant entertainment given in the camp near Middlebrook, Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Greene, Mrs. Knox and other distinguished ladies were present, forming "a circle of brilliants." At the ball given at the Assembly Rooms on the east side of Broadway above Wall Street on the 7th of May, 1789, to celebrate the inauguration of President Washington, the members of Congress and their families were present with the ministers of France and Spain, distinguished generals of the army and persons eminent in the state. Among the most noted ladies were Mrs. Jay, Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Montgomery, the latter the widow of the hero of Quebec.

Mrs. Morris, who entertained Mrs. Washington at the time of the President's inauguration in Philadelphia, was a very remarkable woman and became Mrs. Washington's intimate friend. At all of Mrs. Washington's drawing-rooms and official entertainments, Mrs. Morris sat at her right hand, and at all the dinners, both official and private, at which Mr. Morris was present, he was placed at the right hand of Mrs. Washington. The principal ladies of New York at the time the "Republican Court" was established were Mrs. George Clinton, Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Knox, Mrs. Robert R. Livingston, of Clermont, the Misses Livingston, Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. Gary, Mrs. McComb, Mrs. Edgar, Mrs. Lynch, Mrs. Houston, Mrs. Provost, Mrs. Beekman, the Misses Bayard, etc. The President received every Tuesday afternoon. Mrs. Washington received from eight to ten every Friday evening and these levees were attended by the fashionable, elegant and distinguished people in society, and it is said Mrs. Washington was careful, in her drawing-room, to exact those courtesies to which she knew her husband was entitled. "None were admitted to the levees but those who had either a right by official station or by established merit and character; and full dress was required of all."

At Mrs. Washington's levees, the President appeared as a private gentleman, with neither hat nor sword, but at his own official levees he wore "his hair powdered and gathered behind in a silk bag. His coat and breeches were of plain black velvet; he wore a white or pearl-colored vest and yellow gloves, and had a cocked hat in his hand, with silver knee and shoe buckles, and a long sword, with a finely-wrought and glittering steel hilt. The coat was worn over this and its scabbard of polished white leather." He never shook hands at these receptions, even with intimate friends, visitors were received with a dignified bow and passed on.

Among the other ladies intimate with Mrs. Washington besides Mrs. Morris were Mrs. Knox, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Powell, Mrs. Bradford, Miss Ross and Mrs. Otis. Mrs. Otis was the wife of the Secretary of the Senate and mother of Senator Harrison Gray Otis. She was remarkable for her beauty and grace of demeanor, wit and powerful intellect, and she was a prominent figure during the administration of Washington. Mrs. Stewart was the wife of General Walter Stewart. Miss Ross was the daughter of Senator Ross, from Pennsylvania. Mrs. Bradford was the only child of Elias Boudinot and married William Bradford, who was afterward Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Their house was one of the noted social centers and they were distinguished for their cordial hospitality.

Mrs. Carroll, was Harriet Chew, daughter of Benjamin Chew, Mrs. Walcott, of Connecticut, was noted for her graceful manners, culture, intelligence and refinement. It is hardly necessary to mention the Carroll family, so well-known are they. The family of Charles Carroll had been settled in Maryland ever since the time of James the Second, and Charles Carroll was among the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. His patriotism is illustrated in an incident which was told as having occurred at this time. When he had signed merely as "Charles Carroll," someone remarked: "You will get clear; there are so many of that name;" he added to his signature "of Carrollton," so there should be no question as to which Carroll had sustained the country in its fight for independence.

The wife of Thomas Jefferson was Mrs. Martha Skelton, a rich widow who, at the time of her second marriage, was but twenty-three years of age, of good family, beautiful, accomplished and greatly admired. Their daughter Martha was entrusted to the care of Mrs. Adams when in Paris and made quite an impression abroad. This daughter married Thomas Maim Randolph, of Virginia, who attained to a dignified station in the general government. The daughters of Henry White were greatly admired, their family holding a high position among the loyalists before the Revolutionary War. One of these daughters became Dowager Lady Hayes, and the widow of Peter Jay Monroe.

Another family prominent in the early history of America was the Livingston family, of New York. The original grant of land given to Robert Livingston bears the date of July 22, 1686, and comprised from 120,000 to 150,000 acres on the Hudson River. Philip Livingston, who succeeded to the estate, was born in 1686. He married Catherine Van Brugh, daughter of Peter Van Brugh, of Albany, an old Dutch family. One of her ancestors was Carl Van Brugge, Lieutenant-Governor under Peter Stuyvesant. Philip Livingston was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. William Livingston, Governor of New York, was born in 1723, and married Susannah French, of New Brunswick, in 1745, Governor Livingston's political principles were so decidedly republican that he declined to give to his country seat at Elizabethtown any name more aristocratic than ''Liberty Hall.*' The family of Governor Livingston was a large one. Several daughters and two sons were born to them. One daughter married John Cleve Symmes, another married Mathew Ridley, of Baltimore, another married John W. Watkins, and the last married James Linn. The sister of Governor Livingston, Sarah Livingston, on April 28th, 1774, in her eighteenth year, married John Jay, a young lawyer. Mr. Jay rapidly rose in prominence from the position of Secretary to the Royal Commission for settling the boundary between New York and New Jersey to a member of the New York Provincial Congress and of the Committee of Safety. His constant absence during this trying period of our country's history brought out the splendid heroism and self-sacrifice of his wife, and her letters during this period show cheerfulness, even when heroically enduring the trials and privations and sacrifices demanded by her country. Mr. Jay later was sent to Madrid as Minister to Spain. They were shipwrecked during this voyage and again Mrs. Jay's strong courage was brought to the test. Later, Mr. Jay was associated with Dr. Franklin, Mr. Adams and Mr. Laurens in a commission to open a way for the negotiation of peace between America and England. Franklin and Jay were to arrange the preliminaries. Adams was in Holland, Jefferson in America and Laurens in London, and it is said that Mrs. Jay was almost a participant in these negotiations from her intimate association with the members of the commission.

The scenes and the society amid which Mrs. Jay lived for nearly two years presented a brilliant contrast to the trials and hardships to which she had been subjected by the war at home, as well as to her more retired life during their residence at Madrid. Among the first to congratulate Mrs. Jay on her arrival at Paris were the Marquis and the Marchioness de La Fayette, and the two circles of society where Mrs. Jay was most at home during their stay at Paris were those to be found in the "hotel La Fayette and Franklin," the residences of La Fayette and Franklin. The acquaintanceship of Mr. Jay and Madame de La Fayette ripened into a warm friendship and their letters later were marked by a tone of sincere regard and affection. Mrs. Henry E. Pierrepont, of Brooklyn, a grand-daughter of Mrs. Jay, now has in her possession the armchair embroidered by Mrs. Jay's own hands and presented by her to Madame de La Fayette. Mrs. Jay won for America the friendship and regard of many prominent officials of France and persons of influence and note, which, no doubt, aided largely in the success of her husband. In 1784 Mr. Jay returned to America, and we find it said in a memoir: "Her recent association with the brilliant circles of the French capital assisted her to fill with ease the place she was now to occupy and to perform its graceful duties in a manner becoming the dignity of the republic to whose fortunes she had been so devoted. Her husband was appointed Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Cabinet, and when Mr. Jay was appointed Chief Justice, which carried him into the New England Circuit, Mrs. Jay added fresh laurels to those won for herself and her country. One of her admirers has said of her that "she is entitled to regard on far better grounds than simply as a 'Queen of American Society,' and her memory may be cherished as that of one who exhibited from her youth amid trial and hardship a steadfast devotion to her country."

In point of influence, we find Mercy Warren is conceded to be the most remarkable woman who lived in the days of the American Revolution. She was the daughter of James Otis, of Barnstable, in the old colony of Plymouth. The family of Otis came to this country about 1630, and Mercy was born in 1728, passing her youth in retirement and study. At the age of twenty-six she married James Warren, a merchant. Her interest in political affairs was so great that she maintained a correspondence with many of the leading spirits of the Revolutionary era, Adams, Jefferson, Knox and others. It is said that they not only wrote her, but consulted her in regard to important matters, and during the years preceding the war, Mrs. Warren's house was the resort of the principal figures in history at that time. Washington, Lee, Gates and other distinguished officers were frequently her guests, and this is found at the close of one of her biographies: "Seldom has a woman in any age acquired such ascendency by the mere force of a powerful intellect, and her influence continued to the close of life."

Another prominent family figure in these historical days was Mrs. Knox, an intimate associate of Mrs. Washington and frequently in the camp of the army. Her influence was shown in many ways. She was the comforter of Mrs. Washington during the siege of Yorktown. When the capital was removed to Philadelphia, the home of Mrs. Knox became one of the leading social centers of the capital city. During their stay here they entertained the Due de Laincourt, Talleyrand, and our great friend, Marquis de La Fayette. She is said to have had a mind of high and powerful cast, dignified manner and calm and lofty spirit. General and Mrs. Washington always paid her the greatest deference and in every way expressed their warm friendship and admiration of her.

The wife of John Hancock, it is said, added luster to his fame. She was a leader of society in the best circles, a daughter of Judge Edmund Quincy and was born in 1748. In 1775, she married John Hancock, then Governor of Massachusetts, afterward president of the First Congress. The strength of her character is shown in an incident worded by one of her biographers. While in Philadelphia, Hancock came to his wife one day and informed her he had a most disagree-able secret to impart to her and that it must be faithfully kept. The secret was that he had received a letter from home stating it had been thought necessary to burn the city of Boston to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy. All of Hancock's wealth was centered there. He was asked would he be willing to sacrifice this for the good of his country, and he had given his consent. To his wife he acknowledged it would reduce them to absolute want, but his mind was made up and he asked her would she join him in this sacrifice. This she willingly did. When attending a Quaker meeting a few hours afterward, she showed no signs of the painful secret or terrible personal sacrifice which she had just been called upon to make for her country. Fortunately, later it was found unnecessary to carry out this plan and she was spared the realization of her expected fate. This shows the kind of women who lived at this time and what they did for their country.

Mrs. Greene, who was Catherine Littlefield, daughter of John Littlefield, was born on Block Island, in 1753. Her husband was Governor Greene, one of her kinsmen, to whom she was married in 1774. "The incident of her quitting her own house when Aaron Burr claimed her hospitality after his duel with Hamilton, leaving the house for his use, and only returning to it after his departure, illustrates her generous and impulsive character."

Sarah Thompson, the Countess Rumford, is mentioned as one of the women who exercised great social influence.

Another woman of the official circle in Philadelphia may be mentioned, Mrs. Bingham. She was the daughter of Thomas Willing, and at the age of sixteen, on October 22, 1780, she married William Bingham, who was United States Senator from Pennsylvania. A few years after their marriage they went abroad and spent some years in France where they brought about them a charming circle of the best of the French capital. On their return to America in 1795, the Viscount de Noailles, brother-in-law to La Fayette, was their guest for some time.

Sarah, the only daughter of Benjamin Franklin, was born in Philadelphia, in September, 1744, and married Richard Bache in 1767. She was a prominent figure in the best society and her house was a center for the philanthropic work which the ladies of Philadelphia carried on for the American Army. In 1792, she accompanied her husband to England, later returning and settling on their farm near the Delaware.

Rebecca Franks is mentioned as one of the leaders in society in Philadelphia in the days of the Revolution. She married Lieutenant-Governor Sir Henry Johnston. General Scott visited her some years later.

Catharine Schuyler was the only daughter of John Van Rensselaer. After the surrender of Burgoyne, he and his suite were received and entertained by General and Mrs. Schuyler, though he had destroyed their elegant country seat near Saratoga. Mrs. Schuyler was remarkable for her vigorous intellect and keen judgment, and many incidents of her heroic spirit have been recorded. Her social influence was widely recognized. Her daughter Elizabeth, who married Alexander Hamilton, has been already spoken of.

Mrs. Wilson was one of the most noted women in New Jersey. She was the daughter of Colonel Charles Stewart and born in 1758. In 1776, she married Robert Wilson, a young Irishman, and went with him to Philadelphia to live. She was one of the intimate friends of Mrs. Washington. Mrs. Beekman's home was near Tarrytown. She was a sister of Mrs. Van Rensselaer and her daughter became Mrs. De Peyster. Mrs. Field was the great-granddaughter of Cornelia Beekman and related to the most prominent families in America at that time, the De Peysters, Livingstons, Beekmans, Van Cortlandts and the Van Rensselaers. Miss De Peyster, in 1838, married Mr. Benjamin Hazard Field, a descendant of Sir John Field, the astronomer. Their home in New York was a leading social center.

Among the Charleston, South Carolina, ladies prominent in society may be mentioned the Misses Harvey, three sisters of remarkably beautiful personal appearance. Another was Miss Mary Roupell; also Mrs. Rivington, the widow of a wealthy planter, and Mrs. Richard Singleton, who came from the best Virginia stock and was devoted to the American cause. She is said to have occupied her time by going continually from the city to the interior, gathering reports of the signs of the times, conveying intelligence and sometimes ammunition to friends in the army, or evolving schemes for the relief and deliverance of the city. Another patriotic woman who devoted herself to the American cause was Mrs. Brewton. Rebecca Motte was celebrated for her heroic conduct in giving Lee the bow and arrows to fire her dwelling when it was occupied by the British. She was a daughter of Robert Brewton and was married in 1758, and died in 1815.

The name of Mrs. Barnard Elliott is familiar to everyone in South Carolina. She was a Miss Susannah Smith, the daughter of Benjamin Smith, speaker of the Provincial Assembly. She was an orphan and had been brought up by her aunt, Rebecca Motte, whose patriotism is revered to this day. Another prominent woman mentioned is Sabina, the wife of William Elliott. Her youngest daughter, Ann, married Colonel Lewis Morris, eldest son of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One of her devoted friends and admirers was Kosciusko. She is said to have saved the life of Colonel Morris when their house was visited by the Black Dragoons. Anna Elliott, daughter of the brave patriot, Thomas Ferguson, labored constantly for her country and ministered to the poor and afflicted, and many were the favors granted at her request by the British when they held Charleston. The mother of John C. Calhoun was Martha Caldwell, whose parents immigrated to Virginia in 1749. She was one of the conspicuous figures of that day.

About the noted women of North Carolina and Kentucky we have already written in the chapter on our pioneer women: Miss Susan Hart, Sarah Bledsoe, Catherine Sherrill, Mrs. Sevier, Sarah Richardson, Charlotte Reeves, who became Mrs. Robertson, Mrs. Kenton, Sarah Sibley, who was Miss Sproat, Mrs. Talbott, Mrs. Sibley, Rebecca Heald, Mrs. Helm, Mrs. Kinsey and others.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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