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