Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1723 ~ 1793

 

To have been a genuine "New Woman" in the New World, and a society woman in the highest circles of the Old World, is the somewhat unique distinction of Eliza Lucas, afterwards the wife of Chief Justice Charles Pinckney. She was born on the West Indian Island of Antigua, in 1723, but most of her childhood was passed in England, where she was sent with her two little brothers to be educated. She had barely returned to the Island of Antigua, where her father, Lieutenant Colonel George Lucas, an officer in the English army was stationed, when it became necessary for them to go in search of a climate that would suit her mother's delicate health. Eliza was a girl of sixteen when they finally settled upon South Carolina as a place of residence. The balmy climate of Carolina formed a welcome contrast to the languishing tropical heat they had endured, and Colonel Lucas started extensive plantations in Saint Andrew's parish near Ashley River, about seventeen miles from Charleston.

At the renewal of England's war with Spain, the Colonel was obliged to hurry back to his Island position, and Eliza was left with the care of a delicate mother and a little sister, the management of the house and three plantations. It was a responsible position for a girl of sixteen, but she proved herself a capable, practical, level-headed young woman, doing a woman's work with a woman's shrewdness and tact. She entered upon her agricultural duties with energy and spirit, her plan being to see what crops could be raised on the highlands of South Carolina to furnish a staple for exportation. She thus tried plots of indigo, ginger, cotton and cassava. With her indigo she was especially successful, after many disappointments mastering the secret of its preparation. Her experiments in that crop proved a source of wealth to the Colony; the annual value of its exportation just before the Revolution amounting to over a million pounds, and her biographer quite justly implies that this modest unassuming Colonel's daughter, of almost two hundred years back, did as much for her country as any "New Woman" has done since.

From the time of her coming to Carolina, Eliza Lucas' letters tell the story of her life, and they portray a fullness and usefulness and activity remarkable in so young a girl; they also show a charming, unaffected personality, and are, more-over, a splendid reflection of the living, working and social conditions of the times. In the midst of the busy life she found time to cultivate her artistic tastes. She tells us that she devoted a certain time every day to the study of music, and we find her writing to ask her father's permission to send to England for "cantatas, Weldon's Anthems, and Knollyss' Rules for Tuning." Her fondness for literature, it seems, quite scandalized one old gentlewoman in the neighborhood, who took such a dislike to her books that, "She had liked to have thrown my Plutarch's Lives into the fire. She is sadly afraid," writes the amazed young lady, "that I might read myself mad." All through her letters we catch glimpses of grain fields, pleasant groves of oak and laurel, meadows mingling with young myrtle and yellow jasmine, while to the sweet melodies of the birds she listened and learned to identify each.

There is another sort of music quite different from that of the birds, mentioned now and then in her letters. It is the humming of the fiddles floating down to her through the maze of years in the solemn measures of the minuet, the gay strains of the reel and the merry country dances; for this industrious young daughter of the Colonial days could be frivolous when occasion demanded it and she could trip the dance as charmingly as any city belle. Her letters give vivid pictures of society in Charleston and the festivities at the country seats near her home.

When Miss Lucas went to a party she traveled in a post-chaise which her mother had imported from England, and her escort rode beside her on a "small, spirited horse of the Chickasaw breed." If she went by water she was carried down the dark Ashley River a la Elaine in a canoe hollowed from a great cypress and manned by six or eight Negroes, all singing in time to the swing of their silent paddles. It appears there was always good cheer awaiting the guest at the memorable houses along the Ashley River. After the feast, the men lingered over their wine and the women gossiped in the drawing-room until the fiddles began to play. Then the men left their cups, and with laughter, bows and elaborate compliments invited their partners to the dance. Such were the good social times in which Eliza Lucas took part. But, although she enjoyed them and entered into them with spirit, she did not dwell much upon them; she was engaged with more serious matters. She was also very much worried by the dangers of the West Indian campaign, in which her father was engaged, and longed for the war to end. "I wish all the men were as great cowards as myself," she wrote, "it would then make them more peaceably inclined."

Among all the friends she made in the Colony, there was one to whom she could turn for earnest talk, good counsel and fatherly advice. This was Colonel Charles Pinckney. He and Mrs. Pinckney had done much to help the young girl in her early struggle to establish plantations, and at Mrs. Pinckney's death we find Eliza Lucas writing sadly of her personal loss in the event. The story is told that Mrs. Pinckney had once said that rather than have her favorite young friend Eliza Lucas lost to Carolina, she would herself be willing to step down and let her take her place. She probably never imagined that fate would take her so thoroughly at her word. But so it happened. Sometime after her death John Lucas sent his son George to Carolina, to bring Mrs. Lucas and the girls back to Antigua to meet him. But Eliza was not destined to make that voyage, and it was her old friend Colonel Pinckney who prevented her departure. He was then speaker of the House of the Colonial Assembly, a distinguished lawyer and wealthy planter, and a man of ''charming temper, gay and courteous manners, well looking, well-educated and of high religious principles and when this gentleman offered himself to Miss Lucas the joys of a single life seemed to lose their charm for her, and she smilingly agreed to become Mrs. Pinckney the second. Accordingly on a warm, sunshiny day in May, of the year 1744, she was married to Mr. Pinckney, "with the approbation of all my friends," as she proudly declared.

The new life brought new responsibilities, for Colonel Pinckney, or Chief Justice Pinckney, as he came to be, occupied a high position in the Colony, and his wife's social duties were not slight. On many nights the Pinckney mansion was brilliantly lighted, and the halls and drawing-rooms crowded with gentlemen in satin coats and knee-breeches, and ladies in rustling brocaded gowns. But there were other times when the house was quiet except for the patter of children's feet upon the stairways, and the echo of children's voices through the halls. There were three children, two boys and their pretty sister, Harriott, who resembled her mother, it is said, fair-haired and blue-eyed, with a touch of her mother's spirit and energy.

Then there came a day when Mrs. Pinckney no longer gave her parties to the people of Carolina, for one March morning, in the year 1753, Chief Justice Pinckney, the new Commissioner of the Colony, and his family sailed away and arrived in England with the springtime. Five years the Pinckneys remained in England, living sometimes in London, sometimes in Richmond, sometimes in Surrey, the Garden County of England, with sometimes an occasional season at Bath. The Pinckneys certainly found favor everywhere; even Royalty opened its doors to them, and they were entertained by the widowed Princess of Wales and her nine little princes and princesses. Among them was the future George III, who, of course, could not know that his guests would someday be rebels against his sovereignty. But pleasant days in England had to end, and when the war between France and England was renewed, and the English colonies in America became endangered, Justice Pinckney instantly decided to return to Carolina to settle his affairs there. The two boys were left at school in England, and it was a sad good-bye for the mother parting from her sons. Fortunately, she could not know that when she next saw her little boys she would be a widow and they would be grown men.

Her widowhood began soon after her arrival in Carolina. Then there were long sorrowful days when she was, as she expressed it, "Seized with the lethargy of stupidity.'' But her business ability and her love for her children brought her back to an interesting life, and in time she was able to look after her plantation affairs with the same splendid efficiency of her earlier "New Woman" days. Mrs. Pinckney's last days were clouded with shadows of war. There had always been more or less of war in her life. First in her girlhood it was the Spanish War, which threatened her own home and filled her heart with anxiety for her father; then in later years occurred the terrible Indian raids in which many a brave Carolina soldier lost his life, and finally in her old age, came the American Revolution.

Mrs. Pinckney's position at the beginning of the Revolution was a hard one, for she was, like her own state of Carolina, part rebel and part Tory. Among the English people she numbered many of her dearest friends, and she remembered her fair-haired English mother and her father in his English regimentals, while her heart turned loyally to England and the King. But her boys, in spite of fourteen years in England were, as their father had been, thorough rebels. Even as a boy at school Tom Pinckney had won the name of "Little Rebel," and in one of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney's earliest portraits he is presented as declaiming against the Stamp Act When the test came their mother's sympathy went with the cause for which her boys were fighting, naturally making their country her country. And she never regretted her choice. She was rewarded for her brave life by living to see America free and at peace, and her son's most highly respected citizens. And so her old age was happy, happier indeed she declared than her youth had been, for she writes, "I regret no pleasures that I can enjoy, and I enjoy some that I could not have had at an earlier season. I now see my children grown up and, blessed be God, I see them such as I hoped." What is there in youthful enjoyment preferable to this?

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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