Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson 1739 ~ 1801

 

Elevated by her talents and attainments to a position of great influence and an intimacy with the great men of her time, Elizabeth Fergusson's life appears to have been darkened by sadness and the cloud of a charge of having attempted by bribery to corrupt a general of the Continental Army. And yet when she died, at sixty-three years of age, there was a wide circle of adherents who believed' in her independence and integrity of character.

She was born in 1739 and was the daughter of Doctor Thomas Graeme, living in a palatial home in Philadelphia afterward known as the Carpenter Mansion. When she was quite young her mother's death called her to manage her father's house and to preside at the entertainments given for his visitors. Later the mansion became the headquarters of the literary coterie of that day, with Miss Graeme as presiding genius. Her brilliant intellect, her extensive and varied knowledge, her vivid fancy and cultivated taste made her an authority on things literary and political.

It was at one of these evenings that she first saw Hugh Henry Fergusson, a young gentleman lately arrived in this country from Scotland. They were pleased with each other at the first interview being congenial in literary tastes and a love of retirement. Their marriage took place in a few months, notwithstanding the fact that Fergusson was ten years younger than Miss Graeme. Not long after this event Doctor Graeme died bequeathing to his daughter the country seat "Graeme Park," in Montgomery County, which she had always loved. But the happiness anticipated by Mrs. Fergusson in country seclusion and her books was of brief duration. The contentions were increasing between Great Britain and America and finally they resulted in the war for independence. It being necessary for Mr. Fergusson to take part with one or the other, he decided according to the prejudices natural to his birth, and espoused the royal cause. From this time on a separation took place between him and his wife, she feeling unable to look upon the desolations and miseries of her countrymen and have any sympathy with England. In spite of this protested sympathy for the American cause, and her secret acts of charity for the benefit of suffering American soldiers and their wives, she was to be accused of trying to purchase the close of the war for England. It happened in this way: In Philadelphia she met Governor Johnson, one of the commissioners sent under parliamentary authority to settle the differences between Great Britain and America.

He expressed a particular anxiety to have the influence of General Reed exerted toward ending the war, and asked Mrs. Fergusson, should she see the General to convey the idea that provided he could, "comfortably to his conscience and view of things," exert his influence to settle the dispute "it might command ten thousand guineas, and the best post in the government." In reply to Mrs. Fergusson's question as to whether General Reed would not look upon such a mode of obtaining his influence as a bribe, Johnson immediately disclaimed any such idea and said such a method of proceeding was common in all negotiations; that one might honorably make it to a man's interest to step forth in such a cause. In the end Mrs. Fergusson seems to have been persuaded, and she sought out General Reed, who on hearing the proposition brought by her from Governor Johnson made the prompt and noble reply, "I am not worth purchasing; but such as I am, the king of Great Britain is not rich enough to do it."

General Reed laid before Congress both the written and verbal communications of Governor Johnson, withholding, however, the name of the lady. But of course an account of the transaction was also published in the papers of the day and it was useless to attempt concealment of her name; suspicion was at once directed to her and her name was called for by a resolution of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. Congress issued a declaration condemning the "daring and atrocious" attempts made to corrupt its members and declaring it incompatible with their honor to hold any manner of correspondence with the said George Johnson.

Brilliant Elizabeth Fergusson reaped a harvest of censure and humiliation. In a letter to General Reed, she says: "I own I find it hard, knowing the un-corruptness of my heart to hold out to the public as a tool of the commissioners. But the impression is now made, and it is too late to recall it" And again from her now impoverished estate she writes: ''Among the many mortifying insinuations that have been hinted on the subject none has so sensibly affected me as an intimation that some thought I acted a part in consequence of certain expectations of a post or some preferment from Mr. Johnstone to be conferred on the person dearest to me on earth."

And so, a careless political transaction deprived this woman of world-wide knowledge, of marked poetical talent and of a beautiful and benevolent spirit, of all the influence she once wielded so royally. She died at the house of a friend near Graeme Park, on the twenty-third of February, 1801.

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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