[Editor’s note: Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, subtitled, “The International Romance of a Young Lady of Fashion of Colonial Philadelphia with Letters to Her and About Her,” compiled and edited by Ethel Armes, was published in 1935 and is available free on the Internet Archive: Link.
The Masculine Era
“Surrounded by lovers, I could at first see you without great danger,” wrote M. Louis Guillaume Otto, afterwards Compte de Mosloy, to Miss Nancy Shippen, aged sixteen; and, reading his words, we are irresistibly reminded of Lydia Bennet, aged fifteen, “tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” The close of the eighteenth century, whether it was closing in England or her colonies, saw little to fill a girl’s mind but costumes and lovers, followed in the course of time by marriage and domesticity. “I was formed for the world, and educated to live in it,” said Nancy a few years later, when her world was shrinking and darkening, and when the three hours consumed in dressing for a “bride’s visit” seemed no longer worth the while.
And what did it mean to be educated for the world in I779? Miss Shippen at fifteen could play a little on the harpsichord, sing a little “with timidity”, speak a little French, dance creditably, and embroider very well. While still at school she worked a set of ruffles for General Washington, no easy task as, in the absence of lace, the threads had to be drawn to give them a filmy look. She does not appear to have been very intelligent, but she was good tempered and docile, and she married the wealthy man who was her father’s choice rather than the agreeable young attaché to the French Legation who was her own.
Generally speaking this was a course to be commended. Fathers have longer sight and clearer vision than do girls under twenty. But in this particular case, prudence failed to justify itself. Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston had everything to recommend him save the kind of character and disposition which would have enabled a wife to live comfortably by his side. Nancy was not long suffering. After two years of profound discomfort, she took herself and her baby daughter back to her father’s home in Philadelphia, thus starting the endless complications which, in that staid and conventional era, beset the defiant wife. For Colonial America was a man-made world. Unmarried women had far more liberty, according to French visitors, than was good for them; but, once married, they fell into line, content to reign absolutely in their own domain, and to assume the responsibilities thus entailed:
To take the burden, and have the power,
And seem like the well-protected flower.
There was a great deal of chivalrous speech (it was the fashion of the time); and behind it a hard masculine sense that had nothing in common with the deep sentimentality of our day.
Nancy Shippen Livingston was to find this out to her cost. Her husband made no great effort to compel her return to him; but insisted firmly that the child should be placed under the care of his mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston, the only person in the confused narrative who commands our unfaltering respect. It is a relief to turn from unreason and emotionalism to Gilbert Stuart’s masterly portrait of this unpretentiously great lady; to the firm mouth, the amused eyes, the serene repose of a woman who understood life, and conquered it. Her generous support of her daughter-in-law is the best assurance that the unhappy young woman deserved more sympathy than she got.
To seek a divorce was so unusual a proceeding in 1789 that Nancy’s uncle, Mr. Arthur Lee, considered her desire for freedom as a joke; a joke in very bad taste, he admitted, but none the less absurd. That mysterious crime, mental cruelty, which has today been stretched to cover any action which an ordinarily human husband might perform in the course of twenty-four hours, was still a hundred years off. It would have provoked ribald laughter from a hard-headed eighteenth-century legislature. Henry Livingston was as safe then (he did not deserve safety) as he would be defenseless today. It is indicative of the decency of Colonial America that the word alimony was never mentioned by his supporters or by his wife’s.
The rest of the Journal Book, which is the raison d’etre of Miss Armes’ massive volume, is filled with pictures of social and domestic life in the days which charm us by their seeming serenity, but which must often have been empty and dull. Dull certainly for young Mrs. Livingston who loved frivolity and could not get enough of it; who hated the country which grew “more disagreeable” to her every day she lived in it; who tried hard to read Blair’s “excellent sermons”; and who wept copiously over The Sorrows of Young Werther. “There is luxury in some kinds of grief,” she remarks with unwonted sapience. Always in the offing is the good-looking Compte de Mosloy who would gladly have espoused his early love had she been free; but who filled up his time by marrying two other women, who made him reasonably happy.
We have no doubt that life today is too crowded, too noisy, too assertive, too pretentious in matters of the intellect, too combative about material things. Standards are lowered year by year to meet the demands of mediocrity. Yet out of this welter emerges clear and plain an effort to aid the uneasy human beings who know only that things go wrong. We are all pushing harder than is seemly, but perhaps we push to some purpose. The Sorrows of Young Werther echoed “the dim-rooted pain of thinking men” — hard to heal, but comparatively easy to forget.