Angelica Van Buren

01/11/2012

A daughter of the south, Angelica Singleton Van Buren spent most of her life in the North after she married President Martin Van Buren’s son, Abraham. She was born into a family of prosperous cotton planters near and around what is now Sumter, South Carolina. At an early age she was sent to an elite school in Philadelphia along with her sister Marion. Former First Lady Dolley Madison, a distant cousin, introduced Angelica to Abraham Van Buren at a White House dinner during the 1837-1838 social season. For their honeymoon the Van Burens traveled to Europe where they were presented at European courts. Back in D.C. as hostess in the WH Angelica began incorporating royal court procedures at formal gatherings. Her plan to re landscape the WH lawns into something elaborate backfired badly. On a political level, Pennsylvania Whig Congressman Charles Ogle referred to the proposed plans in his famous “Gold Spoon” speech. In 1837, there had been a “Financial Crisis”, many were economically hit and  President Van Buren was believed to be living in an opulent style which many believe cost him the re-election.

Angelica returned to South Carolina during the winters staying at “Home Place” the family’s plantation she inherited. The Van Burens main residence was Kinderhook in New York. A West Point man, Abraham served in the Mexican War; he was a career military man. In 1848, New York City became their permanent home and remained so until their respective deaths. During the Civil War Angelica consoled herself by the separation from her Singleton family and southern roots by sending blankets to Confederate soldiers in Northern prisons. One wonders if they ever received them. In 1877 or 1878 Angelica died and was buried at Woodlawn in the Bronx, New York.

Martin Van Buren is a forgotten President but researching Angelica was hands-on for me because I live in South Carolina where Angelica hails. I went to Sumter to visit the area. Angelica’s brother’s plantation exists, well, the house does. Most of their land has split up and either private or turned into highways. The family cemetery  still exists but I wasn’t able to find it among the dirt roads and cotton fields. I visited the Ernest F. Hollings Rare Books and Collections Library at USC-Columbia and viewed, touched, and took a picture of her 1831 “Autograph” book she had at the seminary in Philadelphia. It was a weird feeling touching something she herself touched from 181 years ago. The handwriting within is beautiful.

Angelica’s autograph book.

Love the handwriting. The shadow is my cell phone. Haha!

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Patsy Jefferson

05/08/2012

Patsy Jefferson Randolph

Mr. Jefferson’s Ladies, by Gordon Langley Hall

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson , by Joseph Ellis

Patsy(Martha) Jefferson Randolph, was the eldest surviving daughter of Thomas Jefferson, gave birth to twelve children, and was married to a possibly mentally ill/alcoholic husband. She infrequently played hostess during Jefferson’s two terms as President in the early 1800’s. Her mother, Martha Jefferson, had passed away not too long after giving birth to her third surviving child in 1782.

Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis describes Patsy at 13 as an “uncommonly tall and long limbed girl with her father’s bright eyes and angular bone structure.” Both Patsy and her sister Polly accompanied Jefferson to Paris, France where he was serving as a diplomat. Jefferson placed both girls in a convent; however, he removed them promptly when he learned of Patsy’s intention to become a nun.

Like Martha Washington, Patsy was mistress of a southern plantation; at her father’s Monticello. She never spent much time at the White House: she had eleven kids! Of course, being a plantation mistress was no easy task and her duties including being a midwife at times.

As for Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s girlfriend for many years, it is difficult to claim Patsy’s ignorance: she lived with her father throughout the duration of his affair with Sally. Yet, according to Ellis, Patsy went to the grave defending her father against accusations of having a slave lover. Yes, before the revelation of this relationship in 1998, there was much speculation and gossip mongering in Jefferson’s time over it.

Like many mistresses of plantations, Patsy had to notice the physical similarities between young slave children and the white masters. It’s pretty much common knowledge the white men of plantations often took advantage of slave women; often fathering many mulatto children. There was nothing for her to do but turn her head the other way.

After her beloved father’s death in 1826, Patsy was a pauper. She was estranged from her husband. All furniture and valuables from Monticello were sold to pay off debts; later Monticello itself was sold. Two years after her father’s death her husband died.

At one point Patsy was given $10,000 by the states of South Carolina and Louisiana, in honor of her father’s memory, in lieu of starting a girl’s school in Charlottesville, Va. She invested these funds into  the Uni. of Va., a source of a modest income, but until her death in 1836 Patsy lived in straightened circumstances.

Audacious Abigail

22/07/2012

Two things struck me about Abigail Adams’ complex personality and contradictory life: her long separations from John  and her teaching an indentured black servant.

John and Abigail gave up a stable married life so he could focus on being a public servant for their fledging country. John spent years away in Philadelphia, then later Europe, working on the foundation of our country along with other Founding Fathers. Abigail should be credited along with a handful of other women as  Founding Mothers. She sacrificed a family life – but there were other gains. After a five-year separation from John (five years!), they reunited in France where John was serving in an Ambassador type role during the War. So Abigail was uncommon compared to many others in her day in traveling across sea to Europe, meeting royalty, observing different cultures and visiting grand 1700’s capitals such as Paris and London. Still I cannot imagine the longing she must have felt for her husband during their long separations.

My favorite anecdote about Abigail was her reaction to a white man’s confrontation over an indentured servant boy of hers. The boy’s name was James and Abigail had taught him to read and write; however, she didn’t believe in racial equality. Nevertheless, Abigail was a big advocate of educating women and blacks. Women were barely educated and blacks received none. When a night school opened, James expressed interest in attending and Abigail gave her blessing. A neighbor confronted Abigail over the matter, stating all the white boys were leaving school because a black boy was attending. She told the man if they didn’t have a problem with blacks sitting in church with whites or James playing the fiddle at their dances then they shouldn’t complain about his attending school. “Tell them I hope we all go to heaven together.”

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