I'd been introduced to Don Foster by his friend Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at the
University of Toronto. Realizing I didn't have the expertise to make Henry's case alone, I'd
gone onto the Internet to let my fingers do the thinking, and they'd led me to Ian's extensive site
of poems by various poets. When I contacted him to explain my problem - I was hoping to
change the attribution of one of the most famous poems in the world from a man who had grown
famous from that one piece, to the man who was my 5th great grandfather - he was gracious with
his help and suggested that my answer lay in connecting with someone who knew how to find the
author of anonymous texts. Even better, he knew the perfect person!(1)
It was that introduction that gave me the opportunity to convince Don that my problem
was an interesting one. It was then up to Don to convince himself that the problem was solvable.
Luckily, he was as persuasive with himself as he is with other people. He emailed me back:
The case for Moore's authorship of "A Visit from St.
Nicholas" seems, on the face of it, doubtful at best and the case for
Livingston's authorship quite strong. We will have to separate
hard evidence from hearsay, and look closely at the pertinent
documents, but you've hooked my interest.
After speaking with you the other day I did a little poking
around and found that a lot has already been written about Major
Livingston. If it turns out that Livingston is indeed the author of
the poem, much of the published commentary is grossly unfair --
the Livingstons have been represented as spoilsport Ebeneezer
Scrooges out to darken "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with
improbable stories of lost manuscripts, etc. Because the attribution
to Moore has the weight of tradition behind it, there will have to be
an authoritative refutation for Moore's authorship to be discredited.
It may take a miracle for publishers to expunge Moore's
name from future editions and to replace it with Livingston's, but
we may be able to pull it off. If I can prove to my own satisfaction
that Livingston wrote "A Visit," I'd be happy to lay out the
evidence - and I may be in a unique position, given my reputation
as an attributional expert, to make my verdict stick. Unfortunately,
I run at a dizzying pace and can't take on this project without help.(2)
The help he was looking for was mine! Three days later he laid out the situation as flatly
as he could.
As I see it, here's what you're up against [he wasn't quite
ready for "we" yet]: The whole world, a few individuals excepted,
believe that "A Visit" was written by Clement C. Moore. Book
publishers will continue to publish Xmas "By Clement Clarke
Moore" for generations to come unless public opinion turns clearly
in favor of Henry Livingston. One person (you), who is willing
and able to investigate once and for all whether or not the Major
can mount a successful challenge to Moore. At least one other
person (me), who is willing to help, insofar as the evidence points
to the Major's authorship (and I'm *rooting* for him -- I like the
Major a lot better than I like Moore--but the case for the Major is
still circumstantial, incomplete, and inconsistent).
Here's what I will need before proceeding: Accurate
citations for the Livingston poems already in your possession. ... A
complete, accurate, and documented archive of writing by the
Major and Moore (electronic form preferred). An accurate,
letter-for-letter, comma-for-comma transcription of Moore's copies
of Xmas and of his comments about Xmas, including the 1856
text, cover letter and introduction. (I need to look for signs of
inaccurate memory, equivocation, ambivalence, etc., in Moore's
account of the poem's authorship. This includes an examination of
Moore's handwritten texts for variants that might show him to be a
copyist, not the original author.) Accurate citations for early, key
statements by relatives of Moore and Livingston.(3)
The rest of what he wanted could be saved for after lunch. We exchanged 112 email
messages over the first week, and I was given laundry lists of things to do that would have taken
me several lifetimes to accomplish if I'd attempted them all. I was about to become an expert on
late 18th/early 19th century periodical poetry, and I could only hope that the characters that
peopled my dreams weren't about to start speaking in verse.
As a computer professional since 1967, I'd spent much of my career researching
computer languages, multimedia, and user-interface issues. To be able to do research, it's more
important that you understand the process - knowing how to search for information, how to keep
track of it, and how to find correlations between pieces of data - than that you understand a
specific field. As a video producer since 1987, I'd learned to go into fields I knew nothing about,
question the experts until I understood the issues, and then form what I had learned into a
coherent story. So although my knowledge of poetry was limited to reciting that I had "broken
the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings," a good trick for
someone who won't dance higher than the top of a train, I was confident that I could pick up
whatever I needed to know. I'd have to.
But what I needed to do first was find out just who this ancestor of mine was.
New York, December 30th, '73
A happy Christmas to my dear Sally Welles.
Next Tuesday evening I hope to see the Girl for whom
alone I would well bear to live. Yes, my dear creature, next
Tuesday evening, if my God spares my life, I hope to tell you I am
as sincerely your friend, as constantly your admirer, & as
religiously your lover, as when I sat by your side & vow'd
everlasting affection to you. I well know you will call this the
"lover's cant". Call it so, my love - call it anything - I know &
swear its truth, and wrap myself up in my own Integrity.(4)
The son of a church elder, Henry was courting the daughter of a minister. Sarah Welles
was twenty years old, and said to be "one of the most beautiful women in Connecticut."(5) Sarah's
father, Rev. Noah Welles, was the friend and Yale classmate of Governor William Livingston,
Henry's father's first cousin. (Some years after graduation, Governor Livingston wrote to
congratulate Noah on his good sense in choosing to marry a virgin rather than a widow. Virgins,
after all, couldn't make comparisons!(6) It's lucky for Livingston's peace of mind that he couldn't
imagine that those private communications would someday become fodder for public gossip.)
The opening of Henry's letter, "Happy Christmas," reminded Don rather strongly of
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." Curious to know when that expression was
first printed, he discovered, to his surprise, that it was in 1823. In the Christmas poem! Yet here
is Henry Livingston, fifty years earlier, wishing it to his Sally!
Following his Christmas greeting to Stamford, Henry made the 60 mile trip from
Poughkeepsie on horseback and, for his saddlesores, won the hand of his Sally. But as soon as
he arrived home again, Henry began dissecting and worrying over their conversations.
From the bottom of my soul, I do most sincerely love you,
my Child. ... While I was with you at Stanford(7), I had not any idea
of my loving you so very intensely as I now find I do. I think of
you all day long; I think of you the evening throughout and, as I
have placed your dear profile in my bedroom and as [it's] the last
face I see, I am sure to dream of you at least five times a week.
... I expect every day to receive a letter from you. I have
never yet received one- Strange! That we should have
commenced an acquaintance, have formed the most cordial
friendship, and sworn to each other the most undissembled Love
and, yet, you have never written me one single letter! At least, as
yet I have never received any. Does it proceed from want of
affection, Sally? Does it? I can't speak my heart & say I think it
does. I think you have too much goodness & upright honesty to
tell me you loved when you did not love. If you do not, my dear
creature, love me better than any man upon earth beside, if you do
not think you will not only make me happy by marrying, but that
you will make yourself so too. ... Believe me, Sally, that my love to
you is stable as the Earth, permanent as the skies. While I live, I
shall love you.
...What would I not give, my darling, for one evening social
converse with the woman I esteem highest upon Earth. One short
evening. A few hours. One hour! I wonder I did not let you
[know], when I was with you, much better than I did, how very
much I lov'd you, how I even idolized you. ...
Good news my Dearest ... but 3 weeks and the winter will
be past, & then but 2 short months (You know April has but 30
days), when we shall meet again and meet, I hope, never to be
I love thee Sarah as I love my own soul. Believe thy H.
On May 18, 1774, Henry returned to Stamford to be married to Sally by her father. But
their quiet life was interrupted by the sounds of war. On April 18th 1775, Paul Revere made his
ride from Boston to Lexington to warn the colonists that the British were, indeed, finally coming.
The Social Club in New York City to which Henry and his brother John Henry belonged took on
a Tory cast, and the brothers were dropped from the club, though with the somewhat dubious
distinction of being considered "disaffected, of no political importance."(9)
In these tumultuous times, Henry accepted a commission as Major of the 3rd New York
Continental Regiment and, just as his first child was born, was ordered to join General
Montgomery's expedition to invade Canada. He wrote back from camp.
[September] 8th and 9  at night
I could enjoy the pleasantness of the season, too, if you, my
dearest, were but in my arms, if you were but in sight, if you were
but in the house... But cease despairing, my fond heart, a few
more revolving suns, and alternate days & nights, & the faithful
pair will meet and, in a close embrace, again & again ... renew their
course-- My faith is strong, my Dear, that we shall certainly meet
again, that happy days are in store for us, & that we shall have the
joyous task of educating the Infant Catherine, & [rearing] its tender
mind to noble [summits] ... HA! my Love! My Bosom is on fire at
Writing quickly, Henry added the first poem of which we have a record.
Waiting at the Tavern a few minutes for [Colonel Philip]
Cortlandt(11), I scribbled the following lines. You see, wife, how I
reckon on your partiality!
On my little Catherine sleeping
Sweet Innocent lie still & sleep,
While cheerful seraphs vigils keep,
To ward off ev'ry shaft of death
That may be wing'd to seize thy breath.
Dear Infant how serene you lay,
Nor heed the bustle of the day!
Thy little bosom knows no care,
For guilt ne'er lay & wrankled there;
In thee all troubles die & cease,
And all is quiet, all is peace.
Amid the Din of Arms & strife!
The tumult and the noise of war
Forever thund'ring in his ear.
Thy mother too has shed her tears
Has heav'd her sigh & known her fears.
Her lips hath not forgot to press
The bitter cup of keen distress.
And Thou, sweet Babe, will soon perceive
That to be mortal is to grieve;
That as the spark will upward fly,
So man still lives to mourn & die.
The initial enlistment of militia called up by Albany was for only six months and, on the
22nd of December 1775, Henry returned to Sally. Eleven months later, the couple made another
contribution to the growing Livingston clan with the birth of Henry Welles Livingston.
In June and July of 1776, New York warships entered New York harbor, and Sarah's
beloved sister Theodosia died while staying in Poughkeepsie.(12) By the end of August,
Washington had evacuated his troops from the city and three weeks later, over 300 buildings in
the city burned. November saw Philadelphia captured and, in December, Newport RI. It was a
dark time for the country. It wasn't until December 25-26 that Washington finally had a victory
at Trenton, New Jersey.
The celebration of that victory faded when, on December 31st, Sarah's father died from a
fever contracted while visiting prisoners of war in his role as an army chaplain.(13) Rev. Timothy
Dwight gave the funeral oration. Dwight later wrote that Welles, a tireless advocate of
Revolution, "was early distinguished for his talents. His imagination was vivid and practical; his
intellect vigorous; and his learning extensive. His manners at the same time were an unusually
happy compound of politeness and dignity. In his conversation he was alternatively sprightly and
grave, as occasion dictated; and entertained and instructive."(14)
Sarah's mother was left with 11 children. Her oldest, Benjamin, was 20 and at Yale. Her
youngest were the 8 month old twins, James and John. To ease the burden on the widow,
Sarah's first cousin, Melancthon Woolsey, brought Sarah's six year old brother, Melancthon
Woolsey Welles, to live with Henry and Sarah. Woolsey, not yet married to Henry's sister Alida,
couldn't take on the responsibility of the boy since he was actively engaged in the war effort as
an aide to NY Governor Clinton.
Throughout 1777, Henry was involved with his farm, and with his work for revolutionary
committees.(15) Brother Gilbert was partnered in a boat building concern for the war effort, and
Henry supplied many of the large trees that made up the inner skeletons of the ships. Seventeen
year old brother Robert couldn't stay out of the fight, and so the family had the boy to worry
about, as well as their concerns for their own safety so close to the Hudson.
Henry's farm was large enough to require a great deal of his attention and, as the farmer
in the family, he also helped with his father's farm, which bordered on his own. This meant a
steady stream of daily, weekly and monthly workers constantly coming and going as the work
demanded. On January 6th 1778, Henry brought in a local worker, James Brisben, to help with
the slaughter of livestock. In all the activity, no one noticed year old Henry Welles Livingston
getting too near to the fire. By the time they did, it was too late and the baby was severely
burned. He died that same day. It was two and a half months before Henry was able to record in
his Day Book that he had paid Davis Hunt one pound and seventeen shillings to make his son a
coffin. It was years before Henry could write of the boy's death.
To the memory of Henry Welles Livingston|
who died of a
burn on the 6th day of January 1778
aged 1 year and 43 days
A gentle spirit now above
Once animated what lies here
Till heav'n announc'd in tenderest love
"Ascend Immortal to yon sphere."
The lambkin at the great behest
Gave up its life without one groan;
When lo! In robes supernal drest
He found the bright abodes his own!
Most glorious and delightful scenes
Rush'd full upon his raptur'd sense;
Beyond what fancy ever dreams,
Or Eden knew in innocence.
Adieu! Adieu! My sweetest boy,
Adieu till life's vain dream be o'er;
Then with a parent's keenest joy
I'll cling to Thee to part no more.
The day after the 1st session of the New York Congress ended in Poughkeepsie on June
30, 1778, John Jay, Henry's 3rd cousin, and Jay's wife Sarah, Henry's 2nd cousin, came for a nine
day visit. It was almost seven months since little Henry Welles had died, and Sarah Welles
Livingston was expecting a baby within the month. Jay had drafted the New York constitution,
and was at that time still the Chief Justice of New York, though he would resign in December to
become President of the Constitutional Convention.
In October of 1779, the Jays returned for a shorter visit a week after Jay was named
Ambassador to Spain.(17) Writing from Spain in December 1781, John Jay asked Egbert Benson to
request a favor of the Livingstons.
Harry Livingston, I imagine, lives in the neighborhood [of
Jay's father's rental property]. His wife is an excellent woman
and, in my opinion, a rara avis in Terra [a rare bird on Earth]. I
believe they both wish us well, and would not refuse to oblige me,
by taking my Son to live with them, and treating him as they do
their own. In that Family he would neither see nor be indulged in
immoralities, and he might every day spend some hours with his
Grandfather, and go to school with Harry's children, or otherwise
as you may think proper. At any rate, he must not live with his
Grandfather, to whom, he would in that case be as much trouble as
Satisfaction. This is a point, on which I am decided, and therefore
write in every express and positive terms. Unless objections strike
you, that I neither know or think of, be so kind as to speak to Mr.
and Mrs. Livingston about it.(18)
But if Sarah was a rare bird, she was also one whose flight would be brief. On September
1, 1783, Sally died at the home of her widowed mother. Henry was silent in his Day Book for
almost a month. When he picked up his pen again, he wrote:
Sep 10 - I paid Peter Quintard of Stanford in full for making