By the summer of 1786, the newly created country was in a depression. Farmers were
especially hard hit, and many were losing their farms for debt and taxes. For landlords like
Henry's sister Cornelia, it meant waiting for the rent.
Translation of a letter|
from a tenant of Mrs. Van Kleeck to
dated Jan 9, 1787
Well Madam, the long and the short of the clatter
For mumbling & mincing will not better the matter;
And murder and truth, my dear mammy wd say
By some means or other forever saw day;
And Daddy himself, as we chop'd in the wood,
Would often observe that lying wasn't good.
Tell truth, my sweet fellow, no matter who feels it,
It ne'er can do hurt to the man who reveals it.
But stop! While my Daddy and Mammy's the subject
I am running aside the original object --
The sows, my sweet madam, the sows I repeat,
Which you and your household expected to eat,
Instead of attending their corn and their swill
Gave way to an ugly he-sow's wicked will.
When 'twill end your good ladyship need not be told,
For Nature is still as she hath been of old,
And when he cries YES mortal may not cry NO -
So Madam, farewell, with my holliday bow.(1)
Henry was helped through hard financial times by having income from a variety of
sources. Besides his farm, Henry had income from his sawmill, boat landing and small store,
salaries from his various public posts, as well from his work as a surveyor. But no amount of
income was going to get him to like taxes, especially the newest one.
An apostrophe to the legislature|
on reading the report of a
Committee of the General Assembly
to lay a tax of forty shillings
on every marriage license.
For the Poughkeepsie Advertiser.
"With tears in my eyes I the other day saw
In Power's paper a committee law
Which lately that limb of our sage legislature
Bounc'd full in the faces of women and nature.
-- A tax upon marriage! -- O ill-timed measure
T'attack thus the fountain of rapture and pleasure,
That fountain whence flows all that gladden mankind
Or ever united a mind to a mind!
-- Don't the flowery meadows, the fields and the woods
The Vintners and pedlars and imported goods?
Our carts and our waggons, our coaches and chairs,
Our cows and our bullocks, our stallions and mares,
Our jaumbs, and our paper, our stucco and stairs,
All lie at your mercy? Then pity and spare
Ye wise ones, the pride of creation -- the FAIR!
For what do the ribbons and ostriches feather
On the top of their head-dresses totter together?
For what do the gauzes and lutestrings combine
To beautify forms already divine;
Or why do the buckles resplendent in paste
Exhibit the richness of purse and of taste?
But all to procure, either early or late,
That charming convenience, a -- masculine mate.
Let pity then prompt you, ye wise ones to spare,
Those Men-traps so prudent, so sweet and so fair. R--.(2)
It might well have been the economic downturn that decided brother Beekman to close up
his Poughkeepsie store and join sister Johanna and her husband, Paul Schenck, in running a
general store in the Shaker village of New Lebanon. Henry was more than happy to relate the fun
they were having back in old Po'keepsie while Beekman worked his store counter.
Letter to my brother Beekman,|
who then lived with Mr. Schenk
at New Lebanon,
For the Poughkeepsie Advertiser.
To my dear brother Beekman I sit down to write
Ten minutes past eight & a very cold night.
Not far from me sits with a baullancy cap on
Our very good couzin, Elizabeth Tappen,
A tighter young seamstress you'd ne'er wish to see
And she (blessings on her) is sewing for me.
New shirts and new cravats this morning cut out
Are tumbled in heaps and lye huddled about.
My wardrobe (a wonder) will soon be enriched
With ruffles new hemmed & wristbands new stitched.
Believe me dear brother tho women may be
Compared to us of inferiour degree,
Yet still they are useful I vow with a (fegs)
When our shirts are in tatters & jackets in rags.
Now for news my sweet fellow - first learn with a sigh
That matters are carried here gloriously high,
Such gadding - such ambling - such jaunting about,
To tea with Miss Nancy - to sweet Willy's rout,
New parties at coffee - then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major must dine
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea and destroy bread and butter
While you at New Lebanon stand all forlorn
Behind the cold counter from ev'ning to morn
The old tenor merchants push nigher & nigher
Till fairly they shut out poor Baze from the fire.
Out, out, my dear brother, Aunt Amy's just come
With a flask for molasses & a bottle for rum
Run! Help the poor creature to light from her jade
You see the dear lady's a power afraid.
Souse into your arms she leaps like an otter
And smears your new coat with her piggin of butter.
Next an army of Shakers your quarters beleager
With optics distorted & visages meagre
To fill their black runlets with brandy & gin
Two blessed exorcists to drive away sin.
But laugh away sorrow nor mind it a daisy
Since it matters but little my dear brother Bazee
Whether here you are rolling in pastime and pleasure
Or up at New Lebanon taffety measure.
If the sweetest of lasses, Contentment, you find
And the banquet enjoy of an undisturb'd mind
Of friendship & love let who will make a pother
Believe me, dear Baze, your affectionate brother
Will never forget the fifth son of his mother.
P.S. If it suits your convenience remit of you please
To my good brother Paul an embrace and a squeeze.(3)
In case you're scratching your head, runlets and piggins were containers, a vallancy cap
was a wig, taffety was a shiny cloth, and bohea was a fancy tea of the type that was made so
expensive by the British, and that ended up as iced tea in Boston Harbor.
Making the financial problems worse, when the colonies finally broke free of England's
control of their money supply, their newly printed paper money, called "Continentals,"
plummeted in value until they were almost worthless. In 1792, Congress finally attacked the
problem by minting first silver, and then gold, coins. The first silver coins came from melting
down George Washington's household silver!(4) Coins were wildly popular by 1822 when Henry,
then seventy-two years of age, published this poem about a lump of gold that's minted into an
American Eagle coin. And, once again, Henry takes a unique point of view - the gold!
Adventures of an American Eagle.
FOR THE JOURNAL.
In bleak Potosi's inmost cells
Where everlasting Chaos dwells
Small rills of mercury abound
Meandering through the deep profound:
These rills by kindred atoms join'd
By lapse of time grow more refin'd;
Internal heat then adds its pow'r
Till what was fluid flows no more
And the result is golden ore.
Such once I was -- and haply lay,
Nor knew, nor wish'd, for light or day.
A Capac rose, a Capac fell
A thousand fathoms o'er my cell;
And to my dismal dark recess
E'en Spanish thunder could not press.
At length discordant sounds arose
To fright me from my long repose.
I saw the light -- the human face --
And man usurp'd my native place.
Borne from the mine, far, far away
A mass of kindred ores we lay
But stay not long -- Fierce chemic fire
Bid ev'ry drossy part retire
Till at the forceful last essay
A splendid ingot fair I lay.
Commerce now join'd me to its store
And o'er the foaming ocean bore,
Safely within the Mint was flung
Where other changes o'er me hung.
The Die and the terrific Screw
Another form around me threw;
I rose an Eagle fresh and new.
A congress sage of aspect grave
Not over wise nor quite a knave,
Receiv'd me in the shape of pay
(The stipend of a single day)
And bore me to the south away.
Here I was bounc'd and urged through
Adventures rare as well as new.
A man of rice thro' one whole day
Controul'd with undisturbed sway
But e'er the dawn of morrows light,
Evanish'd from his purse and sight.
From rice to cotton I was flung:
Then in a Reticule was hung:
My mistress was all smirk all smile
And bore my jingling well a while,
Then in a fit of finery lost me
And to a Canton Crape man tost me:
He grin'd as he receiv'd the treasure
And dropt me in his till at leisure.
Here I lay slumbering out of sight
Two long, long days and one short night
The sherriff came with stern Fi Fa
And bore me from the till away.
How I came there I scarcely know
Or right or wrong 'twas truly so
I found myself with lott'ry Waite
Who long had whirl'd the wheel of Fate
A paltry prize a carman drew
And in his leather pouch I flew
But er he sought his crib of rest
A grocer hous'd me in his nest.
Dandies and Belles by turn carest me
And Feds and Tails by fits possest me.(5)
I'm worn a little I must own
And my first blush of brightness gone;
A little too decres'd in weight
But what is left is sterling plate;
Tho' clip;d and sweated, worn and old
My latest atom will be GOLD.
One little word of moral o'er
And then we part to meet no more.
Pursue me reader if you please
With moisten'd brow or yawn of ease;
Urge on the chase or slow or keen,
Keep conscience clear and fingers clean.
The golden calf of Moab's plain
Was Israel's sin and Israel's shame
Till wiser Moses made them quaff
Their recent God the molten calf.(6)
If you didn't have cash, you could always pay for your basic needs with wheat, or some
other commodity. Trading was the name of the game, and Henry was particularly good at it,
whether it was exchanging a heifer for a bull with his
Uncle James Livingston,(7) a pair of coach
horses for a horse and some shoes for himself with
James Wolsey,(8) guns with a Mr. Van
or even hats with Dutchess County politician Melancthon Smith.(10)
These daily transactions come from a notebook of Henry's, which record mostly debts
and credits from 1771 to 1788. The reason we have such detailed information on him is partly
due to the fame of some of his descendants. The papers of Illinois Chief Justice Sidney Breese
include letters he received from Henry, as well as letters from Henry to Sidney's grandmother
Sarah. But the other reason we have so much is the authorship controversy. Papers that might
well have been thrown out for any other grandfather or great grandfather were kept, in Henry's
case, because children were taught to love and respect the ancestor who had written the famous
Christmas poem. Never knowing what might be useful in making their case, descendants saved
everything, from Henry's financial records to notices of court actions when he was on the judicial
bench. The result is a rich treasure trove of information that helps round out our view of him.
When Steve Thomas brought the documents he had inherited to Don, Steve was doing
exactly what generations of Henry's descendants had hoped would be done with the letters and
papers they had passed on to Steve's grandfather, Steve was helping make them part of the
foundation on which Henry's claim to the Christmas poem would be lain. But Steve didn't have
many of the materials described by previous researchers, such as the original poetry manuscript
book, so Steve and Don and I met one morning in February at the New York Historical Society to
see if three minds could better guess where the missing papers were.
I had already taken several research trips to New York City with various friends in tow,
so I knew my way around the Society. The location couldn't be better, with the building opposite
Central Park East on one side, and the Natural History Museum on the other. Turn one way to
watch a woodpecker fearlessly going about its business a foot from your nose, then turn the other
and see it stuffed. Personally, I preferred the busy bird.
I made my awkward way through the portrait-lined, marble corridors, trying to keep my
laptop computer from slipping off the pile of papers in my arms, or keep from dropping its power
unit. To protect their collection, the Society won't allow bags to be brought into the library.
I had worried about recognizing my cousin Steve, but I shouldn't have. He was the broadly
grinning, tall redhead who was advancing to shake my hand. I guess there's some advantage,
after all, to being one of the few people in their fifties to still have waist-length straight hair.
Don was there, too, and we quickly divided up jobs. Steve would go through his
grandfather's papers, while Don and I started with the catalog cards. Since I'm our resident
Livingston expert, I was to identify which cards in the drawer filled with Henry Livingston cards
might be for our Henry, rather than one of the other 26 Henry Livingstons. Unfortunately, most
of the references were to the Chancellor Livingston Papers and referred to the Chancellor's
brother, Henry Beekman Livingston. But there were enough hits to get Don started examining
documents, so I settled down beside Steve with a box of his grandfather's papers.
The Society is one of the toughest archives in which to work. You sit at a table directly in
front of two librarians, whose job description seems to be to stare at the researchers. The rules
are severe. If Steve had checked out material, he couldn't show it to me. He had to return it, and
let me check it out, then I had to find his marker and figure out why what he found might be
significant. I couldn't rely on my favorite research technique, scooping up everything and
reading it when I get home, because the rules on what a researcher can take away are also severe.
Each person is allowed 20 copies per day, but when you're working with original sources, that
limit is very quickly reached. Ask for both sides of each sheet of paper, and now you're down to
10 sheets. Then try to keep your notes straight enough so that you know at the end of the day
which are the most important pages to request. Oh, and forget it, if what you want isn't an
original or is bound, like the Day Book of Henry's daily financial transactions. Those can't be copied at all!
If we couldn't copy, then the only alternative was to type.
In high school I'd
realized that typing was going to be a skill as important as the multiplication tables, so I'd taken
summer courses over several years. As obsessive with that as with everything else I do, I had quickly
become a speed typist, with the kindly instructor standing beside my typewriter reassuring me
that it was really okay to make a mistake. After that, I would type
people's conversations in my lap, or type
my thoughts on the covers as I
While admittedly not as interesting as some of the late night conversations with myself I had typed on
the bedsheet, Henry's day to day activities made for some pretty exciting typing.
Steve's grandfather had donated a file cabinet full of papers to the Society, and
Steve was finding that going
through the papers of a grandfather who had died before Steve was born was an
emotional experience. Here was Will Thomas talking to Steve's father and calling him,
too, Stevie. Years and generations were collapsing in front of my cousin, and it was a joy to
watch him discover his family.
One interesting thread in Will Thomas's papers were the letters between Will and a
descendant of Henry's daughter Catharine, Cornelia Griswold Goodrich. Nellie had been one of
the first of Henry's descendants to collect information from other relatives to try to make Henry's
claim and, though she hadn't succeeded, she was still a rich source of information to Will. By
interviewing her, he was hoping to bring out some nugget whose importance she hadn't
recognized. Nellie was agreeable, and even enthusiastic, but as the letters setting up the meeting
got closer and closer to the interview, they ... suddenly ... stopped. When they picked up again,
Cornelia was hysterical as a result of having been interviewed. She was afraid that she and her
family would be smeared with mud by Moore supporters just for making their case. Now that
was interesting in its own right, since it was a vivid demonstration of the fears that had kept some
Livingston descendants from making more of a commotion, but what was really interesting was
that the interview notes weren't there!
The heart of the documents were gone.
Clearly, when Will had died, W. Stephen Thomas
had gone through his father's papers, kept what he wanted and, instead of throwing out what he
didn't want, had donated those papers to the New York Historical Society. No wonder
researchers into the authorship controversy said they couldn't find any useful information there!(11)
Of course W. Stephen had had a perfect right to keep the papers given to his grandfather, rather
than donating them to the Society. It's just that I wished that he'd labeled better what he had
donated as minor papers rather than the major material I, and later researchers, had thought they
So the problem we were now left with was that now we knew where the good stuff
wasn't, but we still had no idea where it was. And we still hadn't found the poetry manuscript
book! Don tasked Steve with the job of finding out.