Leaving behind their beloved son Peter, whom they would not see until after the Treaty of Paris had been signed 4 years later, Sarah Jay travelled with her husband to Madrid, in a failed attempt to obtain funding and support for the Revolution from the Spanish court. On July 9th, 1780, Sally, as she was known, gave birth to a little girl, Susan, who died less than a month later. Sarah’s heartbroken letter to her mother, written August 28th, 1780, makes clear that, while infant mortality was a frequent occurrence in the 18th century, it was a truly devastating one:
“Let me say that every wish of my heart was amply answered in the precious gift, in her charming countenance I beheld at once the soften’d Resemblance of her father & absent brother, her little form was perfect symmetry and nature….When I used to look at her every idea less pleasant vanish’d in a moment. Scenes of continued & future bliss still rose to view, and while I clasp’d her to my bosom my happiness appear’d compleat &c. Alas! Mamma, how frail are all sublunary enjoyments! But I must endeavour to recollect myself. “On Monday, the 22d day after the birth of my little Innocent, we perceived that she had a fever, but were not apprehensive of danger until the next day when it was attended with a fit. On Wednesday the Convulsions increas’d, and on Thursday she was the whole day in one continued fit; nor could she close her little Eye-lids till Friday morning the 4th of August, at 4 Clock when wearied with pain, the little sufferer found rest in ____.
Excuse my tears – you too mamma have wept on similar occasions, maternal tenderness causes them to flow & reason, tho’ it moderates distress, cannot intirely restrain our grief, nor do I think it should be wish’d. For why should Heaven (in every purpose wise) have endowed its lovely Messenger with so many Graces but to captivate our hearts & excite them by a contemplation on the beloved object of our affection, to rise above those expectations that rather amuse than improve and extend our views even to those regions of bliss where she has arrived before us. While my mind continues in its present frame I look upon the tribute my child has paid to nature as the commencement of her immortality, & endeavour to acquiesce to the dispensations of the all-wise disposer of events; & if my heart continues in proper subjection to the divine will, then will she not have sicken’d, not have dy’d in vain.”
Sarah Livingston Jay letter to her mother from Madrid dated August 28, 1780 - Image courtesy of the John Jay Papers at Columbia University.
Less than a month later, in eloquent words that reflect the behavior of many of the wives, Sarah writes to her husband—who has followed the court to St. Hidalgo, leaving her behind in Madrid -- confirming her willing acceptance of her patriotic duty to give up her personal desires for the sake of her country,
“True, I am an American, & it is from that consideration that I relinquish the pleasure of your company, when your attention to business which may prove of utility to the public weal renders a separation necessary.“I am very well indeed & in good spirits; and am rejoyc’d that you still enjoy your health. May heaven continue to bless and prosper whatever you design or wish shou’d succeed.
Sarah Livingston Jay to her husband, Madrid, 22nd Septbr, 1780Throughout her time in Europe, Sarah endured not only frequent separations from John – whether due to his travels in Spain, to her own lying in following the birth of their third daughter, Ann, who was born at Ben Franklin’s home in Switzerland just prior to the signing of the treaty of Paris on September 3rd, 1783, or to John’s subsequent diplomatic trip to London – but also from her family. Her correspondence and his, as well as the letters from her father, mother and sisters, provide wonderful first-hand insights of their experiences to the 21st-century reader, but also remind in an age of instantaneous messaging how difficult communication was – within and across the colonies (and then states), around Europe, and, of course, across the ocean. (Why were three signed copies of the Treaty of Paris sent on three ships?
Because they were hopeful at least ONE would reach England to be signed by the king.) Among family and friends, multiple copies of letters might be sent, as well, and Sarah’s letters contain numerous references to finishing something in time to send it with someone who might be travelling, or frequent frustrations at not having heard from her sister or father for months on end. To keep things clearer, the correspondence often makes reference to letters received and the dates sent, as in this letter sent by John Jay from Madrid in November, 1780, to his sister-in-law, Kitty Livingston:
“You are without Exception the best Correspondent I have in America, and for that & twenty other good reasons, every Letter I write to Congress shall enclose one for You. Sally has recd. & answered your last, it was dated in July.”
John Jay to Kitty Livingston, Madrid 23d Novr. 1780More ominously, he writes to her on December 17th of the same year,
“It is uncertain whether this Letter will ever come to your Hands. Two or three others are now on the Way to you. I fear your late Letters have been unfortunate. The last that reached us was dated in July, since we have not heard any Thing of the family. We suspect that several Letters from our Friends were committed to Mr. [Henry] Laurens Care. If so, they may one of these Days have the Pleasure of seeing themselves in Print. It is said all his Papers fell into the Enemy’s Hands. He poor Man is still in the Tower, where his Reuptation as well as Person lies at the Mercy of the Ministry….
“All the world here are cursing Arnold and pitying his Wife.”The precarious mail situation prevented Sally and John from receiving frequent notice regarding their son Peter, whom they had left behind. Meanwhile, although John had been anxious to serve as foreign minister, the Americans were not well-received at the court of Spain. Responding to a now-lost letter from her sister Kitty reporting rumors that the Jays have not put themselves forward in Spain, Sally describes her own efforts to complete her diplomatic obligations, despite indisposition from what later letters reveal to be pregnancy-related illness.
“Mr Jay not only return’d every visit he receiv’d, but paid the first comp[limen]ts to those whose rank intitled them to that attention. As for myself, tho’ it was with difficulty I bore the fatigue of dressing, I return’d those visits I received, & when the Governor’s lady waited upon me accopnayed by a Coll: of the Hybernian regt. Who officiated as interpreter they were introduced into my chamber where I was confi’d by my indisposition, having been inform’d that a denial would be taken ill. Her Ladyship was very polite, & requesting me to name a day when it would be agreeable to me to dine with her I did, tho’ I much fear’d my inability to perform my engagement; however I went & we were politely presented to a very large circle of genteel company among whom were several foreigners of distinction that spoke English very well; but my apprehension of my weakness was but too well founded as I was obliged to retire from table & was with difficulty prevented from fainting, remaining however too ill to wait the arrival of our carriage the Governor’s was ordered & I returned to my lodgings where for some time I was again confin’d. As to the Hybernian Officers Count Oreilly the Commander in Chief of the whole province & others of distinction were of the number we found there, they were very polite and very useful to us; their first Physician attended with the most friendly assiduity & from his skill I deriv’d much benefit.”
Sarah Livingston Jay, Aranjuez, May 18th, 1781Not knowing that her father-in-law has already passed away on April 17, 1782, Sarah writes to him on April 29th of her happiness that her son – whom she has not seen for 2 ½ years – is with him, and to describe her daughter, Maria, born on February 20th. (The dates pretty much confirm that the indisposition was morning sickness.)
“Nursing does not yet disagree with me, & I shall omit no caution necessary to continue to me that pleasure, especially as it will prevent embarresments on that score when the signal for our return shall be given. “Though the tranquillity which at your age is so desirable, & which indeed from your circumstances you was entitled to expect, has been unhappily interrupted by the clashing of arms, yet I rejoice with you my dear sir that the clouds which obscured American freedom are breaking away & that you will have the satisfaction of seeing the exertions of our Country crowned with success.”
Sarah Livingston Jay to Peter Jay, Madrid April 29, 1782Intimate details we might find surprising in a letter to a father-in-law – she is nursing her own child – provide a segue to her encomium of the forthcoming peace. Although not mentioned directly in the letter, she and John will be travelling to Paris to negotiate the peace, and by nursing her baby herself, she is spared the problem of having to bring a wetnurse from one country to another.
Our expectations of [the role of pregnancy, etc. might be inflected, perhaps by Victorianism of the next century– being pregnant was a very common part of these women’s lives and did not interfere—was not really allowed to interfere with the diplomatic role expected of a wife. The Jays arrive in Paris on June 23rd, 1782, and, two days later, receives a letter from the Marquise de Lafayette, Adrienne de Noialles, wife of the famous Marquis, who is very eager to meet her but is herself indisposed – i.e., with morning sickness.
“Madame de Lafayette has just learned that madame Jay has arrived in Paris. She is very eager to have the honor of meeting her, and would have liked very much to do so as early as this evening, to personally hear of her trip but she is not able to go out today due to her health. She begs Madame Jay to find a way so she can make amends tomorrow and to tell her at what hour it might be convenient to visit her.”With proper form, the Marquise refers to the deep affection her husband has for Mr. Jay, but her warm welcome of Mrs. Jay signals the importance of the relationship between America and France, which, as the Treaty is negotiated, is signalled and developed by the personal bonds between the negotiators and their families. Sarah’s experience in France, where she is a sought-after social butterfly, despite becoming pregnant yet again, is in mark contrast to her loneliness in Spain
Just as her husband’s role is to negotiate peace, Sarah’s role is to build the relationship between France and the nascent United States through positive social interaction. Although in a couple of letters Sarah apologizes to her sisters, saying that she knows she seems to be socializing all the time, and expressing the wish that they had brought along a chaplain so she could attend services as well, but, really, these social events are her job. The attractive, well-dressed and engaging woman—attending plays, operas and balls – is the face of America to the French society whose support of the American cause has proved so crucial. [quote about amusements, p. 127 Abigail Adams’ daughter, “Nabby,” writing to her mother from France in 1785, after the Jays’ departure, praises the impression Sarah has left behind: , “Every person who knew her when here bestow many encomiums on Mrs. Jay: Madame de Lafayette said she was well acquainted with her, and very fond of her, adding that Mrs. Jay and she thought alike, that pleasure might be found abroad, but happiness only at home, in the society of one’s family and friends.” Clearly, the Marquise thought of Sarah as her friend
Toasts written by Sarah Jay for the Ball in Honor of the Signing of the Definitive Treaty of Paris, September 3rd, 1783
Sarah planned an elaborate ball to celebrate the signing, she herself was unable to attend, due to the birth of her daughter, Ann, in August. She nevertheless composed a series of toasts to be delivered by her husband at that event.
It has been argued by Landa M. Freeman, Louise V. North and Janet M. Wedge, editors of Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay (2003), that the toasts here were not actually written by Sarah for John to read at the ball, but were rather those of John, recited on July 4th, 1783, when peace was imminent. According to the editors, the toasts were transcribed by Mrs. Jay and sent in a letter to her sister, Kitty.
1. The United States of America, may they be perpetual.2. The Congress.3. The King & Nation of France.4. General Washington and the American Army.5. The United Netherlands & all other free States in the world.6. His Catholic Majesty & all other Princes & Powers who have manifested Friendship to America.7. The Memory of the Patriots who have fallen for their Country. May kindness be shown to their widows & children.8. The French Officers & Army who served in America.9. Gratitude to our Friends & Moderation to our Enemies.10. May all our Citizens be soldiers, & all our soldiers Citizens.11. Concord, Wisdom & Firmness to all American Councils.12. May our Country be always prepared for War, but disposed to Peace.13. Liberty & Happiness to all Mankind.When Sarah and John return to New York, he is appointed Foreign Minister, and her Parisian training comes in handy, as she and her husband establish the custom of weekly dinners for the diplomatic corps and other guests:
Describing such a dinner, the daughter of Abigail Adams writes to her mother, “Yesterday we dined at Mr Jay’s, in company with the whole corps diplomatique. Mr. Jay is a most pleasing man, plain in his dress and manners, but kind, affectionate, and attentive; benevolence is portrayed in every feature. Mrs. Jay dresses gaily and showily, but is very pleasing upon a slight acquaintance. The dinner was a la mode Francaise, and exhibited more of European taste than I expected to find. Mr. Gardoqui was as chatty and sociable as his countryman Del Campo, Lady Temple civil, and Sir John more of the gentleman than I ever saw him. The French minister is a handsome and apparently polite man; the marchioness, his sister, the oddest figure eyes ever beheld: in short, there is so much said of and about her, and so little of truth can be known, that I cannot pretend to form any kind of judgment in what manner or fomr my attention would be properly directed to her; she speaks English a little, is very much out of health, and was taken ill at Mr. Jay’s, before we went to dinner, and obliged to go home.”
Dinners – great schmoozing opportunities but also opportunities to lobby for constitution, which, although the continental congress was meeting in NY, was greatly opposed in that state—for example, by Governor Clinton. The dinner parties of Sarah and John – one of the authors of the federalist papers – became prime opportunities for Constitutional lobbying; they hold two a week, one for the diplomats, and one for just about any statesman, distinguished foreigner or other member of society who might be helpful or converted to the cause. Sarah kept a list – now at the Jay homestead in Rye, NY – of those who attended her dinners in 1787 and 1788, including familiar names like Aaron Burr, Governor Clinton and the van Cortlandts.
Meanwhile, the president, Cyrus Griffin, who was from, was hosting his own dinner parties in the company of his wife, the Scotland-born Lady Christina . There is, unfortunately, very little information available about Lady Christina, who was the daughter of the Scottish Lord Traquair, whose castle had been a secret Catholic stronghold after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots during the reign of Elizabeth I of England and beyond, when the country became Protestant. The Williamsburg-born Griffin travelled to Edinburgh to study law, and was invited by a classmate to spend Christmas at Traquair, where Cyrus fell in love with Lady Christina. According to the story the two eloped – she fell and broke her leg, so he carried her to the parson. Whether that particular episode is completely as it happened, they did marry and Lady Christina was the last first lady under the articles of confederation.
Nabby Adams Smith, now in New York, writes to her mother,
“Congress are sitting; but one hears little more of them than if they were inhabitants of the new-discovered planet. The President is said to be a worthy man; his wife is a Scotch woman, with the title of Lady Christiana Griffin; she is out of health [i.e. pregnant], but appears to be a friendly disposed woman; we are engaged to dine there next Tuesday.”Here is the account of the dinner, in which the conversation was all about the constitution:
“We have dined today at President Griffin’s, with a company of twenty-two persons, including many members of Congress, &c. Had you been present you would have trembled for your country, to have seen, heard and observed the men who are its rulers. Very different they were, I believe, in times past. All now were high upon the question before them; some were for it, some against it; and there were very few whose behaviour bore many marks of wisdom.”Nabby, whose father ultimately will be the first vice-president under the new constitution and its second president, is not impressed by the way the city is caught up in ratification furor:
“You would not be much pleased with society here. It is quite enough dissipated. Public dinners, public days, and private parties, may take up a person’s whole attention, if they attend to them all. The President of Congress gives a dinner one or two or more days every week, to twenty persons – gentlemen and ladies. Mr Jay, I believe, gives a dinner almost every week, besides, one to the corps diplomatique;”In addition, there were the at-homes, receptions presided over by the wives to bring the right people together for discussion:
On Tuesdays, Lady Temple (wife of British Consul) sees company On Thursdays, Mrs Jay and Mrs La Forest, wife of French consul On Fridays, Lady Christiana, the PresidentessThe French writer Jacques Brissot, an admirer of American democracy and anti-slavery advocate who will participate in his own country’s revolution and publish a three-volume work on his travels, has a more positive view in his description of “a dinner party at the house of Cyrus Griffin, the President of Congress." Although he was critical of the ladies’ fashion sense and composure, he found the American style of hospitality far more appealing than the pretense of the French:
“Mr. Griffin is a Virginian, of very good abilities, of an agreeable figure, affable and polite. I saw at his house, at dinner, seven or eight women, all dressed in great hats, plumes, etc. It was with pain that I remarked much of pretension in some of these women; one acted the giddy, vivacious; another, the woman of sentiment. This last had many pruderies and grimaces. Two among them had their bosoms very naked. I was scandalized at this indecency among republicans.”Still, he was struck by the new style of conduct in this democracy, continuing,
“A President of Congress is far from being surrounded with the splendour of European monarchs; and so much the better. He is not durable in his station; and so much the better. He does not give pompous dinners; he never forgets that he is a simple citizen, and will soon return to the station of one; and so much the better. He has fewer parasites, and less means of corruption. I remarked, that his table was freed from many usages observed elsewhere: no fatiguing presentations, no toasts, so annoying in numerous society. Little wine was drank after the women had retired. These traits will give you an idea of the temperance of this country – temperance, the leading virtue of republicans.”So while Sarah, who has been a diplomatic wife in France and who is now charged with entertaining the European diplomatic corps on a weekly basis, has something of a French style to her hospitality, to demonstrate the sophistication of the new government, the European-born wife of the new style president of the republic, whose executive powers are extremely limited and will sit for just one year, presides over a more democratic table. With the ratification of the constitution, the stage is set for the new president, with far greater powers, and his new first lady to develop this distinctively American style of hospitality.
Although some might criticize the new “republican court,” “Lady Washington” was quite conscious that her behavior as president’s wife would set the tone for subsequent women in her position, and she sought to be above reproof. She and her husband determined that they could accept no gifts or even invitations from individuals, for fear of seeming to favour one party or faction over another. Accordingly, she wrote , they call me First Lady… they might more properly call me the Chief State Prisoner.
Nevertheless, she was a frequent hostess and held weekly receptions on Friday nights, when Congressmen and their wives, visiting dignitaries, and well-dressed members of the community could come, be introduced to the First Lady, enjoy refreshments, and mingle with each other. Although some criticized these gatherings as a “republican court,” too similar to the goings on at St. James in Great Britain, most recognized them as an opportunity for what we might term bipartisan, extra-mural gathering, where people of various views and walks of life might come together amicably – in short, both a manifestation and symbolic of the new democracy.
Under the Constitution of 1787, John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. When the family settled in New York, In 1794, John Jay departed for England, where he negotiated the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, known as “Jay’s Treaty,” which helped improve relations with Great Britain, but angered many who favored France. Upon return to America, Jay found that, in his absence, he had been elected the second governor of New York State where Sarah would serve as New York's First Lady.
Five years later, in 1801, the Jays retired to a farm near Bedford, New York, where Sarah Livingston Jay died in 1802. - By: Naomi Yavneh Klos, Ph.D.
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