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Historic Houses

Liberty Hall
Where Susannah Livingston saves the Governor’s state papers by acting for the British

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

Following the Newark Road to Old Elizabethtown, and swerving off into Livingston Lane until the Morris turnpike road is reached, there are few houses of any pretensions until one comes to the well-preserved mansion and estate of William Livingston, a New York lawyer, who became New Jersey’s famous Revolutionary governor.

The hundreds of trees this worthy imported from France and England and planted with his own hands are now grown to mammoth giants. In his own time he would sit on his “piazzy” and lament that they gave him very little shade, and were small adornment to his home. If he could see them today he would be content, for in their proud virility, standing on well-kept lawns, and interlacing their branches over one of the most beautiful bits of roadway in America, they rival many of the noble armies of trees about the storied homes abroad. Liberty Hall was erected in the year 1772, and at outbreak of the troubles with England received its name. It is traditionally related that William Livingston selected Elizabethtown for his permanent residence owing to the advanced state of its society, the greater portion of which was rich and cultured. This no doubt influenced him somewhat, but at the time he removed there with his family his finances were at a very low ebb, and he himself wrote to a friend that he sought the country in justice to his children.

William Livingston was intensely patriotic, and a story is told that he forbade his daughters the pleasure of tea-drinking after the mother-country’s tax on that luxury. His second daughter, Susannah, was a famous wit, and the originator of the hackneyed Revolutionary bon-mot about scarlet fever being caught from the coats of the British. She often concocted a beverage of the Chinese herb on the sly, colored it with strawberries, and told her “deceived papa” that she had taken to drinking strawberry-tea. In New York City at the time of the British evacuation, while conversing with Major Upham, one of Lord Dorchester’s aids, she expressed the hope that the redcoats would soon depart; “for,” said she, “among our incarcerated belles the scarlet fever must rage until you are gone.”

The “Livingston graces,” as the three eldest Livingston girls, Sarah, Susan, and Kitty, were sometimes called, were general favorites in New York and Jersey society. They drew so many gallant cavaliers and venturesome belles to Liberty Hall, where they were buried in a sequestered part of the globe, as they expressed it, that the governor, who prided himself on being a simple Jersey farmer, had to occasionally read to the fun-loving companies his poem on the choice of a rural life, in which he asks to be delivered

From ladies, lap-dogs, courtiers, garters, stars,
Fops, fiddlers, tyrants, emperors, and czars

Nor did the graces languish for want of company in their own neighborhood, for the young men of Francis Barber’s academy often rode over from the village to see them. One of its pupils, a blue-eyed and fair-haired boy from the West Indies, by the name of Alexander Hamilton, brought letters of introduction to their father, became a member of their household, and entered into a close intimacy with them lasting through life.

In the April of 1774 Sarah, the eldest daughter, was married, in the great parlor of Liberty Hall, to John Jay, a rising young lawyer of New York. She was a great beauty, and shared her husband’s later triumphs in France, Spain, New York City, and Philadelphia. When presented at the French Court, Marie Antoinette is said to have taken her hand, a mark of great condescension, and gazed ardently into her eyes, remarking that she was one of the fairest women she had ever looked upon; which can be believed after studying the many portraits and prints of her in existence. It is recorded that the brilliancy of her complexion gave rise to much speculation in Revolutionary society. Even the French Minister, Monsieur Gerard, went so far as to lay a wager with Don Juan de Miralles, the brilliant soldier of fortune who died at the Ford Mansion in Morristown, that her color was artificial. A scheme was laid and a test performed, and the not over-gallant Frenchman lost his bet.

The honeymoon of the Jays was rudely interrupted by the troubles with the mother-country, and one month after their marriage we find the young husband attending the first meeting of the citizens of New York, called there to consult on measures proper to be pursued in consequence of the late extraordinary advices received from England. The struggle for American independence was in sight, and John Jay and his brilliant father-in-law were soon to be conspicuous actors on the stage.

Some time after William Franklin, the last of Jersey’s royal governors, had been deposed, and William Livingston at the head of the affairs of state was flitting hither and thither over the country, the British troops began the first of their long series of foraging expeditions in the vicinity of Elizabethtown and Newark. These raids eventually led the Livingston family to desert their Hall for a retreat in Parsippany, spelt in old newspapers Parcipany, farther away from the hostile neighborhood. Throughout the long war the governor saw comparatively little of his dear ones, due to his active service requiring him to be much of his time in the saddle. To add to the uneasiness of his family, a large reward was offered by the Tories for his capture, and many were his hair-breath escapes.

All through those dreary summers and drearier winters Liberty Hall was not deserted altogether, for it was occasionally visited by raiding parties, and now and then sewed as a shelter for some passing troop. Between the needs of the two armies almost everything the house contained was either pillaged or destroyed, and when the family again ventured to return to it as an abode, in 1779, gentle Mrs. Livingston was in despair for the necessities of life, while Susan wrote to her friends in her usually sprightly fashion, bemoaning the household’s sad fate, and declaring that even the “window-panes and hinges” had been taken away.

It was in the latter part of the same winter that this brave and charming girl, whose early life had more than its share of romance, saved her father’s dispatches and correspondence with Washington and minor officials from the hands of the redcoats by exhibiting her talents as an actress. No one knows whether the moon was full or the night dark and misty when two British regiments, one thousand strong, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling, found their way from Crane’s Landing, on the outskirts of the town, through February slush, to the home of the rebel governor, hoping to surprise and capture him in bed. The tale has come down to us that the first division arrived after midnight, and awoke the startled family from their slumbers only to find that their intended victim, having learned of the plot, had prudently left his dwelling some hours before their coming. Angered and infuriated, they rushed through the rooms, commanding the trembling family to search for his dispatches. It was then that Susan rose so bravely to that occasion, leading them into every nook and corner but the right one, where the papers lay carefully folded in a little secretary, and pleading with them to spare a lady’s private correspondence when they at last arrived at its locked cover. “If you will leave it shut,” she said to the officer in charge, wringing her hands, “I will promise to give up my father’s papers;“ and the redcoat and his companions, beguiled by her pretty face, and scenting some romance, followed her with his men to the library, where from the highest book-shelf she took down quantities and quantities of old law-briefs, neatly tied up and important-looking, which the eager men stuffed into their forage-bags, in the belief that they were securing enough matter to turn the whole rebel army topsy-turvy.

After they had all left with their bulky burdens of paper, and the great hall door was again locked, we can imagine how the clever Susan must have been hugged and congratulated on the success of her ruse, and if we could have gazed on the finale of the comedy we would have most likely seen an excited girl in one of those gayly flowered night-robes the wealthy belles of New Jersey wore at that time, pirouetting through the Hall in the gray dawn of the coming day.

In later years, after the exciting times of the war were over, Liberty Hall was visited by many distinguished Americans, among them Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Morris, who stopped there on their way to New York for the President’s inauguration festivities.

At the beginning of the next century Susannah’s daughter hoodwinked her mother in the same room where she herself had acted so cleverly before the British, and eloped from a window with her true love, William Henry Harrison, then not approved of by the family, but who afterwards became the ninth President of the United States. Some time later the mansion passed out of the possession of the Livingstons and fell into the hands of strangers. Fate, not content with giving it such an interesting history, connected it with another romantic episode, for it was purchased by Lord Bolingbroke. This nobleman ran away from England with the young daughter of Baron Hompasch, and dragged an honored name in the dust by leaving a forlorn wife in London.

When it was again for sale, Mrs. McKean, the daughter of the governor’s brother, acquired it. She was at that time a widow, and subsequently married Count Niemcewicz, a Polish litterateur. In her time the mansion was slightly modernized by an additional story and a new wing, but its venerable appearance was not destroyed. She changed its name to Ursina, which is still retained by its present occupant, John Kean, the great-grandnephew of the governor, but to the chance frequenters who revere the past it will ever be Liberty Hall, the home of the patriot William Livingston and his family, and especially the charming graces, Sarah, Susan, and Kitty, who were so distinguished for their beauty, wit, and vivacity in the days of the colonies and the young republic.

Susannah Livingston married John Cleves Symmes, a Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Kitty Livingston married Matthew Ridley, of Baltimore, and after his decease became the wife of John Livingston, of Livingston Manor.

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