Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
Elizabeth Graeme was born on February 3, 1737. According to Dr. Benjamin Rush, she was a "seven-month", or premature, baby. Throughout her life she was often described as frail and prone to illnesses.
There are not many details regarding Elizabeth's childhood available. She was the youngest of nine children. Because of various difficulties and childhood diseases, only three of her siblings were still alive when she was born. She knew her brother Thomas, Port Commissioner at New Castle, Delaware until his death at 26 in 1747, and her two sisters, Anne (1726-1766) and Mary Jane (1727-1759).
As the daughter of a prosperous Philadelphia physician, Thomas Graeme, and his "man-minded" wife, Anne Diggs Graeme, Elizabeth received a well-rounded education. There is some evidence of her having studied with Anthony Benezet. Benezet was president of the Penn Charter School, and opened the first school for girls in the city. Later on, he established the first school for Negroes in the colonies. Benezet was one of the first Quakers to call for the abolition of slavery.
Anne Diggs Graeme encouraged Elizabeth's interest in knowledge and learning. Early on, Anne read stories to Elizabeth and her other children before bedtimes. At 24, Elizabeth was continuing her studies with a private master in both Music and French.
Through family and religious connections, Elizabeth came into contact with the Reverend Richard Peters and Provost William Smith. Both of these men were involved in the formation of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1749. This institution later became the College of Philadelphia, the beginning of the University of Pennsylvania. Many of Elizabeth's friends, Francis Hopkinson, Jacob Duche, and others attended classes at the college. This group of friends later shared their interests at Elizabeth's "Attic Evenings," fashioned after the salons of Europe.
In her own studies, Elizabeth concentrated on French and the Bible. This interest lead to her translation of Fenelon's "Telemachus", and her metrical version of the Psalms.
Elizabeth made her debut into Philadelphia Society in the 1750's. The Philadelphia Dancing Assemblies, established in 1748, was the focal point of social activity in the city. At some point she attracted the attention of William Franklin, son of the noted printer and philosopher. (See additional information in the section on William Franklin and Elizabeth Graeme.)
Elizabeth's father, Dr. Thomas Graeme, had collaborated with Benjamin Franklin on the Philadelphia Contributorship, the first fire insurance company, and the foundation of the Pennsylvania Hospital. When Franklin became disenchanted with the policies of the Proprietors regarding defense and other matters, there was a rift between the two associates. Dr. Graeme was a close personal friend of Thomas Penn, Proprietor and Governor throughout this time. The differences in viewpoints led to a bit of friction between the two patriarchs, neither one completely favored the romance between William and "Betsy."
In 1757, Ben Franklin traveled to England to lobby in Parliament for the replacement of the Proprietary. William went along as his father's aide, and also to attend law classes at the Inns of the Court in London. The distance and his father's politics lead to disenchantment for Elizabeth and William. William eventually returned to the colonies as Governor of New Jersey with a different Elizabeth as his wife.
As a result of her disappointment over William, Elizabeth went into a "decline". Her parents suggested a trip to England in the company of her trusted friend, the Rev. Richard Peters. While in England, Elizabeth visited relatives in Scotland, had an audience with King George, and met the important literary and political people of the day at fashionable private gatherings called "salons."
Anne Graeme, Elizabeth's mother, died while Elizabeth was in England. Shortly after receiving this sad news, Elizabeth returned home to take up the role of hostess at her father's house in the city as well as at Graeme Park.
Inspired by the examples of salons in England,Elizabeth started her own gatherings. Her "Attic Evenings" attracted people like Francis Hopkinson, Benjamin West, Dr. Rush, their wives and companions, and her sister poet, Annis Boudinot Stockton. You can almost imagine literary and political discussions going on with incidental music by Hopkinson, or the traveling Scottish musician, Joseph Bremmer.
One winter's evening, December 7, 1771, Dr. Rush brought Henry Hugh Fergusson, a recent Scottish immigrant, to one of these "Attic Evenings." The attraction between Elizabeth and Henry appears to have been very immediate and very strong. Dr. Graeme did not approve of this match for his daughter either. Henry was eleven years younger than Elizabeth, and a penniless immigrant; not a suitable match for a prominent physician's child. In spite of this disapproval, Henry and Elizabeth were married on April 21, 1772.
According to Elizabeth, Henry was encouraging to her to announce to her father the fact that she had married without his consent. On the day she decided to tell Dr. Graeme, he died. Elizabeth wrote, in a letter to a friend, of looking out the windows at Graeme Park and watching her father walk down the path towards her in the mansion. She had resolved to tell him of her marriage at the end of his walk. As he approached, he fell down and died of a heart attack, never learning of the truth.
Upon her father's death, Elizabeth was the only one of his children still alive, so she inherited Graeme Park. By the right of marriage, Henry Fergusson gained title to the property.
During the years prior to the Declaration of Independence, Henry traveled to England twice, became a director of the Hatborough Union Library, and was appointed as magistrate in Philadelphia. In September of 1775, he sailed to England a third time to settle some family matters in Scotland.
Elizabeth wrote to him of the political changes and unrest and advised him to stay in England. He did stay in the British Isles until 1777. He sailed into Philadelphia from New York City with Sir William Howe. Fergusson witnessed the Battle of Brandywine and the occupation of Philadelphia. Henry was appointed Commissary of American prisoners during the occupation. He established good communication with his counterpart, Elias Boudinot, in order to improve the lot of soldiers in his care.
While Henry was in the city, he asked Elizabeth to join him there. Her reply was a poem based on the fable "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse." In her poem she tells Henry that she would be too afraid of the consequences of crossing the lines between the Americans and the British. They did meet later in Germantown.
At that time, Henry asked Elizabeth to deliver a letter from the Reverend Jacob Duche to General Washington. Duche was suggesting that the General renounce the Declaration of Independence and surrender to Lord Howe. Needless to say, Washington was insulted, and Elizabeth's loyalty to the American cause was called into question.
In another incident, due in part to her marriage to Fergusson, Elizabeth was asked to present a bribe to Major Reed from Dr. William Johnston of the British Peace Commission. Adam Fergusson, a relative of Henry, was a member of that Peace Commission, and may have suggested the use of his in law's good favor. Once again, Elizabeth was vilified for being the messenger.
Because of these incidents, and because of Henry Hugh Fergusson's involvement with the British cause, Graeme Park was confiscated under the Confiscation Act of 1778 and Henry was labeled as a traitor by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. Elizabeth petitioned for an exemption, claiming that Henry was a British citizen, and not a resident or owner of Graeme Park, in the time after the Declaration of Independence, but to no avail. Only after three years of legal entanglements was she granted the rights to the Horsham properties again. Some of her possessions were sold at auction; however, she was able to buy back some of those furnishings at that sale.
Several influential people championed her cause before the government. Many of her defenders were old friends from her "Attic Evenings." The list of helpers is a Who's Who of Pennsylvania's politics at that time. Elias Boudinot, George Meade, Dr. Benjamin Rush, John Dickenson, Robert Morris, Francis Hopkinson, Dr. William Smith, and a host of others were "remembered with gratitude" by Elizabeth for their help in regaining Graeme Park.
After reclaiming the property, Elizabeth lived a quiet, retiring life at Graeme Park with her life long friend Eliza Stedman. Eliza was related to Charles Stedman who had married Elizabeth's sister, Anne Graeme.
It was during this quiet time that she published some of her poetry and other writings in Philadelphia magazines. Her poems reflect her eclectic interests in science, politics, and the quiet life. She wrote one poem on the discovery of Uranus by astronomer William Herschel, and another on the death of Prince Leopold of Brunswick. She maintained close contacts, through letters, with Hopkinson, Rush, Boudinot, Stockton, and her niece, Anna Young Smith.
Plagued by ill health, Elizabeth sold Graeme Park to her niece's husband, Dr. William Smith, not the Provost, a pharmacist from Bethlehem, PA. Dr. Smith sold off pieces of the property through the 1790's. Elizabeth and Eliza moved out of the mansion in 1795. The parcel containing the mansion was sold in 1801 to Samuel Penrose and the family. Between 1795 and her death in 1801, Elizabeth lived at the house of Seneca Lukens in Horsham.
Material for this sketch of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was drawn from several sources, Martha Slotten's thesis "The Culture of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson", Willard S. Randall's book, "A Little Revenge", John Leopper's booklet, "A Colonial Poetess", and other sources in the files at Graeme Park.
|Copyrighted by Friends of Graeme Park 2011|