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SARAH AND SUSANNAH—THOSE JERSEY GIRLS

WILLIAM LIVINGSTON, the first governor of New Jersey, had three daughters, Sarah, Susannah, and Kitty. Little is known of Kitty, however her older sisters made up for it. Sarah was the first First Lady of the United States of America. Susannah used her charm and wit to scam a group of British soldiers. We can think of these Jersey girls among the Founding Sisters.

Old Roads from the Heart of New York, by Sarah Comstock, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917.

I learned of this sibling pair while perusing what’s essentially a 1917 guidebook with added historical tales: Sarah Comstock’s Old Roads from the Heart of New York, subtitled “Journeys Today by Ways of Yesterday Within Thirty Miles Around the Battery.”

As Comstock writes in her introduction, “Picture a searchlight installed at the Battery, revolving, swinging its rays forth from the heart of New York, and flinging them upon historic spots for thirty miles around.”

She continues that any visits to these spots first involved a dugout canoe or later a ferry boat. The year 1917 predated the Hudson River’s George Washington Bridge (1931), Holland Tunnel (1927), and Lincoln Tunnel (its first phase, 1937). There were the Uptown Hudson Tubes (1908), Downtown Hudson Tubes (1909), and North River Tunnels (1910), but these were for trains only.

Once across the Hudson, Comstock describes her routes on turnpike roads, of which she writes: “Everywhere this road system at first met with opposition. Americans claimed that the toll system was un-American. Farmers protested against paying for what had been free to them. Congressman Beeson is said to have made a speech in which he defended the National Pike, ordered laid out in 1806 by Congress, saying that the smithies of the country would ring with the horseshoes it would wear out, and no man need be out of employment, by virtue of the increased demand for horseshoe nails.”

In Elizabethtown, Comstock notes, “was the mansion of William Livingston, the distinguished Revolutionary governor of New Jersey. The spirit of the house gave it the name Liberty Hall during that period, and it is still known as that. The brilliant trio of daughters, Sarah, Susan, and Kitty, did as much as the governor himself to make the Livingston home famous.”

Liberty Hall Museum, Union, New Jersey.

“Sarah, the eldest,” Comstock writes, “was a renowned beauty, and so wonderful was her complexion that a wager as to its honesty was laid between the French minister and Don Juan de Miralles. The latter, vowing that only art could produce such coloring, insisted upon a test—and lost,”

Sarah Van Burgh Livingston Jay, 1756–1802, American patriot, wife of John Jay, confidant of the U.S. Founding Fathers. Drawing by Robert Edge Pine.

Alas, Comstock omits any details of the test, though she does observe that, “This was when Sarah was in France, where she excited the admiration of Marie Antoinette.” According to Women of the Republican Court, “In addition, during these days in Paris, Sarah became a member of the intellectual circle that surrounded Benjamin Franklin.”

Of Sarah’s upbringing, womenhistoryblog.com notes that, “At a time when women were usually relegated to the kitchen, she was brought up to be politically aware, even serving at times as her father’s secretary.

In 1774, Sarah married John Jay. Four years later, she became the United States First Lady when Jay served as President of the Continental Congress 1778–1779. Later Jay became the first U.S. Chief Justice and a two-term governor of New York.

John Jay, 1745–1829, American patriot, statesman, one of the Founding Fathers. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

The middle daughter, Susan, or Susannah, was known for her mischief and wit. In late 1779, there were uneasy interactions amongst the colonists and British troops. Two regiments had come late one night to arrest her father, the governor, but he got word of this and made himself scarce.

The soldiers then turned to demanding his dispatches. Comstock notes, “Only Susannah was ready to meet the emergency. She led them through the rooms while they searched every corner for the papers; at last they paused before a small secretary where, in fact, the papers were.”

“At this, she broke into a nervous tremor. With downcast looks, she begged the officer not to open this particular desk. Her love letters were within….”

Comstock describes the deal Susannah made with the British officer: “… leave her little secrets unseen and untouched, and she would lead them to her father’s dispatches.”

The wrapped and tied papers she gave them satisfied the raiders. They left, only to discover later that she had foisted off a bundle of old law briefs, all but worthless to them.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Comstock observes, “Years later, Susannah’s daughter eloped from a window with William Henry Harrison, who became ninth President of the United States.”

You go, girls. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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