Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin was an American poet who rhymed about some of the most important issues facing the early United States in the eighteenth century, including the British occupation of New York City during the American Revolution, the debate over the gradual abolition of slavery in the early days of the republic, and the legacy of George Washington.
Schieffelin sat at the heart of the New York literary scene in these years, but until recently, most of her manuscript poetry remained undigitized and inaccessible to readers.
Thanks to Dr. Kait Tonti and her colleagues at the New York Public Library, now you can read Schieffelin’s poetry, too.
Tonti is an expert on early American women's life-writing and poetry. She was also the 2021 Omohundro Institute-Mount Vernon Digital Collections Fellow, which supported the digitization of Schieffelin’s poetry.
She joins Jim Ambuske today to talk about Schieffelin’s life and the politics of her poetry, especially her poetical confrontation over slavery and Washington’s reputation with a mysterious opponent who may not be so mysterious after all.
View Schieffelin's manuscripts at the New York Public Library here.
View Tonti's digital exhibit here.
Interview published: March 8, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Kait Tonti, Hollins University
Jim Ambuske: Hey everyone. I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. You may not know the name, Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin, but after today, you'll know her well. Schieffelin was an American poet who rhymed about some of the most important issues facing the early United States in the 18th century, including the British occupation of New York City during the American Revolution, the debate over the gradual abolition of slavery in the early days of the Republic and the legacy of George Washington. Schieffelin sat at the heart of the New York literary scene in these years.
But until recently, most of her manuscript poetry remained undigitized and inaccessible to most readers. Thanks to Dr. Kaiti Tonti and her colleagues at the New York Public Library, now you can reach Schieffelin poetry too. Tonti is an expert on early American women's life, writing, and poetry. She's also the 2021 Omohundro Institute Mount Vernon Digital Collections Fellow, which supported the digitization of Schieffelin’s poetry.
She joins me today to talk about Schieffelin’s life and the politics of her poetry, especially her poetical confrontation over slavery and Washington's reputation with the mysterious opponent who may not be so mysterious after all. So get your ink and quill at the ready and let's read the political poetry of Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin with Dr. Kaiti Tonti.
There are many well-known women authors from the early Republic, the American revolution, Mercy Otis Warren is one, but Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin is one that may not be known to most people. So who is Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin?
Kait Tonti: This woman just has the craziest story and how she just was ignored or somehow left behind amidst all this other study of women writing during the Revolutionary period and into the Early Republic, so women like Mercy, Mercy Otis Warren, or even Anna Boudinot Stockton, somehow she got left out of the conversation. And it's my goal to bring her back into this conversation because, what she does and what she goes through is a little bit different than I would say most Quaker women experienced.
So I'll just start sort of from the beginning and give a little bit of a background about her life and then get into some of the stories that kind of define her as, as a lot different than your Mercy Otis Warrens.
So she was born in 1758, it's important for her later work that we kind of recognize that that was the same exact year that the Quaker Philadelphia yearly meeting decided to arrange a policy that was basically like, we're going to try to stop using slavery. We're going to try to abandon this in our religious sections.
And so it's kind of ironic then that at the same time that she's born, this is happening because she's going to have some things to say later on, I'll get to that, but she, she's a complicated figure in that sense. But just to go back to where she comes from, her father is John Lawrence. He's a really prominent Quaker merchant.
He has some Royal patents on Long Island. So they very much think about themselves as British, which a lot of people did right up through the war. She has a sister whose name I'm uncertain of right now. I've been perusing Ancestry and all those sites to try to find something and it's just not, I can't find anything.
Her mother is also nameless as of right now for me, but she did have a brother Richard Lawrence [and yearly]. He died in the epidemic of 1798, and a lot of her poetry are odes and elegies to him. They probably had a really good connection, a really tight relationship. And then she names her son, who's, I think it’s the oldest son after him.
There's not a ton of information about her childhood. I don't have a ton of information about it. I'm sure it exists. What I have right now, digitizes mostly her poetry. So my next part of this is going to be getting to her letters. But I do know that around 1780, she marries Jacob Schieffelin. And Jacob Schieffelin has his own kind of really wacky story too.
He is born in 1757. He, in 1776, he's sort of involved in a mercantile trade along the Detroit border, Henry Hamilton, who was the governor of the time there, was really impressed with him and he appointed him Lieutenant in the Detroit Volunteers. Jacob was eventually taken prisoner of war by the Virginia Rangers under George Rogers Clark.
And then he managed to escape. There's no real story behind it. He just got out and he made his way to New York. And within a few months he had become a popular voice in the Quaker meeting homes. And it seems like he was a Quaker as well. His parents were Dutch, his friends were German and he just ingratiated himself in that Quaker scene.
And immediately Hannah learned who Schieffelin was, she just fell in love with him. Her father was not happy about it. And there's a lot of letters from Hannah, kind of saying, you know, if I do this, I'm ruining my reputation. If I do this, my family is going to hate me forever. What should I do? I love this man. And so with some help from her friends, encouragement from her friends, she does decide to marry him and they run off together to Detroit through Canada.
And she doesn't speak to her parents until she is firmly in Ontario. When she writes this really long letter apologizing and telling about her experiences in Ontario, in that letter, we kind of start to see a lot of her, like I said, saltiness, she hates the Canadian wilderness. She calls it a terrible country.
She mentions that other women in her time would rather sleep in a tent than in the 30 French homes in the Ontario region. And she's clearly at that point, we can kind of see her as a clearly upper class civilian. She talks about, uh, weeping for her parents mansion and the kind of security in that. But nonetheless, she still talks about how, how happy she is and how she doesn't regret leaving with Jacob.
There's some other really interesting things in that letter. She describes a lot of encounters with Native American Tribes. She talks about coming upon the Mohawks at some point and not being afraid. She actually says I'm not, I wasn't afraid to just sit down with them and like essentially hang out. They invited her to come sit with them and I'm not really sure what prefaced that, how she even came upon it.
But she talks about sitting around the fire, just talking with them and then spending a night in a tent, not too far off. So she has some kind of liberal leaning ideas, possibly. Um, some liberal leaning characteristics. Those will be challenged though, later on. So we'll get to that. Uh, before she marries Jacob Schieffelin, she is outraged by the British occupation in New York, just so angry about it.
And so she decides to write a lot of poetry about it. And one of those poems is something that was called the Mall. And we can talk a little bit about that later when we talk about her poetry, but it was political. And so she would go around New York City, passing out these poems and just leaving them in places, leaving them on church doors, handing them out, just kind of leaving them scattered where people could see them.
Her pen name Matilda. Sometimes she used Cornelia, but for the most part, she was Matilda. And, um, it's actually really interesting and somebody decided to send that poem into the New York Magazine. It was not her though, because it came with an anonymous note, the person sending it in and said that they were performances.
Um, the poems were sort of performance and, uh, they were circulated in manuscript.When the British forces held possession and I happened to pick one up. And so those were published, not by her sending them in, though she did send her own poetry in quite often, I don't know how she managed to stay within the Quaker community.
I don't know how they didn't just reject her or just own her in a sense, because she was really sort of breaking that devotion to peace, but I also don't know how she wasn't just, you know, um, hung and declared a trader by British forces. I would say some people probably knew who she was, right. People probably recognize her by her pen name, at least a small circle.
You know, I think it wasn't as much as anybody would recognize Elizabeth Graham Ferguson as Laura. For instance, it wouldn't be that popular, but she would have been recognized by some people. And so she was constantly doing these things that just, and really, fiery lines, really fiery sentiment almost to the extent of threatening.
And so she, she kind of, put herself out in the public without any concern for how people would see her or view her at a point where most Quakers were probably Loyalists, even though they would say they weren't, she is very, very much supportive of the Patriot cause. She was just completely loud about it and not shy about it at all.
So that really sets her apart. The irony too, is she, she marries this British soldier and runs away to Canada with him. So it's, it's a real, she has a really interesting life story. She writes poetry through her entire life. It seems like she had some connections with some of the Philadelphia poets. It seems like she was in touch with some of the Schuyler women.
And, uh, she definitely had a presence for sure. People in Philadelphia at one point knew who she was. So, she was getting around. Her name was getting around. Her reputation was getting around and whether that was in a good or a bad way, I think it depended on who, who the person was
Jim Ambuske: I have about 600 questions at this point, and I'm not sure I'm not even sure if we're gonna be going to get to all of them, but that was a fantastic overview.
I mean, that opens up a lot of different avenues we could explore my God yet, I mean, they both have kind of, she and her husband have both have crazy stories.
Kait Tonti: Yeah, you couldn’t make it up. Yeah.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah. And, uh, let's, uh, I want to put aside her poetry for a second, because I do want to talk about that in detail, but I'm curious about her revolutionary activism and then this decision to marry Schieffelin, who is a soldier, which does seem at odds with the tension in the room, I guess you might say at the moment, but there's also actually kind of ways it's reflective of her involvement in the gradual abolition debate later, which we'll, we'll talk about, but. What do you think animates her politics and is driving her to then write poetry, leave it, or, you know, give it out, handed out on the street, whatnot?
And now I have this image of my head of, of someone just, you know, some people hand out free hugs these days she's out there handing out free poetry.
Kait Tonti: I think what motivates her is a very specific incident and that's the kind of overtake of Trinity church by British forces. So after that initial fire, that ruined part of that church, the British kind of came in and took it over as a venue for entertainment.
They would have concerts there and they would kind of stand on the steps and, you know, harass women who walked by. There's a line in one of her poems about that, that says, you know, a woman couldn't even get by without having, an essentially what we would call catcalled. So I think that's part of it. I think she felt like her hometown was being trampled upon and ruined. Um, I mean, they were taking apart the graveyard there, and I think for Schieffelin, that was just crossing the line. It doesn't seem like her family really played into the Loyalist or Patriot side. I think they were kind of neutral and they were out, you know about protecting themselves.
They were really wealthy merchants. So of course they want it to do whatever they could to keep their money in check. And so I think they just kind of played along with whoever was going into power. So I think what motivated her really was seeing that happening, and you have to remember, she's very dramatic.
She's a really dramatic person. There is some mention of her, thank God, because before I knew about this book, I could not find a mention of her anywhere. It was almost impossible. And this is in, um, Generous Enemies by Judith van Buskirk. And she calls her the high dramatist of, of romantic poetry, something like that.
She's, she’s, oh, the romantic priestess, I think she calls her of poetry, right? So she's very dramatic, her lines speak to that drama and she just gets fired up really easily. And you can see that in her poetry later on, as for why she married Jacob Schieffelin or how she even fell in love with him. It wasn't completely uncommon for women who were, um, either Loyalist or Patriots or kind of neutral territory to marry British soldiers.
I mean, they were everywhere, right. So if you wanted to get married, right, and you knew that your reputation was in marriage. If you didn't want to be an unmarried lady who was then, kind of looked down upon, you would find somebody, even if that person was British. What is different about this particular situation is that most of those other women aren’t as forward as Hannah was.
They're not as, they're not putting their poetry out there. They're probably not writing poetry. Um, they're not kind of shouting from the rooftops about this invasion into her, her home territory. So I think that's the difference. I think truly she just fell in love with him. He came in and kinda swept her off her feet.
He's described, uh, as a very charming man. It would make sense that she was sort of taken by him. I can't help, but think too, there's sort of a rebellion happening here. She's young, she's really young the way she then talks to her parents about him sounds a little bit rebellious, almost like, and that would be within her character.
That would be within her nature to, from what I can determine, it's important that I think her personality plays a role, I think played a role in it. And he had a great story, you know? I mean, he probably impressed her a lot. He was a soldier in the British army, by the time that they're married and that the war is done, it doesn't seem like he is bitter about that.
He just, both of them kind of fall in line with the new Republic. And you'll see, a lot of her poetry is dedicated to men like George Washington, which we can talk about, uh, Alexander Hamilton. So I don't think they resist it, the new government either.
Jim Ambuske: It's really fascinating because it sounds like in Hannah's, specifically and maybe her parents too, but they fall into that category that we don't often talk about, which is the group of Americans colonists who are simply trying to survive the war and make the best of it in any way that they possibly can. Especially, it sounds like they were quite wealthy.
So they had considerable interest to think about. They are reminiscent in some ways of, uh, Eliza and Samuel Powell down in Philadelphia. Who don't really openly declare for one side or the other until you, in the mid, middle part of the war. And I mean, I guess I have to ask what do we know what the father's objections were?
Kait Tonti: I don't have a lot of information about the father's perspective. I know that Buskirk just kind of mentions it in passing that her father was just not happy about it. I don't think it was for religious reasons. Cause he does seem to be a practicing Quaker. It just says that John Lawrence opposed the match, probably because he was a British soldier, I would think.
And also they had this plan to leave New York, like immediately. Um, so I, I'm sure he didn't like that either. And again, this drama, um, it, this is from Buskirk’s chapter two, she talks about, um, how she would write to her letters and say, Matilda is in love. So she would call herself by her pwn name.
And so, yeah, I'm not really sure what the problem was, we just know that he is against it. And of course, I can't find any mention of her mother, uh, anywhere. Um, so I'm not sure if maybe she died at some point before this, but there's no mention of, if her mother was alive, what she would have thought about it. But I think her sister is supportive in her letter in Hannah's letter, back to her father.
She does mention her sister’s support for her marriage and then says something to the extent of, um, I hope my sister finds as wonderful husband, as I have, something to that extent. It wasn't uncommon for women to marry British soldiers, but they kind of just got over their political convictions and made it work. But I think also, you're you're right.
The family is just trying to stay alive at that point. Right. Trying not to get pulled into it in a way it's similar to how, you know, Elizabeth Drinker and other diarists are sort of trying to stay out of it until their husbands are prisoners of war. You know, the difference then is that Schieffelin is loud about it, whereas they're not. well, I'm glad
Jim Ambuske: Well, I'm glad she was a lot about it.
Cause then we get to read all this cool stuff that she writes.
Kait Tonti: She is so loud.
Jim Ambuske: Let's pull back a little bit, cause we've been talking about occupied New York, we've been talking about the Revolution. Tell us a little bit about the literary scenes in New York. And I guess Philadelphia, Philadelphia is the one we always think about as a place where there's literary culture in this period, but clearly there's some stuff happening in New York.
So what does this space look like?
Kait Tonti: Right. Well, I don't think it was altogether much different than Philadelphia, right? Both cities recognize that print, especially in the cases of the new magazine culture, is their way to ensuring a sort of a, that democratic institution. I will say that maybe the difference, um, or the reason that we focus on Philadelphia more is that there's just was a bigger population.
So there were more people doing that stuff than there might've been in New York, right by 1776 in Philadelphia, the population was around 40,000. Whereas in New York it was still around 25,000. So half of that. I think that there's also more Quakers living in Philadelphia at this time and the Quaker women's scene is huge people like Milka Martha Moore, whose Commonplace book is really famous now.
Hannah Griffith Susanna, right. Ferguson is not a Quaker, but she still mingles in those literary circles. I think there were just a lot more people to handoff manuscript culture too. Right. So, you know, if a poem gets written right then it's delivered to so-and-so and it's delivered to the next person, right?
I think there was just bigger circles of people that could be doing this. What is part of my research is to show that this also existed in New York, Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin is at the center of that. But I think if Buskirk even says she is in control of it, she has a couple of people who she writes to or writes poems to commonly they're described in the same ways as Milka Martha Moore's kind of group of women who she sends problems to and it talks about literature to.
But Schieffelin is at the center of that. There's a young man named William Rawls who sort of was in a position where he, as a young man, he just kind of was able to frolic around. So he, he, uh, left Philadelphia where his sisters were at, and he went to New York just to see what it was like.
And he fell in line with these women who were part of this literary circle and he had. The best time of his life. He just talks about in his letters, how, uh, taken away he is with these women, specifically, this woman named Hannah Lawrence at that point. They exchanged diaries at one point. Um, he gets angry because she loses his diary, but they write to each other in their pen names too, which is a little bizarre.
And he just talks about how, I mean, you kind of get this impression that he's just in love with her. So you can kind of also get from that part of her character that she is probably very persuasive and just outgoing. So that circle was happening there in her notes, she left so many detailed notes, which is so lovely.
She has a list of the pen names that her friends used. So it's not hard to just go and look and see who she was writing with.
Jim Ambuske: It’s like a code book.
Kait Tonti: Yeah. Yeah, it was like a code book. She took it really seriously.
So I don't think in terms of magazine culture, it's much different. It's just not as big, right. And I think it's just under-studied to a certain extent, the New York weekly magazine would be the longest running magazine.
You know, so many of these magazines would just fail, right, after a couple of months, they just couldn't keep up, you know, with, um, their membership, their readership versus the expenses of keeping a magazine going. But the New York weekly, I mean, it, it ran for a very long time. And so that kind of shows too, that there is this culture happening in New York, even if it is at a smaller level or at least the level that we're not recognizing right now, or that we were kind of so it's, it's kind of, it seems easier to study the Philadelphia literary culture because it was so widely recorded.
So my goal is to find more about the New York literary culture and figure out just how much of this I think Schieffelin plays at the heart of.
Jim Ambuske: It, it sounds pretty vibrant and as you were talking about them writing their pen names to each other. I think didn't Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose do something similar?
Kait Tonti: Yeah. Uh, William Rawls is, um, I believe it was Horatio was his pet name. So Matilda and Horatio shared many letters back and forth. And, uh, I don't know if there was ever a love connection between them, but he did seem really taken by her to say the least, and then he leaves and he goes back to Philadelphia.
He does put her in touch with his sisters, uh, and I'm not really sure to what, who his sisters are. I need to do more research on that.
Jim Ambuske: How does Schieffelin emerge as the center of the New York literary scene? You gave a fantastic overview of her early life, but it sounds like there's a lot still to be uncovered about that.
Kait Tonti: Yeah.
Jim Ambuske: You get a sense from her writings and you know, both prose and poetry about how she evolved as a writer and then was able to occupy the center of this culture?
Kait Tonti: Yeah. Um, I think that she just wrote a lot more than everybody else. She just wrote constantly. And they think getting into the concept of herself as a poet, she saw herself as a poet.
To her, this wasn't a hobby and you can very much tell by the way she records her poems, how she sort of organizes them, that she saw herself as this was her, her duty, this was her responsibility. So I think that kind of sets her up to be in that spotlight to be in kind of control of that circle. And all of this is happening, um, before she's married to Schieffelin.
So this is happening in her like late teens, early twenties.
Jim Ambuske: Wow.
Kait Tonti: Yeah. And by the time she has this circle, uh she's in at least in her early twenties. So a lot of this was taking place earlier in her life. You can see that her poetry gets a little less dramatic as she gets older. These early poems are mostly political in nature.
And I could talk a little bit about one of them specifically, but her later ones are more focused in legacy, more focused in family, more focused in kind of seeing her role as similar to a historian, I think. She saw the poet as just as much an influence to preserving history, or creating a legacy, from this period as a historian would have. Her mind changes on that after some, a series of events.
But when she's younger, I think she definitely sees herself as a poet as also a recorder, like a storyteller. She's not holding back as say, I am a poet. At some point she calls herself the poetess. So, you know, she definitely saw that as her job, essentially. And she always made a really detailed notes about where she was sending the poetry to.
Uh, at the top of most of her poems, it'll say for the New York Weekly or for the Time and Literary Piece Companions. So she already has an idea in her head when she begins to write this poetry, that she will send it somewhere. It's not by accident. Most of it's not by accident. Whereas a lot of the Philadelphia Quaker women, I'm sure they publish knowingly, but they were also in a position where somebody would get ahold of their poetry and send it in without their permission, that kind of thing.
But Schieffelin is different in how she's, she sees herself as a poet. That's her occupation.
Jim Ambuske: Tell us a little bit about that political poetry you just mentioned.
Kait Tonti: Yes. Yeah. There's a lot of it. I think the most intriguing of it is, is really, uh, one that I mentioned. It's called The Mall and in her notebook, it's originally actually titled something different.
It's titled, is a little bit longer, it's On the Purpose to Which the Avenue Adjoining Trinity Church, As of Late, Has Been Dedicated, 1779. But it's published as just The Mall. And it looks like somebody in her notebook, like if her notebook was passed down to a family member, maybe cause it's not in her writing on the back of the page where the poem ends, somebody scribbled The Mall by Mrs. Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin.
It's definitely not her handwriting. So I don't know at what point that turned into The Mall, but her original title for it was this long title of On the Purpose of this Avenue Adjoining Trinity Church. So that poem is, is really fiery.
Jim Ambuske: Can we get a little bit of a flavor with that?
Kait Tonti: Yes, yes we can.
So the, The Mall is a really unique situation. As I was saying earlier, there is a print copy of this just like, old printed version of The New York weekly magazine that you can just get on any kind of American periodicals database. And the beginning of this is that note from the anonymous person. And it says the following juvenile performances.
So again, he's talking about her poetry as a performance rather than just the poem, which I thought really spoke to her character, uh, were circulated in manuscript during the late Revolution when the British forces held position of the city in consequence of the improper to the resort to the walk in front of Trinity church.
And then he says, you know, if you think these are amusing then they are at your service. So she starts them all with this is the scene of gay, a resort here, vice and folly hold their court, here all the marshal band parade to vanquish from unguarded made your ambles many [adontlet chief] who can [oh grade great]Beyond relief, who can asage historians say defeat whose bottles in array.
So essentially she's saying that we can get rid of these guys that this scene of gay resort doesn't belong here. It gets a little bit more feverish toward the end. She says, oh, and then like an exclamation mark,
arm to vengeance arm, the skies. Oh, rife for no degenerate son bids, in his blood, the guilt atone by thunder from ethereal planes avenge. Your own, I think it says your own, uh, this honored. I can't really make out that word there, but essentially dishonored ground did the guardian lightnings flash around and vindicate the hallowed grounds.
So she's essentially saying, I hope they get hit by lightning. I hope they get set on fire, and then she takes a more satirical turn. She writes The Mall. And then she writes this recantation, and obviously we know that word recantation, as, you know, recanting your opinion on something. Doesn't seem like she's doing that here.
I think she's using the recantation as a satirical device, because most of this problem, which is separate from The Mall is sort of, I think it's speaking against people who are telling her she's too dramatic, or trying to convince her to write happier poetry. Right, I can imagine that, as a woman, people would say to her, you should be writing about happier things.
You should be writing about your friends and you should be writing about, you know, what kind of domestic work you do and you should be writing about God.
Jim Ambuske: It’s like the eighteenth century equivalent of you should smile more.
Kait Tonti: Exactly. Yes. That's exactly it. So I think she's being sarcastic here. She says in the beginning had I, the muse of satires, warmest rage to brand the vices of an impious age to snatch the villain from his happiest lot in calm oblivion to remain forgot.
A, and then she goes on to talking about the unmeaningful raving of fiery rhymes. Um, she even says she's making fun of the British soldiers themselves saying, oh, well, I guess we should kind of look at them as though they're, they're these beautiful beings. He, she even makes mention of their [00:29:00] horses. She says, next sing the trim well powder warrior's course, recount the gorgeous trappings of his horse.
Uh, how the broad [unbrains] intercept souls raised to shade, his beauties, uh, and then the rest of that's a little hard to make out, but far from the fields he dared to run. Uh, and then she kind of goes into talking about, again, how this hallowed ground is, is being treaded upon, right.
There is a reason to talk about this and that there is a reason that this is important. Now the funnier thing is that somebody writes back to her and she got this a lot. I think she caused a lot of outrage with her poetry. Uh, and this short little poem just says to Matilda. And it says Matilda stops by course of virtuous rage and spare from satire this unthankless age.
Um, so it was, this person is kind of saying, you know, we're already in a difficult place. Could you just spare us the drama? And that's just anonymous. Actually, it’s signed uh, with an R and then, um, a couple of stars after that. So it could, the number of stars after that, does, it could set, uh, spell out RA, I wonder I can't help, but wonder if it is her friend William Rawls responding?
Jim Ambuske: Well, Kate, one of the cool things you've been working on recently is working with the New York Public Library to actually digitize a lot of her manuscript poetry and whatnot. Can tell us a little bit about that exciting work, and then let's dive into another thorny subject that she sticks her poetry into, which was, is the gradual abolition debate.
Kait Tonti: Yeah, this is where it got, things get bad. Yeah. So I, you know, I was working on my dissertation. My dissertation was on women's Revolutionary, women's diaries and commonplace books and letters, So all kinds of life writing things. So in 2018, I was at the New York Public Library and I just came upon by happenstance, this folder.
And I thought, what, what drew my attention is that she had her own folder. Her stuff wasn't just kind of placed between her husband's writings or her brother, her father's writings. There was a whole couple of folders dedicated to just her. So that drew my attention, and I started looking through them and I was like, wow, I've never heard of this person before.
And then that's when I saw the Omohundro, uh, Institute’s Mount Vernon Digital Fellowship. So I applied to that, and to my surprise got it. So all that money went to the New York Public Library in digitizing, over a couple of months, these poems. It really has helped a lot. It's accessible. Um, I've put the link everywhere. Yeah.
I'm hoping people take the time to go and you can read it as a book, which is wonderful. So you can flip through the pages really easily. The other thing about Schieffelin's poetry is that it's really clear. Her handwriting is just beautiful. So it's not hard to see what she's saying. It's really, it's actually pretty simple to transcribe.
Once that was all digitized, I decided I wanted to make an Omeka page out of it. I just want it to focus on this one particular point in her life, which we're going to get to here in a minute, because she is, has such a history. You would really need a full edited digital edition to really speak to everything.
So I thought the Omeka part really just helped to talk about this particular instance in her life.
Jim Ambuske: We’ll certainly post the links to both the digitized images at the New York Public Library and your Omeka site. I've thumbed through the manuscripts themselves digitally, of course. And it's great. I mean, I, I, I'm a fan of early American poetry.
I've tried to use it as much as I can in my work where appropriate. Cause it's always a fascinating insight to how people are thinking about politics and uh, other issues in different ways, but it's a, there's a heck of a lot of stuff to go through. Like it's tremendous and not tooting our own horn here cause Mount Vernon helps, you know, supply some of the funding.
But like if there were a lot of things that needed to be digitized and that was one of them. So that's fantastic.
Kait Tonti: What is digitized is sort of, just not even all of it.
Jim Ambuske: Tip of the iceberg, right?
Kait Tonti: Tip of the iceberg. Her letters, letters are still there. I want to read through her husband's letters.
I want to read your, his, uh, he was, he ended up once they came back to New York after kind of taking that detour through Canada and Detroit. He was a merchant too, and he started a pharmacy. And so I want to get to looking at his letters and kind of thinking about what business he did as well, just to get a better idea of what kind of people they were in this moment and how, and to see also if his, I mean, he doesn't seem, like I said earlier, he doesn't seem to reject or be bitter toward, uh, the new government.
But I would hope to find something that speaks to it, or maybe even speaks to his wife's to Hannah's perspective of this. Cause he's, I mean, he married her. He clearly knew who she was. So I'd love to see what his perspective on her is.
Jim Ambuske: That’s fantastic. Well, let's, let's get into the sticky subject we were kind of referencing here a moment ago because this involves a gentleman named George Washington as well.
And that's the gradual abolition debate in which Schieffelin injects herself, poetically and politically. And it's a fascinating look at the tension over this entire debate.
Kait Tonti: Yeah. Okay. So this all starts with Edward Rushton, and Edward Rushton was an abolitionist. Uh, he was a poet. He not only believed in abolition, but he said we also need to provide education and opportunities for previously enslaved, now free peoples.
He was very influential in the Quaker community, definitely one of those loud voices. So she would have known who he was and the way she writes her response to him, and I'll get to that in a minute, definitely suggests she knew him, if not personally, she definitely felt like she knew him.
The thing about Edward Rushton is he writes this letter to Washington and he kind of, he just, he's very harsh on Washington and he, he sort of contradicts or he sort of challenges, I should say, George Washington's position of power. The most, I think damning part of the letter is this one and I'll, I'll read it to you.
It says it is not to the commander in chief of the American forces nor to the President of the United States that I have ought to address, my business is with George Washington of Mount Vernon in Virginia. A man who not withstanding his hatred of oppression and ardent love of Liberty holds at this moment, hundreds of his fellow beings in a state of abject bondage.
Yes. You who conquered under the banners of freedom. You are not the first magistrate of a freed people are strange to relate a slaveholder. That is what brings Schieffelin into this. So she presumably reads this letter. This is around 1797 in February, so by May 29th in 1797, the Time and Literary Piece Companion published her response, which is a vindication to Edward Rushton.
And it begins good enough, uh, it begins kind of with just addressing him and asking him, how could you do this? Right? How could you, belittle, the name of this man who has done so much for this country, she even says there's a couple of lines here I’ll read
Just the first in virtue talents and in fame to whom heaven gave for might deeds designed the firm enlightened, comprehensive mind, the heart to purpose and the soul to scan and all the noblest energies of man.
So in those lines, she is talking about Washington. And she says later, what could inspire thy sacreligious pen? And this is the part where it kind of sounds like maybe she, she knew him personally. She said, oh, Ruston, to defame the first of men and couldest thou dream that thy advice should sway the mind which millions glory to obey.
I love that line because she's essentially saying you're not as good as George Washington, so you're not going to be remembered for this. You don't have any right to write this. Then the problem is, the problem arises where she starts to get to the end of the poem. She gets, you can see possibly where she, it would be possible to she her as a proponent of slavery.
Cause most of the poem is about just loyalty to Washington. And then all of a sudden she says, um, and these are the lines that I have a lot of difficulty, uh, dealing with and trying to understand, um, cause she says, grant the event succeed thy favorite deed.
Let's imagine, right? That this actually happens, in cautious justice should complete the scheme, fly helpless whites to den and sheltering caves fly from the vengeance and the wants of slaves freed from restraints of rude unlettered band. Start into force and desolate the land. Prone to each face that slavery inspires fixed indolence and uncontrolled desires fly helpless whites to woods and shelter, caves, or toil to feed emancipated slaves.
When I got to that line, I was a little bit uncertain if I wanted to proceed with studying her, the New York Public Library's description or biography of her calls or anti-slavery, calls her an abolitionists. So when I got to that line, I said, no, she's not completely antislavery, not to the extent that Edward Ruston and other Quakers might have been. And of course, it wasn't completely uncommon for Quakers to be sort of in-between on this subject.
There were several meeting houses that just didn't obey the Quaker’s resolve to abolition and not owning slaves. So at this point, though, it's not completely unusual or unheard of, not all Quakers are, are abolitionists. Um, we, I think we make that assumption. They just weren't, they were divided on this issue.
Jim Ambuske: As you were reading them, they were very reminiscent of stuff that Thomas Jefferson writes in Notes on the State of Virginia or in what he says and other writings, right? If we are at a have immediate emancipation, there will be a race war and the land will be diluted in blood. And it's fascinating to see that perspective pop up in her poetry.
Kait Tonti: Yeah, I think we'll get to this in a little bit of her later poetry and talking about how she is trying to understand what George Washington's legacy will be. I think she's really torn, right? She's torn between wanting to be loyal to this new government. She's kind of taken aback and just completely indulgent in these ideas of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
She never writes anything to Thomas Jefferson, but, um, she's just, uh, she's just, immeshed in this right. She feeling the patriotism, she's feeling this devotion to Washington. Um, and a lot of women wrote, I mean, you could probably call it a genre. Poetry, George Washington poetry, but she's very much devoted to these men.
And I think that, that those lines are her trying to figure out, right, where she stands right here. How can you be devoted to this country that is also at the foundation, um, these men are still enslaving people? And I think she's having a really hard time trying to figure that out. Right? How can you justify the idea that this land is built on freedom that this country is built on freedom while this is also happening?
So her later poetry is going to show that she's a little bit torn by this, in this particular poem, I think again, she's rushing head first into the drama of it without thinking about it. Right. She's just kind of angry at Edward Rushton, she wants very much to defend Washington.
Toward the end of the poem she comes back to the issue of Washington. She abandons the slavery issue really quickly after those lines and she kind of decides she's going to take on the fight. And she says, in zeal for candor's violated laws. Fearless I venture forth and lead the van to vindicate from blame the glorious man. Though, well I know fate's universe decree, no mortal worth shall live from center free and only to the unconscious silent dust is fame proprietous and mankind is just.
So this line about I will lead, I will lead the pack to defend this person to the death is kind of, again, kind of reminiscent of her dramatic, romanticized lines that she's writing.
Jim Ambuske: Do you think as she was writing that piece, and she started down that track about it, seemingly defending slavery that she suddenly realizes uh, wait a second maybe I should shift gears and get back into Washington cause I may have gone too far?
Kait Tonti: I think so. I think so, because those are the only lines that really speak to it. There are a couple of lines though, um, that speak to her, she, she's essentially saying, well, you can't blame him. Right? You have to blame the people that came before him.
He's, you know, he has enslaved peoples, because this has become a sort of, uh, just expectation. And this is a very misguided opinion, obviously, but she says Rushton, if you're going to blame him, you're going to attack him for it, then you need to attack every single other person that owns a slave in this country. Right?
You have to write letters to them too. You have to call them out too, because otherwise you're just defaming Washington for the sake of defaming Washington, which of course is, like I said, that's a very misguided view. Not every single one of those people are the President of the United States, but that's the way she sort of sees it.
And then again, she, then she comes back to this defense of Washington, but she's going to get called out pretty quickly. On June 7th, 1797, is a poem that appears in the same magazine, the Time in Literary Piece Companion, and it's signed by somebody that just signs it “the slave”. I've been trying to figure out who that is, and there's a lot of different columns all over the place signed “the slave.” So that's going to take me a while.
But it's just titled To Matilda and it just kind of rips her apart and says, no, you're wrong, right? Washington's legacy, and again, this is really speaking to Washington's legacy more than it is to slavery, he is say Washington’s legacy is going to be corrupted by slavery, right? You can’t ignore that.
And then he accuses her of this declaration of pro-slavery sentiment. And part of the beginning of that poem says, ah, songstress hadst thou ever felt what was to labor, pant, and melt beneath the torrid solar ray and where in anguish life away. Oh, howdst thoe known the tyrant's lash or seeing the wide and sanguished gash? Oh, heard the streaks of agony then thou wouldst not plead for slavey.
He goes on to critique her presumption of whites having needed to flee, uh, or having been being attacked or having to live in caves. He just kind of says that that's absurd, that's ridiculous. But he also, whoever this person is also, he says thy muse revere.
So he is saying, I do revere you. The hero to Columbia is dear to us. So, he's not saying that George Washington is a bad guy, necessarily. He's just saying that the legacy is going to be tarnished by slavery. He does say at the end, he says, this is, this is going to hurt him, but he's sort of getting into this place where he wants to kindly settle the argument with Matilda, with Schieffelin, and sort of commenting that one of the tenants that was essential to the success of the new Republic is this right to free speech.
Right. And that applies to everybody and he ends the poem with though the world have joined the praise, the actions of his numerous days. And so essentially, yeah, we should praise Washington for his accomplishments, but then it turns, yet virtue when she crowns his grave shall weep that he ever owned a slave and fame regretfully complain that on his glory rests one stain.
So this poem is not necessarily calling out George Washington, the way that the Edward Rushton letter was. But it's certainly asking Matilda to, are asking Schieffelin to self-reflect on what she believes it will be Washington's legacy. Then she prints and publishes a poem to rebuke “The Slave” called On the Necessity of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.
And it's addressed to “The Slave” and she tries to mend what she said. She's going on about how it's despicable that this exists. This is not within God's plans for humanity. That there are many evils that exist in the world, and this is definitely one of them. Schieffelin tries to convince the readers that she views all people as God's children, regardless of race.
She recognizes that slavery is not a Christian mindset. In one of the verses she says to Africks wretched sons we still allow a painful, sad preeminence and woh and sure with the I reprobate, the plan that made of mankind the property of man. So she's really trying to reestablish herself as,uh, an abolitionist to the extent that you could call her that.
But the last stanza returns again to Washington's legacy. She says, indulge the Patriots and poet’s flame, but spare in gratitude, that honored name nor make the hero by reproach atone, his predecessors’ errors, not his own. So again, trying desperately to see the separate layers of Washington and trying to ignore what she knows is not the good parts of him.
And then “The Slave” writes her back and says you're still wrong, essentially. And that's where the debate ends. It just kind of, you know, there's a couple of more responses to Matilda that are a little bit harsher. Um, really calling her out, calling her pro-slavery. How can you, you're a monster, all these things, those are shorter.
But getting into this debate then leads her into reconsidering how Washington's legacy will be remembered.
Jim Ambuske: One of the really interesting things in your digital exhibit, where you lay out this debate is right at the very end where you're talking about the rebuttals from “The Slave” and raising the possibility that this might actually be Schieffelin herself, potentially.
Kait Tonti: Yeah, I think so.
Jim Ambuske: One that's a really smart PR move, but then two, like very clearly wrestling with these questions, as you say, self-reflection and she's doing it potentially in both avenues.
Kait Tonti: Yeah. So the thing about Schieffelin is she leaves more mysteries the more and more that you study her, and the more you think you understand her, she does something mysterious that makes you go okay, maybe I need to start from the beginning and try to reevaluate everything. And this is one of the mysteries that she leaves us in.
The reason I suggest that is for two reasons. In her notebooks, she has written down her response to Edward Rushton and she has at the top of it, usually what she would write if she was submitting something to a publication. So it just says for the Time and Literary Piece Companion, this title, sent on this date, and then she does the same for On the Necessity of Gradual Abolition of Slavery to “The slave.”
She has these pieces back to back, so it starts with the vindication that ends and then on that next page, she starts with for the Time and Literary Piece Companion to Matilda. So she's doing the same thing that she does with all of her poetry that she submits. The other thing is the lines are also really fiery, are sort of similar to the language she uses.
There's not a lot of difference in the fiery tone. And so that's the other thing that kind of compels me to wonder if she's, she is doing this back and forth on purpose. Also, the dates are really, really close together. So May 29th, 1797 immediately followed by June 7th 1797. I wonder, you know, how long would it take to, to print something like this, get it distributed.
I mean, I guess it's possible that somebody would have found it and been able to write this response in that amount of time, but it seems like they're really, really close together as though she were purposely staging this out. The other thing is at the top of the magazine where this is published, it says to Matilda see ours of last Monday, which it's, which kind of sounds to me as though they knew it was like a series almost.
Right, that they were seeing it as a series. So I have to wonder if it's really actually just her, and if it is her, that just raises so many more questions and also speaks to her immense talent as a poet, too.
Jim Ambuske: More Conversations after the break.
Want to dive deeper into Schieffelin poetry? Be sure to check out the show notes for today's episode for links to her digitized manuscript collections held by the New York Public Library and Dr. Tonti’s digital exhibit on Schieffelin and the gradual abolition debate.
And now back to the show, Kait, what book are you reading, right now?
Kait Tonti: Right now is actually not anything related to anything that I study. I'm actually reading, uh, for a class I’m teaching. I somehow got charged with teaching science fiction this semester.
And I, I don't know how that happened, but, um, I mean, I like Star Trek, so maybe that was enough. So I'm reading Louise Erdrich’s, I think is how you pronounce her last name, The Future Home of the Living God, which is a sort of indigenous take on dystopia. But in terms of scholarly stuff, I'm reading, I'm still working my way through Generous Enemies by Buskirk.
I look forward to reading some of the new things that have come out about Native American Studies. Our Beloved Kin is on my list, um, that I'm really trying to find time to get to.
Jim Ambuske: Who is the author you most admire?
Kait Tonti: Oh gosh. Um, I think in my field, I mean, this is a common answer, but I'm always amazed by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
I love, uh, Midwive’s Tale. I love her book Good Wives, which is one of the ones that as an undergrad, I just devoured, um, and really, uh, thought, gosh, I have to know more about this. So, you know, I just want to know more about this. So I think her, but I also love, uh, Caroline Wigington and then I'm also really interested in some of the things that my mentor and friend Mary Balkan is doing with digital humanities stuff.
So I've been reading up on some of the things she's doing in her, her area there, some of the presentations and articles she's made using Early American Studies with digital humanities project.
Jim Ambuske: We've spent a lot of time talking about documents today. So this may be a little tricky, but what is the most exciting document you've ever found?
Kait Tonti: It has to be one of these poems.
There's this one that keeps challenging me. Um, and it's this tiny little poem. Some of her stuff was just scribbled on tiny little bits of fragments. It's to Alexander Hamilton, but the way that she writes it, it almost makes it look as though she's copying the lines of something Alexander Hamilton wrote and I have to, I can not figure that out.
Um, it's, it's sort of vague in nature and the lines are kind of weird too. She has a couple of poems to him and this one is just escaping me because it's so different than the other ones. So I can't help, but wonder if she's just copying lines that she received somehow from him or from maybe one of his family members.
Um, so I'm still looking into that. So, I don't know if that's the most exciting, but that's definitely the most confusing right now.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah. Well some of the, sometimes those are the most exciting and the hunt continues.
Kait Tonti: Yeah, yeah. I think I was really excited when I found these back-to-back poems, uh, and her, her notebook.
And that kind of gave me what I started to suspect is that she might've been writing both perspectives.
Jim Ambuske: Finally, how do you hope people remember your work?
Kait Tonti: I just hope that hopefully with this project and the amount of work I'm putting into it, and just my love for this woman at this point, I'm hoping that she just becomes part of the conversation that already is happening about these amazing women who existed.
And I hope she complicates that conversation. I hope that this gradual abolition debate that she's part of complicates it enough. You know, we're always looking for people who we want to see as perfect. Right? We want to always see the subjects that we study as not being the stereotypical Early American, who, you know, we perceive as, um, just not being as informed about, uh, equity and diversity as we are and not to defend her.
At all, but to suggest, and to show that she really was kind of living in this liminal space and not being sure what to make of it herself is really important to that history, especially to the history of how, you know, abolition becomes involved and some of the, uh, women's suffragist movements. You can't separate abolitionists from white supremacists necessarily, or not necessarily white supremacists, but just this general nature of not thinking that enslaved people had any rights, right?
They could be abolitionists, but also harbor those thoughts that, so it's complicated. And I just hope that whatever happens with this, whether I, I think I want to try to publish an article on her, which I'm working on right now.
I would love to have an addition of this made into a book the Schieffelin poetry. I just hope whatever comes of this is something that complicates the way that we see Quakers and complicates the way that we see women poets in this particular period.
Jim Ambuske: Thank you very much. This has great.
Kait Tonti:Thank you.
I was so excited to do this, thank you.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for listening to Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. For this episode, we received additional support from Mount Vernon's Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witch’s Brew” by CK Martin.
Before we go, please do us a favor and rate and review Conversations on your favorite podcast app. It helps others find the show and lets us know what you're learning about our Early American past and be sure to head over to our website at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com to find more great episodes.
Thanks. And we'll see you next time.
Kait Tonti holds a PhD in English and is a professor and scholar of early American literature and multiethnic American literature. She has taught at many institutions including Hollins University and Seton Hall University. She has several publications on early American women's life-writing and poetry. Her current work is focused on the 18th century Quaker, Hannah Lawrence Schieffelin's poetry, for which she has created an Omeka Exhibit and is in the process of completing a book proposal for a edited collection of Schieffelin's work. Kait's other scholarly interests include 18th and 19th-century Native American women's writing, materiality studies, digital humanities, and portrayals of early America in popular culture.