Elizabeth Ferguson Biography | Women of the Revolution


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    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Elizabeth Ferguson.


      The old building called the Carpenter Mansion, the site of which is now occupied by the Arcade in Philadelphia, was the residence of Doctor Thomas Graeme, the father of Mrs. Ferguson. He was a native of Scotland; distinguished as a physician in the city; and for some time was colonial collector of the port. He married Anne, the daughter of Sir William Keith, then Governor of Pennsylvania.

      More than thirty years before the Revolution, when these premises were occupied by Governor Thomas, the fruit trees, garden, and shrubbery often allured the townsfolk to extend their walks thither. The youth of that day were frequently indebted to the kindness of the Governor’s lady, who invited them to help themselves from a long range of cherry trees; and when May day came, the young girls were treated to bouquets and wreaths from the gardens. After the death of Dr. Graeme, in 1772, the property passed successively into different hands. In time of the war, the house was appropriated for the use of the sick American soldiery, who died there in hundreds of the camp fever. The sufferers were supplied with nourishment by the ladies of Philadelphia; and General Washington himself sent them a cask of Madeira, which he had received as a present from Robert Morris. The mansion was the scene, moreover, of a most touching spectacle, on one occasion, when the mother of a youth from the country came to seek her son among the dead in the hospital. While mourning over him as lost to her for ever, she discerned signs of life, and ere long he was restored to consciousness in her arms.

      While occupied by Dr. Graeme, the house was long rendered attractive and celebrated, not only by his exuberant hospitality, but by the talents and accomplishments of his youngest daughter. She was the centre of the literary coteries of that day, who were accustomed to meet at her father’s residence. Even in early life she discovered a mind richly endowed with intellectual gifts. These were cultivated with care by her excellent and accomplished mother. She was born in 1739. In her youth she passed much time in study; for which, and the cultivation of her poetical talents, opportunities were afforded in the pleasant retreat where her parents spent their summers – Graeme Park, in Montgomery county, twenty miles from Philadelphia. It is said that the translation of Telemachus into English verse – the manuscript volumes of which are in the Philadelphia Library – was undertaken by Elizabeth Graeme, as a relief and diversion of her mind from the suffering occasioned by a disappointment in love. After this, the failure of her health induced her father to send her to Europe. Her mother, who had long been declining, wished her much to go, and for a reason as singular as it is touching. She believed the time of her death to be at hand; and felt that the presence of her beloved daughter prevented that exclusive fixing of her thoughts and affections upon heavenly things, which in her last hours she desired. This distrust of the heart is not an uncommon feeling. Archbishop Lightfoot wished to die separated from his home and family. A mother, some years ago, in her last moments said to her daughter, who sat weeping at her bedside, “Leave me, my child; I cannot die while you are in the room.” Something of the same feeling is shown in an extract from one of Mrs. Graeme’s letters, written to be delivered after her death: “My trust,” she says, “is in my heavenly Father’s mercies, procured and promised by the all-sufficient merits of my blessed Saviour; so that whatever time it may be before you see this, or whatever weakness I may be under on my death-bed, be assured this is my faith – this is my hope from my youth up until now.”

      Mrs. Graeme died, as she expected, during the absence of her daughter; but left two farewell letters to be delivered on her return. These contained advice respecting her future life in the relations of wife and mistress of a household; and the most ardent expressions of maternal affection. Elizabeth remained a year in England, under the guardianship of the Rev. Dr. Richard Peters, of Philadelphia, whose position enabled him to introduce her into the best society. She was sought for in literary circles, attracted the attention of distinguished persons by her mental accomplishments, and was particularly noticed by the British monarch. The celebrated Dr. Fothergill, whom she consulted as a physician, was during his life her friend and correspondent.

      Her return to Philadelphia was welcomed by a numerous circle of friends, who came to console with her upon her mother’s death, and to testify their affectionate remembrance of herself. The stores of information gained during her visit to Great Britain, where she had been “all eye, all ear, and all grasp,” were dispensed for the information and entertainment of those she loved. She now occupied the place of her mother in her father’s family, managing the house and presiding in the entertainment of his visitors. During several years of their winter residence in the city, Saturday evenings were appropriated for the reception of their friends, and strangers who visited Philadelphia with introductions to the family of Dr. Graeme. The mansion was, in fact, the head-quarters of literature and refinement; and the hospitality of its owner rendered it an agreeable resort. Miss Graeme was the presiding genius. Her brilliant intellect, her extensive and varied knowledge, her vivid fancy, and cultivated taste, offered attractions which were enhanced by the charm of her graceful manners.

      It was at one of these evening assemblies that she first saw Hugh Henry Ferguson, a young gentleman lately arrived in the country from Scotland. They were pleased with each other at the first interview, being congenial in literary tastes, and a love of retirement. The marriage took place in a few months, notwithstanding that Ferguson was ten years younger than Miss Graeme. Not long after this event her father died, having bequeathed to his daughter the country-seat in Montgomery county, on which she and her husband continued to reside.

      The happiness anticipated by Mrs. Ferguson, in country seclusion and her books, was of brief duration. The discontents were increasing between Great Britain and America, which resulted in the war of Independence. It was necessary for Mr. Ferguson to take part with one or the other; and he decided according to the prejudices natural to his birth, by espousing the royal cause. From this time a separation took place between him and Mrs. Ferguson.

      Her connection with certain political transactions exposed her for a time to much censure and mortification. But there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her declarations with regard to the motives that influenced her conduct. Many of her unobtrusive charities testify to her sympathy with her suffering countrymen. She not only visited the cottages in her neighborhood with supplies of clothing, provisions, or medicines for the inmates, but while General Howe had possession of Philadelphia, she sent a quantity of linen into the city, spun with her own hands, and directed it to be made into shirts for the benefit of the American prisoners taken at the battle of Germantown.

      Another instance of her benevolence is characteristic. On hearing, in one of her visits to the city, that a merchant had become reduced, and having been imprisoned for debt, was suffering from want of the comforts of life, she sent him a bed, and afterwards visited him in prison, and put twenty dollars into his hands. She refused to inform him who was his benefactor; but it was discovered by his description of her person and dress. At this time her annual income, it is said, was reduced to a very limited sum. Many other secret acts of charity, and many instances of her sensibility and tender sympathy with all who suffered, performed at the expense of her personal and habitual comforts, were remembered by her friends.

      Her husband being engaged in the British service, she was favored by the loyalists, while treated with respect at the same time by the other party as an American lady who occupied a high social position. I It was natural that she should be in some measure influenced by attachment to the old order of things, and respect for the civil institutions she had been accustomed to venerate; while her desire for the good of her countrymen led to ardent wishes that the desolations and miseries she witnessed might cease. It is said she often wept over newspapers containing details of suffering. The sensibility that could not bear to look on the woes even of the brute creation, must have been severely tried by the daily horrors of civil war. It is not surprising, therefore, that she should be eager to seize any opportunity that offered of being instrumental in ending them.

      Immediately after the British took possession of Philadelphia, Mrs. Ferguson was the bearer of a letter from the Rev. Mr. Duché to General Washington, which greatly displeased him, causing him to express to her his disapprobation of the intercourse.

      The reader is referred to the LIFE AND CORRESPONDENCE OF PRESIDENT REED, by his grandson, William B. Reed. Vol. I., 381. Mrs. Ferguson’s letters are there quoted, with her narrative, at length. She seemed to have held with the writer, and his expectation that it should be discontinued. At a later period she came again to Philadelphia, under a pass granted her by the Commander-in-chief, for the purpose of taking leave of her husband. She was at the house of her friend Charles Stedman, which chanced to be the place appointed for the residence of Governor Johnstone, one of the commissioners sent under parliamentary authority to settle the differences between Great Britain and America. She was in company with him three times; the conversation being general on the first two occasions. His declarations, she says, were so warm in favor of American interests, that she looked upon him as really a friend to her country. He wished, since he could not himself be permitted to pass the lines, to find some person who would step forward and act a mediatorial part, by suggesting something to stop the effusion of blood likely to ensue if the war were carried on. Mrs. Ferguson said repeatedly, that she believed the sentiment of the people to be in favor of Independence. “I am certain,” were her words in the last conversation on the subject, “that nothing short of Independence will be accepted.” Yet it does not appear that her own views were averse to a re-union of the two countries.

      Governor Johnstone then expressed a particular anxiety for the influence of General Reed; and requested Mrs. Ferguson, “if she should see him,” to convey the idea, that provided he could, “comformably to his conscience and views of things,” exert his influence to settle the dispute, “he might command ten thousand guineas, and the best post in the government.” In reply to Mrs, Ferguson’s question, if Mr. Reed Would not look upon such a mode of obtaining his influence as a bribe, Johnstone immediately disclaimed any such idea; said such a method of proceeding was common in all negotiations; and that one might honorably make it a man’s interest to step forth in such a cause. She on her part expressed her conviction that if Mr. Reed thought it right to give up the point of Independence, he would say so without fee or reward; and if he were of a different opinion, no pecuniary emolument would lead him to give a contrary vote. Mr. Johnstone did not see the matter in this light.

      A day or two after this communication was suggested, Mrs. Ferguson sent by a confidential messenger a note to General Reed, at head-quarters, requesting an hour’s conversation previous to her going to Lancaster on business, and desiring him to fix a place where she could meet him without the necessity of passing through the camp. She stated that the business on which she wished to confer with him could not be committed to writing.

      The note was received on the 21st of June, after General Reed’s arrival in the city, which had been evacuated three days before by the British. He sent word by the bearer that he would wait upon Mrs. Ferguson the same evening. At this interview, the conversation treating of Governor Johnstone’s desire of settling matters upon an amicable footing, and his favorable sentiments towards Mr. Reed, General Reed mentioned that he had received a letter from him at Valley Forge. Mrs. Ferguson then repeated, in all its particulars, the conversation that had passed at the house of Mr. Stedman. Her repetition of the proposition of Governor Johnstone brought from General Reed the prompt and noble reply: “I AM NOT WORTH PURCHASING; BUT SUCH AS I AM, THE KING OF GREAT BRITAIN IS NOT RICH ENOUGH TO DO IT.”

      General Reed laid before Congress both the written and verbal communications of Governor Johnstone; withholding, however, the name of the lady, from motives of delicacy, and reluctance to draw down popular indignation upon her. An account of the transaction was also published in the papers of the day. It was useless to attempt concealment of her name; suspicion was at once directed to her; and her name was called for by a resolution of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The attempt through the wife of a loyalist to bribe a member of Congress to aid in uniting the Colonies to the mother country, proved of incalculable service in recalling the doubting and irresolute whigs to a sense of duty. The story, and the noble reply, were repeated from mouth to mouth; and from the hour it was known, the whigs had won – the tories lost – the future empire.” Congress issued a declaration condemning the daring and atrocious attempts made to corrupt their integrity, and declaring it incompatible with their honor to hold any manner of correspondence with the said George Johnstone.

      As may be imagined, disagreeable consequences ensued, which were severely felt by Mrs. Ferguson. As soon as she saw the article in Towne’s Evening Post, which reached her at Graeme Park, July 26th, 1778, she addressed a letter of remonstrance to General Reed, bitterly complaining of having been exhibited in the newspapers as a mere emissary of the commissioners. “I own I find it hard,” she says, “knowing the uncorruptness of my heart, to be held out to the public as a tool to the commissioners. But the impression is now made, and it is too late to recall it. How far, at this critical juncture of time, this affair may injure my property, is uncertain; that, I assure you is but a secondary thought.”

      It appears evident that Mrs. Ferguson did not act this part in any expectation of deriving advantage for herself. Her associations and connections being chiefly with the royalists, it was natural that her opinions should be influenced by theirs; but her desire for the good of the country was undoubtedly disinterested. After the return of Governor Johnstone to England, he ventured to deny the charge preferred in the resolutions of Congress, by a letter published in Rivington’s Gazette; and in a speech in November in the House of Commons, boldly asserted the falsehood of the statement made by General Reed. His denial no sooner reached America , than Mrs. Ferguson, anxious that justice should be done to all parties, published her narrative of the transaction, confirmed by her oath. The excellence of the motives which had actuated her in consenting to act as Johnstone’s confidential agent, is sufficiently apparent in the spirit she now exhibited.

      “Among the many mortifying insinuations that have been hinted on the subject, none has so sensibly affected me, as an intimation that some thought I acted a part, in consequence of certain expectations of a post, or some preferment from Mr. Johnstone, to be conferred on the person dearest to me on earth. On that head I shall say no more, but leave it to any person of common sense to determine, if I had any views of that kind, whether I should, in so full and solemn a manner, call in question what Mr. Johnstone has asserted in the House of Commons. A proceeding of this kind must totally exclude all avenues of favor from that quarter, were there ever any expected, which I solemnly declare never was the case. If this account should ever have the honor to be glanced over by the eye of Governor Johnstone, I know not in what medium. he may view it. It is possible that the multiplicity of ideas, which may be supposed to pass through the brain of a politician in the course of a few months, may have jostled the whole transaction out of his memory. Should this be the case, insignificant and contemptible as I may appear to him, I believe there are two or three people in Britain who will venture to tell him, in all his plenitude of power, that they believe I would not set my hand to an untruth.”

      Mrs. Ferguson’s poetical talent has been mentioned. Her verses were said to possess vigor and measure, but to lack melody, while her prose writings indicated both genius and knowledge. She was well read in polemical divinity, and a firm believer in the doctrines of revelation. She is said to have transcribed the whole Bible, to impress its contents more deeply upon her mind; hence the facility with which she would select appropriate passages to illustrate or adorn the subjects of her writings or conversation.

      She had no children, but adopted the son and daughter of one of her sisters, who on her deathbed committed them to her care. The nephew, an accomplished scholar and gentleman, was till his death a lieutenant in the British army.

      The talents and attainments of Mrs. Ferguson, her virtues, elevated and invigorated by Christian faith, her independence and integrity of character, and her benevolent feeling for others, endeared her name to a large circle of friends. Yet her life appears to have been one darkened by sorrow. In her later years the reduction of her income diminished her means of usefulness; but she would not permit any privations to which she found it necessary to submit, to be a source of unhappiness.

      She died at the house of a friend near Graeme Park, on the twenty-third of February, 1801, in the sixty-second year of her age.

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