Henrietta Liston and George Washington: A Special Relationship

Frank Cogliano

Frank Cogliano is Professor of American History and Dean International (North America) at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the political, diplomatic and intellectual history of the early United States. He is author of 'Emperor of liberty: Thomas Jefferson's foreign policy' published by Yale University Press in 2014, and of 'Revolutionary America, 1763–1815: A political history', the third edition of which was published by Routledge in early 2017. Frank is working on an assessment of current historiography on the American Revolution as well as a book-length consideration of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. He co-hosts a weekly podcast, The Whiskey Rebellion, and makes regular appearances on the BBC to discuss American history and politics.

Henrietta Liston arrived in the United States in May 1796. She was 44 years old and had recently married Robert Liston, a 54-year-old British diplomat who had been posted as the British minister to the United States.

When they arrived in New York, Britain had only recognised the independence of the United States for 13 years. Indeed, Britain and the United States had only enjoyed formal diplomatic relations since 1791. Robert Liston was the second British minister to the new republic, succeeding George Hammond.

The Listons were fortunate in that their arrival coincided with a thaw in British-American relations. As Henrietta wrote to her uncle in Glasgow:

'A very fortunate circumstance has occurred for us — the Treaty with Great Britain was ratified about the time of our coming into port, after a very warm opposition, the express which brought the accounts to New York arrived in the very moment that Mr Liston's arrival was announced & both pieces of information circulated throughout Town at the same time — disputes, it seems, ran so high the week before our arrival that I have been told we ought to esteem the Gale of Wind, which retarded us a week, as a piece of good fortune — no warmth over politics have occurred in our Company when we have been, whether this is always the case, or a compliment paid to Mr Liston I know not — the King of Great Britain has always been the first toast, the President of the United States the next for all goes well.' [See note 1]

British-American relations had been on an uncertain footing early in the presidency of George Washington (1789-1797) and there was a crisis in 1793-1794 that brought the two nations to the brink of war for the second time in a generation. That crisis was averted when the American and British Governments concluded the Jay Treaty in 1794, a commercial agreement between the two countries that settled many outstanding differences between them.

The Jay Treaty proved to be controversial within the United States: the Republican opposition to Washington's Federalist administration opposed the treaty as too pro-British and thus anti-French. Revolutionary France, which was at war with Britain at the time, took a similar view of the agreement and waged war on American shipping in Europe and the West Indies. This 'quasi-war' threatened to become an open war and persisted throughout most of the five years that the Listons lived in the United States. [See note 2]

The Listons arrived in the United States at a moment when British-American relations were in a parlous state. While the Jay Treaty had averted war, it remained divisive and controversial. President George Washington favored maintaining a policy of neutrality in the war between Britain and France, but his Federalist administration was generally sympathetic to Britain. The Republican opposition, led by former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his ally in Congress, James Madison, distrusted Britain and favored a more pro-French policy.

Foreign relations and domestic politics were intertwined in a complex way that posed a challenge for a foreign diplomat like Robert Liston, especially since he was the representative of the former colonial power. In the main he handled the situation deftly. When the Listons left the United States in 1800, British-American relations were on a firmer footing than they had been in 1796. This was an important achievement and was made possible, in part through the assistance of Robert's new wife, Henrietta. Working together, the Listons sought to promote a more harmonious relationship between Britain and the United States, particularly by cultivating a close relationship with George and Martha Washington.

When they arrived in New York after a six-week journey they met with John Jay, who had negotiated the eponymous treaty, as well as the former treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Like Henrietta Liston, Hamilton had been born in the West Indies. Henrietta was impressed by Hamilton. She wrote:

'We were visited by, and very frequently met another Man of Emenence in this Country Col: Hamilton; — once Secretary of the Treasury, & the framer of the Funding System adopted in this Country, author also or rather Editor of the publication called the Federalist, — Col: Hamilton is by Birth a West-Indian; by Profession a Lawyer; & has retired from publick business to the practice of his Profession. He is lively & animated in conversation, gallant in his manners, & sometimes Brilliant in his Sallies, — His political conduct has occasioned created him many Enemies & brought upon him unjustly, much obloquy, He is, however, a great support to the Federal-Constitution.' [See note 3]

Jay and Hamilton were leading Federalists. Throughout their time in the United States the Listons expressed sympathy for, and socialised with, the ruling Federalist Party. Given that the Federalists were the pro-British party, this isn't really surprising. Further, it is testimony to the degree to which foreign policy and domestic politics were inseparable in the early American republic.

The Listons were keen to get to the capital, Philadelphia, so that Robert could present his credentials. They were particularly anxious to meet the president, of whom Henrietta wrote: 'Washington has made to himself a name remarkable in Europe; but of peculiar Magic in America.' She described what it was like to attend one of Washington's public levees where he often conducted diplomacy and politics, and to meet George and Martha Washington for the first time:

'Mr Liston delivered his Credentials on a Monday, & Tuesday being Levee-day I accompanied him to the House of the President & was, by him, presented to Mrs Washington, — she was seated in a Drawing room alone, &received me with much kindness, — her figure though short & fat, is not with out dignity, her face retains the marks of delicate beauty, & her voice is melody itself.

'The Gentlemen from the Levee crowded to make their Bows to her … After the Levee was over the President came into the room, accompanied by Mr Liston, — Washingtons appearance & manners struck me extremely, Tall, Majestic, & well proportioned, — his face at the age of sixty three rather pleasing, particularly when he smiles, — In his air & movements, there was a dignity which, even the general coldness of his address did not lessen — to me he was affable & kind & when we arose to take leave, requested to see us often, without ceremony or reserve.' [See note 4]

After this initial meeting, the Listons met the Washingtons regularly as part of the regular round of diplomatic social engagements. [See note 5]

Several days after attending the president's levee they attended a reception hosted by Martha Washington with the Portuguese ambassador and his wife. Henrietta, ever the observant diarist, described the scene:

'The meeting is at seven oClock. Mrs Washington was placed at one end of the room, — every Lady, as she enters, is handed up to her, by a Gentleman; she makes her Curtsey, & is conducted to her seat, which she does not quit till she retires from the room, in doing which she is again handed up to Mrs Washington; that Lady never rising from her seat, but to return these compliments; of course she can converse only with those Ladies placed near to her. The Gentlemen standing in the Centre, have the opportunity of paying their Compliments to all the Company.' [See note 6]

Henrietta conversed with George Washington at the reception. She noted: 'The President is extremely attentive, contriving to converse, less, or more, with every Lady in the Circle. Tea, Coffee, Cakes, wine, Ices, &c — are repeatedly handed round: & by ten o Clock the whole is over.'

She and Robert must have made a good impression. The following week the Listons were invited to dine with the Washingtons at a private dinner on Wednesday evening (public dinners were held on Thursdays). Henrietta provided a detailed description of the evening:

'This Entertainment, though sombre & formal, had an air of Magnificence; — there was a Plateau ornamented with French figures, two courses of French cookery served up in the American style (of French Cookery) & a Desert, — The President sat in the Centre of one side, I was on his right hand, Madame de Freire on his left; Mrs Washington separated from him only by a Lady & Gentleman. The Secretary of State at the Bottom of the Table, — the private Secretary at the top. The President during dinner drinks wine with every Lady, & with most of the Gentlemen. He gives no toast after dinner; — Though this was not a scene of animation or hilarity, it pleased me, upon the whole, by a look of respectability & perfect propriety.' [See note 7]

To some extent the early socialising between the Listons and the Washingtons is what one might expect for a newly arrived representative of a major power. However it seems that a close relationship developed between the two couples which transcended political and diplomatic necessity. Henrietta came to know President Washington quite well. She provided one of the most vivid and perceptive portraits of Washington at the end of his presidency in a journal entitled, 'Description of the resignation of General Washington as President, of visits to him at Mount Vernon, and of his death'. [See note 8] It warrants quotation at length:

'Had I never before considered the character of Washington, — I should certainly have joined the general voice, & pronounced him, greater in his voluntary retreat, & in the resignation of power over an immense country, — than when, having by his conduct as a Solider, been the principal means of rendering this Country independent, he became, by the universal suffrage of the people, its ruler & director. I should have repeated with others, — Washington is the first of Men — wise, great, & good, — whereas as I now view him he is in truth & reality — honest, prudent & fortunate, &, wonderful to say, almost without ambition: these words are less dignified but no less strong.

'Emperors & Kings are generally born to exalted stations, bred up in luxury & fed by flattery. When Charles the fifth abdicated his Crown it was perhaps from ostentation & vanity, possibly from caprice or superstition, — & could he afterwards have recalled resumed his power is it likely he had done so. He had been born a Monarch. Washington, to whose fame every thing conspired, was born a private individual, a needy Man, & at one period of his life followed the employment of a Land surveyor; — & this perhaps gave him — or at least increased in early life — a taste for the country. — his business led to long rides, in which he acquired a knowledge of the quality of land & the different modes of farming. He afterwards became a Soldier under Great Britain, & studied the profession as one by which he was to gain his bread. Naturally grave & silent, his mode of life has rendered him frugal & temperate. Vanity in him was a very limited passion, & prudence his striking trait. Most people say & do too much; — Washington, partly from constitutional taciturnity, — but still more from natural sagacity & careful observation, never fell into this common error. Nature had been liberal to him: To a majestic figure was added a native unaffected gracefulness of deportment, & dignity of manner, which was rather improved by a likening — I will not say fondness — for dress. To all this was joined, how acquired — Heaven knows, — a perfect good breeding, & a correct knowledge of even the Etiquette of a Court. His graceful figure had rather assisted him command as a General when in the Army, — & his dignified manners excited involuntary respect when he appeared as the President of a Great Country.' [See note 9]

She continued:

'His education has been confined; he knew no language but his own, & expressed himself in that, rather forcibly than elegantly. Though neither a Man of learning, nor of much acquired knowledge, — he possessed, not only great good sense & a sound judgement, but was a Man of observation & of deep reflection. — letter Writing seemed in her a peculiar talent: — his style was plain correct & [nervous]. — ill natured people said that Washington did not write his own publick letters, answers to addresses, &c. this is not true. I have known him to write in his usual impressive manner when no person was near to aid him; & what may seem conclusive, — he has always written better than the Gentleman to who the merit of his letters was ascribed.

'Character. — Naturally hot-tempered, cold hearted, & guarded, — he acquired a uniform command over his passions on publick occasions, — but in private & particularly with his Servants, its violence sometimes broke out. His countenance was peculiarly pleasant when he laughed, which he apparently did with good humour at the jests of others, & told his own occasionally with gaiety; but it was the flash of a moment; gaiety was not natural to him. He rose at all seasons early. It was his constant practice to reply to every letter he received, whether the contents were of more or less importance, agreeable or otherwise. His first & last pleasure appeared to be farming: — on that theme he always talked freely — being on other topics extremely cautious not to commit himself & never spoke on any subject of which he was not master.' [See note 10]

Henrietta believed that Washington received too much credit for voluntarily relinquishing office. To her mind Washington was thoroughly fed up with public life by the time he retired.

'He has for eight years sacrificed his natural taste, first habits, & early propensities, — I really believe we may truly say — solely to what he thought the good of his Country. But he was become tired of his Situation, fretted by the opposition made to his measures; & his pride revolted against the ingratitude he experienced, — and he was also disgusted by the scurrilous abuse lavished upon him by his political enemies.' [See note 11]

Henrietta Liston had come to know the often inscrutable George Washington very well in a relatively brief period of time. Hers is one of the most perceptive descriptions we have of Washington during his lifetime. This account is testimony to the relationship that must have developed between the two and to Henrietta's acute powers of observation and expression.

It is testimony to the strength and depth of the friendship that developed between the Listons and the Washingtons, a friendship that seems to have transcended political and diplomatic necessity, that Henrietta and Robert Liston visited the Washingtons repeatedly at their plantation at Mount Vernon during Washington's retirement. These included a five-day visit in November of 1797. [See note 12] Indeed, they were at Mount Vernon in November 1799, just a month before George Washington died. They attended his funeral and visited Martha Washington at Mount Vernon in 1800 before they left the United States.

The Listons did not enjoy the same close friendship with Washington's successor, John Adams, that they did with George and Martha Washington. Nonetheless they were sympathetic to Adams and partial to the Federalist Party during their tenure in the United States. (Henrietta privately expressed sympathy and support for Adams during the prolonged electoral controversy in 1800-1801 that resulted in Adams's defeat and replacement by Thomas Jefferson.) They enjoyed no such relationship Jefferson. In their extensive travels around the United States they only briefly visited Jefferson at his home, Monticello, declining Jefferson's invitation to spend the night.

There were many reasons for the thaw in British-American relations during the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams. One of these was the skillful personal diplomacy conducted by Robert and Henrietta Liston. Thanks to the recent efforts of historians we have a much better understanding of the degree to which elite women like Henrietta Liston exerted political influence in early America. [See note 13] We also appreciate the degree to which power and influence functioned within George Washington's 'republican court' through levees, receptions, and dinners. [See note 14] Henrietta Liston thrived in this environment and developed a friendship with George and Martha Washington that transcended the basic requirements of protocol and diplomacy. In so doing she helped to reinforce the improvement in British-American relations that began with the Jay Treaty.

The British-American rapprochement was short-lived. With the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and the resumption of war between France and Britain in 1803, British-American relations deteriorated rapidly. Robert Liston's successor, Anthony Merry, did not enjoy a close relationship with President Jefferson. Eventually, Britain and America went to war again in 1812. In the winter of 1814 as that war raged Henrietta asked an American correspondent: 'Why, may I ask, my dear sir, did you Americans after all the pleasant & tranquil days that we past together in the United States, go to War with Great Britain. Was it because Mr Liston & I were not there to keep you all in order?' [See note 15]


Note 1

Henrietta Liston to James Jackson, 8 May, 1796, MS.5589, ff. 98-99, National Library of Scotland.

Note 2

Gordon S Wood, 'Empire of Liberty: The Early American Republic, 1789-1815' (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, 'The Age of Federalism, 1788-1800' (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Note 3

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'North America, 1796', MS.5696, page 5-6.

Note 4

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'North America, 1796', MS.5696, page 13-14.

Note 5

For the relationship between the Washingtons see, Flora Fraser, 'The Washingtons: George and Martha, "Join'd by Friendship, Crown'd by Love"' (New York: Knopf, 2015).

Note 6

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'North America, 1796', MS.5696, page 14-15.

Note 7

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'North America, 1796', MS.5696, page 16-17.

Note 8

MS.5698. In 1796 Washington had decided not to run for a third term — setting the precedent that Presidents should serve for a maximum of two terms (later enshrined in the Constitution after Franklin Roosevelt successfully ran for four terms, but died at the beginning of his fourth term).

Note 9

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'Resignation of General Washington as President of the United States of America, 1797', MS.5698, page 1-2.

Note 10

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'Resignation of General Washington as President of the United States of America, 1797', MS.5698, page 2-3.

Note 11

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'Resignation of General Washington as President of the United States of America, 1797', MS.5698, page 4.

Note 12

Journal of Henrietta Liston, 'Tour to the Southern States — Virginia, North and South Carolina, 1797', MS.5697.

Note 13

Catherine Allgor, 'Parlor politics: In which the ladies of Washington help build a city and a government' (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000); Susan Branson, 'These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and political culture in rarly Pennsylvania' (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000); David S Shields and Fredrika J Teute, 'The Republican Court and the historiography of a woman's domain in the public sphere' in 'Journal of the Early Republic', 35 (2015), 169-84. For gender and friendship see Cassandra A Good, 'Founding friendships: Friendships between men and women in the Early American Republic' (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Note 14

T H Breen, 'George Washington's Journey: The President forges a new nation' (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Note 15

Letter of Henrietta Liston to James Asheton Bayard, 27 February 1814, MS.5641, f.76, National Library of Scotland.

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