“I would not set my hand to an untruth”: Elizabeth writes to the papers in 1779
In The Power to Deny, I wrote of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s unlucky run-in in 1778 with Governor Johnstone, a visiting British Commissioner, in the middle of the American Revolution. Elizabeth just happened to be staying at the Stedman home in Philadelphia at the same time as the visiting Commissioners, who had been sent from Britain with instructions to make Congress see sense and rejoin with Britain. (Charles Stedman was family – he had been married to Elizabeth’s sister, Ann, before she died. During the revolution it wasn’t unusual to have patriots and loyalists within the same torn-apart family.) King George wanted the Commissioners to convince American leaders that the American people didn’t really want independence.
One morning, June 16th to be precise, Governor Johnstone cornered Elizabeth alone in the Stedmans’ tea room around 10 a.m. and asked her to convey a message to General Reed that Reed would get a lot of money and a high post in British government if he helped reverse the decision on independence. Johnstone knew that Reed could get to General Washington’s ear. Elizabeth was “hurt and shocked” and repeatedly told Johnstone, “I am certain nothing short of independence will be accepted.”
Unfortunately, Elizabeth was a rule follower and believed it was her duty to pass along the message from Johnstone to Reed, even though she was disgusted by it. Her decision became a crucial mistake that would cost her reputation and forever cast a shadow on whether she was a true patriot (she was) or a loyalist like her husband Henry, who was fighting with the redcoats and would soon leave Philadelphia with the British army.
Until this week, I had only heard accounts of Elizabeth’s blunder in academic books and in the somewhat stale records left behind by political figures of the day. This week, while doing work for my graduate degree, I came across the original article, now digitized, that Elizabeth had published in 1779 to clear her name! It was fascinating to see her own words on the affair that crushed her.
In short, upon receipt of the message, Reed accused Elizabeth of working for the British and deliberately trying to overturn independence. In fairness, Elizabeth’s husband was in bed with the British and had already been accused of treason. Elizabeth stood by her innocence and told him to ask Johnstone himself. I’m sure she also told Reed how she had contributed personally in many ways to liberty and the American side. But Reed took it further than it needed to go, publishing news of “the bribe” widely. While not naming her specifically, he gave enough details that everyone in Philadelphia knew that Reed was talking about Elizabeth Fergusson. Her reputation was shattered and in many ways, she was ruined. (Sadly, Elizabeth had only been in Philadelphia in the first place to see Henry one last time before he left Philadelphia with the British army, which had been ordered to leave for New York. And, ironically, it was General Washington himself who issued her the pass to cross the war line. What a price she paid for her fidelity to her husband.)
1778 was a horrible year for Elizabeth, made worse by Reed dragging her through the mud. After months of despair in which she lost Graeme Park and waited for her husband to be caught and hung for treason, Elizabeth, in a fit of despair, did the only thing left she could do: she wrote to the papers.
On February 20th, 1779, the Pennsylvania Packet published Elizabeth’s letter to the public. It appeared on the front page and continued to Page 2, comprising literally thousands of words. She painstakingly recreated the encounter with Johnstone and repeated her innocence and horror of what had passed. Perhaps if she ended there, the public plea may have worked in her favor, but she went too far, and accused General Reed of recklessly punishing her and ruining her good name without just cause. Elizabeth would have to wait years, until after the revolution was won and Reed was no longer as powerful, to reclaim Graeme Park and pick up her life. A vengeful Reed continued to work against her, even long after Henry had abandoned his wife for England and Elizabeth was clearly proud to be a new American who wasn’t going anywhere except Graeme Park.
Elizabeth ended her newspaper missive with these words, which I’ve made more succinct than the 18th century rambling nature of them, although the words are entirely her own:
“Much could I say with truth of my love to my country, but will here be silent, for two reasons; as a female perhaps to enlarge on that subject might be deemed an affectation of male virtue; and at this time it might appear as designed to carry certain points now in suspense.
…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 certain expectations of a post, or some preferment from Mr. Johnstone, to be conferred on the person dearest to me on earth [her husband, Henry].
… I would not set my hand to an untruth.”
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The Power to Deny
Wendy Long Stanley is an author of historical fiction. Her first book, The Power to Deny, recounts the life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, one of colonial Philadelphia’s most educated, illustrious, and spurned, women.
Young and brilliant poet Elizabeth Graeme comes of age in colonial Philadelphia bearing an exceptional talent for writing and an unwillingness to be like all the other young women around her.
After a successful trip to England and an audience with the king, the sudden death of her mother and two failed romances leave Elizabeth reeling. Back in Philadelphia, she uses her literary talent, intellect, widening social circle, and status as a prominent physician’s daughter to navigate her colonial life as a single woman.
That is, until the night Henry Fergusson arrives in her parlor. Elizabeth marries Henry four months later in a secret nighttime wedding, against her father’s wishes.
As a new wife, Elizabeth is stunned to see that Pennsylvania is marching towards revolutionary war. Suddenly, Elizabeth’s hometown becomes the seat and heart of the rebel government as the thirteen colonies turn their backs on the all-powerful British empire. Bloodshed ensues.
With battles of the American Revolution on her doorstep, Elizabeth realizes that she is a new American—and an ardent patriot. Her new husband, however, is staunchly loyal to the British crown.
Elizabeth stands to lose everything.
Wendy Long Stanley was born in the UK, raised in Canada, and has lived in the United States for ten years. She holds a BA in English Literature and is currently working on an MA in Public History. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two teenage daughters.