Sugar Plums
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

Chapter 2: The Sugar Plums of Henry's Life - Sarah and the Children

I'd been introduced to Don Foster by his friend Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at the University of Toronto. Realizing I didn't have the expertise to make Henry's case alone, I'd gone onto the Internet to let my fingers do the thinking, and they'd led me to Ian's extensive site of poems by various poets. When I contacted him to explain my problem - I was hoping to change the attribution of one of the most famous poems in the world from a man who had grown famous from that one piece, to the man who was my 5th great grandfather - he was gracious with his help and suggested that my answer lay in connecting with someone who knew how to find the author of anonymous texts. Even better, he knew the perfect person!(1)

It was that introduction that gave me the opportunity to convince Don that my problem was an interesting one. It was then up to Don to convince himself that the problem was solvable.

Luckily, he was as persuasive with himself as he is with other people. He emailed me back:

The case for Moore's authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" seems, on the face of it, doubtful at best and the case for Livingston's authorship quite strong. We will have to separate hard evidence from hearsay, and look closely at the pertinent documents, but you've hooked my interest.

After speaking with you the other day I did a little poking around and found that a lot has already been written about Major Livingston. If it turns out that Livingston is indeed the author of the poem, much of the published commentary is grossly unfair -- the Livingstons have been represented as spoilsport Ebeneezer Scrooges out to darken "A Visit from St. Nicholas" with improbable stories of lost manuscripts, etc. Because the attribution to Moore has the weight of tradition behind it, there will have to be an authoritative refutation for Moore's authorship to be discredited.

It may take a miracle for publishers to expunge Moore's name from future editions and to replace it with Livingston's, but we may be able to pull it off. If I can prove to my own satisfaction that Livingston wrote "A Visit," I'd be happy to lay out the evidence - and I may be in a unique position, given my reputation as an attributional expert, to make my verdict stick. Unfortunately, I run at a dizzying pace and can't take on this project without help.(2)

The help he was looking for was mine! Three days later he laid out the situation as flatly as he could.

As I see it, here's what you're up against [he wasn't quite ready for "we" yet]: The whole world, a few individuals excepted, believe that "A Visit" was written by Clement C. Moore. Book publishers will continue to publish Xmas "By Clement Clarke Moore" for generations to come unless public opinion turns clearly in favor of Henry Livingston. One person (you), who is willing and able to investigate once and for all whether or not the Major can mount a successful challenge to Moore. At least one other person (me), who is willing to help, insofar as the evidence points to the Major's authorship (and I'm *rooting* for him -- I like the Major a lot better than I like Moore--but the case for the Major is still circumstantial, incomplete, and inconsistent).

Here's what I will need before proceeding: Accurate citations for the Livingston poems already in your possession. ... A complete, accurate, and documented archive of writing by the Major and Moore (electronic form preferred). An accurate, letter-for-letter, comma-for-comma transcription of Moore's copies of Xmas and of his comments about Xmas, including the 1856 text, cover letter and introduction. (I need to look for signs of inaccurate memory, equivocation, ambivalence, etc., in Moore's account of the poem's authorship. This includes an examination of Moore's handwritten texts for variants that might show him to be a copyist, not the original author.) Accurate citations for early, key statements by relatives of Moore and Livingston.(3)

The rest of what he wanted could be saved for after lunch. We exchanged 112 email messages over the first week, and I was given laundry lists of things to do that would have taken me several lifetimes to accomplish if I'd attempted them all. I was about to become an expert on late 18th/early 19th century periodical poetry, and I could only hope that the characters that peopled my dreams weren't about to start speaking in verse.

As a computer professional since 1967, I'd spent much of my career researching computer languages, multimedia, and user-interface issues. To be able to do research, it's more important that you understand the process - knowing how to search for information, how to keep track of it, and how to find correlations between pieces of data - than that you understand a specific field. As a video producer since 1987, I'd learned to go into fields I knew nothing about, question the experts until I understood the issues, and then form what I had learned into a coherent story. So although my knowledge of poetry was limited to reciting that I had "broken the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings," a good trick for someone who won't dance higher than the top of a train, I was confident that I could pick up whatever I needed to know. I'd have to.

But what I needed to do first was find out just who this ancestor of mine was.

New York, December 30th, '73

A happy Christmas to my dear Sally Welles.

Next Tuesday evening I hope to see the Girl for whom alone I would well bear to live. Yes, my dear creature, next Tuesday evening, if my God spares my life, I hope to tell you I am as sincerely your friend, as constantly your admirer, & as religiously your lover, as when I sat by your side & vow'd everlasting affection to you. I well know you will call this the "lover's cant". Call it so, my love - call it anything - I know & swear its truth, and wrap myself up in my own Integrity.(4)

The son of a church elder, Henry was courting the daughter of a minister. Sarah Welles was twenty years old, and said to be "one of the most beautiful women in Connecticut."(5) Sarah's father, Rev. Noah Welles, was the friend and Yale classmate of Governor William Livingston, Henry's father's first cousin. (Some years after graduation, Governor Livingston wrote to congratulate Noah on his good sense in choosing to marry a virgin rather than a widow. Virgins, after all, couldn't make comparisons!(6) It's lucky for Livingston's peace of mind that he couldn't imagine that those private communications would someday become fodder for public gossip.)

The opening of Henry's letter, "Happy Christmas," reminded Don rather strongly of "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." Curious to know when that expression was first printed, he discovered, to his surprise, that it was in 1823. In the Christmas poem! Yet here is Henry Livingston, fifty years earlier, wishing it to his Sally!

Following his Christmas greeting to Stamford, Henry made the 60 mile trip from Poughkeepsie on horseback and, for his saddlesores, won the hand of his Sally. But as soon as he arrived home again, Henry began dissecting and worrying over their conversations.

From the bottom of my soul, I do most sincerely love you, my Child. ... While I was with you at Stanford(7), I had not any idea of my loving you so very intensely as I now find I do. I think of you all day long; I think of you the evening throughout and, as I have placed your dear profile in my bedroom and as [it's] the last face I see, I am sure to dream of you at least five times a week.

... I expect every day to receive a letter from you. I have never yet received one- Strange! That we should have commenced an acquaintance, have formed the most cordial friendship, and sworn to each other the most undissembled Love and, yet, you have never written me one single letter! At least, as yet I have never received any. Does it proceed from want of affection, Sally? Does it? I can't speak my heart & say I think it does. I think you have too much goodness & upright honesty to tell me you loved when you did not love. If you do not, my dear creature, love me better than any man upon earth beside, if you do not think you will not only make me happy by marrying, but that you will make yourself so too. ... Believe me, Sally, that my love to you is stable as the Earth, permanent as the skies. While I live, I shall love you.

...What would I not give, my darling, for one evening social converse with the woman I esteem highest upon Earth. One short evening. A few hours. One hour! I wonder I did not let you [know], when I was with you, much better than I did, how very much I lov'd you, how I even idolized you. ...

Good news my Dearest ... but 3 weeks and the winter will be past, & then but 2 short months (You know April has but 30 days), when we shall meet again and meet, I hope, never to be parted! ...

I love thee Sarah as I love my own soul. Believe thy H. Livingston, Jun.(8)

On May 18, 1774, Henry returned to Stamford to be married to Sally by her father. But their quiet life was interrupted by the sounds of war. On April 18th 1775, Paul Revere made his ride from Boston to Lexington to warn the colonists that the British were, indeed, finally coming.

The Social Club in New York City to which Henry and his brother John Henry belonged took on a Tory cast, and the brothers were dropped from the club, though with the somewhat dubious distinction of being considered "disaffected, of no political importance."(9)

In these tumultuous times, Henry accepted a commission as Major of the 3rd New York Continental Regiment and, just as his first child was born, was ordered to join General Montgomery's expedition to invade Canada. He wrote back from camp.

[September] 8th and 9 [1775] at night

I could enjoy the pleasantness of the season, too, if you, my dearest, were but in my arms, if you were but in sight, if you were but in the house... But cease despairing, my fond heart, a few more revolving suns, and alternate days & nights, & the faithful pair will meet and, in a close embrace, again & again ... renew their course-- My faith is strong, my Dear, that we shall certainly meet again, that happy days are in store for us, & that we shall have the joyous task of educating the Infant Catherine, & [rearing] its tender mind to noble [summits] ... HA! my Love! My Bosom is on fire at the idea.(10)

Writing quickly, Henry added the first poem of which we have a record.

Waiting at the Tavern a few minutes for [Colonel Philip] Cortlandt(11), I scribbled the following lines. You see, wife, how I reckon on your partiality!

On my little Catherine sleeping

Sweet Innocent lie still & sleep,
While cheerful seraphs vigils keep,
To ward off ev'ry shaft of death
That may be wing'd to seize thy breath.

Dear Infant how serene you lay,
Nor heed the bustle of the day!
Thy little bosom knows no care,
For guilt ne'er lay & wrankled there;
In thee all troubles die & cease,
And all is quiet, all is peace.

Amid the Din of Arms & strife!
The tumult and the noise of war
Forever thund'ring in his ear.

Thy mother too has shed her tears
Has heav'd her sigh & known her fears.
Her lips hath not forgot to press
The bitter cup of keen distress.

And Thou, sweet Babe, will soon perceive
That to be mortal is to grieve;
That as the spark will upward fly,
So man still lives to mourn & die.

The initial enlistment of militia called up by Albany was for only six months and, on the 22nd of December 1775, Henry returned to Sally. Eleven months later, the couple made another contribution to the growing Livingston clan with the birth of Henry Welles Livingston.

In June and July of 1776, New York warships entered New York harbor, and Sarah's beloved sister Theodosia died while staying in Poughkeepsie.(12) By the end of August, Washington had evacuated his troops from the city and three weeks later, over 300 buildings in the city burned. November saw Philadelphia captured and, in December, Newport RI. It was a dark time for the country. It wasn't until December 25-26 that Washington finally had a victory at Trenton, New Jersey.

The celebration of that victory faded when, on December 31st, Sarah's father died from a fever contracted while visiting prisoners of war in his role as an army chaplain.(13) Rev. Timothy Dwight gave the funeral oration. Dwight later wrote that Welles, a tireless advocate of Revolution, "was early distinguished for his talents. His imagination was vivid and practical; his intellect vigorous; and his learning extensive. His manners at the same time were an unusually happy compound of politeness and dignity. In his conversation he was alternatively sprightly and grave, as occasion dictated; and entertained and instructive."(14)

Sarah's mother was left with 11 children. Her oldest, Benjamin, was 20 and at Yale. Her youngest were the 8 month old twins, James and John. To ease the burden on the widow, Sarah's first cousin, Melancthon Woolsey, brought Sarah's six year old brother, Melancthon Woolsey Welles, to live with Henry and Sarah. Woolsey, not yet married to Henry's sister Alida, couldn't take on the responsibility of the boy since he was actively engaged in the war effort as an aide to NY Governor Clinton.

Throughout 1777, Henry was involved with his farm, and with his work for revolutionary committees.(15) Brother Gilbert was partnered in a boat building concern for the war effort, and Henry supplied many of the large trees that made up the inner skeletons of the ships. Seventeen year old brother Robert couldn't stay out of the fight, and so the family had the boy to worry about, as well as their concerns for their own safety so close to the Hudson.

Henry's farm was large enough to require a great deal of his attention and, as the farmer in the family, he also helped with his father's farm, which bordered on his own. This meant a steady stream of daily, weekly and monthly workers constantly coming and going as the work demanded. On January 6th 1778, Henry brought in a local worker, James Brisben, to help with the slaughter of livestock. In all the activity, no one noticed year old Henry Welles Livingston getting too near to the fire. By the time they did, it was too late and the baby was severely burned. He died that same day. It was two and a half months before Henry was able to record in his Day Book that he had paid Davis Hunt one pound and seventeen shillings to make his son a coffin. It was years before Henry could write of the boy's death.

To the memory of Henry Welles Livingston
who died of a burn on the 6th day of January 1778
aged 1 year and 43 days

A gentle spirit now above
   Once animated what lies here
Till heav'n announc'd in tenderest love
   "Ascend Immortal to yon sphere."

The lambkin at the great behest
   Gave up its life without one groan;
When lo! In robes supernal drest
   He found the bright abodes his own!

Most glorious and delightful scenes
   Rush'd full upon his raptur'd sense;
Beyond what fancy ever dreams,
   Or Eden knew in innocence.

Adieu! Adieu! My sweetest boy,
   Adieu till life's vain dream be o'er;
Then with a parent's keenest joy
   I'll cling to Thee to part no more. (16)

The day after the 1st session of the New York Congress ended in Poughkeepsie on June 30, 1778, John Jay, Henry's 3rd cousin, and Jay's wife Sarah, Henry's 2nd cousin, came for a nine day visit. It was almost seven months since little Henry Welles had died, and Sarah Welles Livingston was expecting a baby within the month. Jay had drafted the New York constitution, and was at that time still the Chief Justice of New York, though he would resign in December to become President of the Constitutional Convention.

In October of 1779, the Jays returned for a shorter visit a week after Jay was named Ambassador to Spain.(17) Writing from Spain in December 1781, John Jay asked Egbert Benson to request a favor of the Livingstons.

Harry Livingston, I imagine, lives in the neighborhood [of Jay's father's rental property]. His wife is an excellent woman and, in my opinion, a rara avis in Terra [a rare bird on Earth]. I believe they both wish us well, and would not refuse to oblige me, by taking my Son to live with them, and treating him as they do their own. In that Family he would neither see nor be indulged in immoralities, and he might every day spend some hours with his Grandfather, and go to school with Harry's children, or otherwise as you may think proper. At any rate, he must not live with his Grandfather, to whom, he would in that case be as much trouble as Satisfaction. This is a point, on which I am decided, and therefore write in every express and positive terms. Unless objections strike you, that I neither know or think of, be so kind as to speak to Mr. and Mrs. Livingston about it.(18)

But if Sarah was a rare bird, she was also one whose flight would be brief. On September 1, 1783, Sally died at the home of her widowed mother. Henry was silent in his Day Book for almost a month. When he picked up his pen again, he wrote:

Sep 10 - I paid Peter Quintard of Stanford in full for making coffin.(19)

Chapter 3: The Years Until Mama

Chapter 2 Notes:

1. Ian Lancashire email to Mary Van Deusen, August 8, 1999.

2. Don Foster email to Mary Van Deusen, August 11, 1999.

3. Don Foster email to Mary Van Deusen, August 14, 1999.

4. Henry Livingston, Jr. letter to Sally Welles, Dec 30, 1773, quoted from William S. Thomas, "Henry Livingston," Duchess County Historical Society Yearbook, Vol. 5, Poughkeepsie NY, 1919, Thomas Collection.

5. Edward Eldridge Salisbury, Family Memorials [Breese], (New Haven CT: Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor, 1895).

6. Governor William Livingston, correspondence to Dr. Noah Welles, Yale University Microfilm.

7. The town in which Rev. Welles lived is today called Stamford CT. Henry's Day Book and his bible usually refer to the town as Stanford, although there is a bible crossout in one such entry that corrects it to Stamford.

8. Henry Livingston, Jr. letter to Sarah Welles Livingston, February 8th 1774, Illinois State Historical Library, Sidney Breese Papers.

9. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Republican Court (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1854) p.148. The list of disaffected members also included John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, Chancellor Livingston, Egbert Benson and Morgan Lewis. John Reade was included with the note "Pro and Con - Would have proved loyal, no doubt, had not his wife's family been otherwise." John Reade's wife was Catharine Livingston, the daughter of Robert Gilbert Livingston. John Moore appears in the list as "Loyal - in public life during all the war, and from the year 1765." It's not clear if this is the John Moore who lived near Henry Livingston, and was married to Henry's first cousin, Judith Livingston, the daughter of James Livingston.

10. Henry Livingston, Jr. letter to Sarah Welles Livingston, September 8, 1775, Illinois State Historical Library, Sidney Breese Papers.

11. General Philip Van Cortlandt was the son of Henry's aunt Joanna and her husband, Lt. Governor Pierre Van Cortlandt, and Henry's first cousin. When Washington took the army out of Valley Forge to campaign in New Jersey, Philip Van Cortlandt was placed in charge of the sick and wounded who were left behind.

12. Bible entry, "Theodosia Welles was born at Stamford Oct 16th, 1758. Died at Poughkeepsie July 27th 1776 aged 17 years 9 mos & 11 days." Thomas Collection.

13. Bible entry, "The Revd Doct. Noah Welles was born at Colcester the 25th of September 1718. Died at Stamford Decr 31, 1776, aged 58 years 3 months and six days." Thomas Collection.

14. Timothy Dwight, Travels; in New-England and New-York, Vol. III, (New-Haven CT: S. Converse, Printer, 1822).

15. Henry Livingston, Day Book 1771-1788, New York Historical Society, donated by Charles F. Heartman, October 15, 1924.

16. Henry Livingston, Jr., "To the memory of Henry Welles Livingston who died of a burn on the 6th day of January 1778," Livingston MSS Poetry Book, Thomas Collection, p.18.

17. Henry Livingston, Day Book 1771-1788, ibid., July 1 1778, October 5-6 1779.

18. Morris, Richard B. [Ed.], John Jay The Winning of the Peace Unpublished Papers 1780-1784, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980) p.204-5.

19. Henry Livingston, Jr., Daybook, ibid.


Book Index

All Henry Livingston's Poetry,     All Clement Moore's Poetry     Historical Articles About Authorship

Many Ways to Read Henry Livingston's Poetry

Arguments,   Smoking Gun?,   Reindeer Names,   First Publication,   Early Variants  
Timeline Summary,   Witness Letters,   Quest to Prove Authorship,   Scholars,   Fiction  

   Book,   Slideshow,   Xmas,   Writing,   The Man,   Work,   Illos,   Music,   Genealogy,   Bios,   History,   Games  

Henry's Home

Mary's Home

IME logo Copyright © 2003, Mary S. Van Deusen