Thursday, December 1, 2011

4: Ann Randolph Morris: Virginia to New York

A collage of Ann Cary Randolph Morris (1774-1837)
and a late 19th-century piece of cut-out-chintz applique

"Mr. Madison's  War" had strong opposition, primarily from members of the Federalist party who blamed Madison's Democratic-Republicans for diplomatic failure. The Federalist party of ex-President John Adams was centered in the north, led by several Founding Fathers who'd invented the Revolution. New York's Gouverneur Morris, a younger member of the older generation, had been a primary author of the Constitution. Gouverneur (it was his mother's family name) had a strong voice in the anti-war movement, calling it a "wicked war of conquest...a moral wrong."

Gouverneur Morris about the time
 he was a minister to the French court before the French Revolution

Sixty years old in 1812, he'd  inherited the 2,000 acre family fiefdom called Morrisania in what is now the South Bronx. A bachelor bon vivant until late in life, he spent the early 1810s developing the canal system linking New York City to the Great Lakes. Private life trumped politics during the War. In 1813 his 39-year-old wife Ann Cary Randolph (Nancy) gave birth to Morrisania's heir and the following year her family and his plunged them into a public scandal with allegations that Gouverneur II was perhaps not of Morris blood, his mother a promiscuous murderess, his peg-legged father a cuckolded old man.
Morrisania north of New York City,
an estate worth fighting about

America remained enough like England to provide this plot for an Austen novel. The extended Morris family had counted on inheriting from the bachelor squire. Late love, marriage and a young family were not in their plans.

The house overlooking Long Island Sound

Nephews gave the baby a pseudo-Russian nickname "Cuttusoff" but snide family jokes were not enough to disinherit. They had an ally in Nancy's famous cousin John Randolph of Roanoke, a Virginia Congressman temporarily out of office due to his anti-war oratory. Randolph was a 19th-century combination of William F. Buckley and Truman Capote, a mesmerizing speaker with an opium habit and vindictive streak. Like one of his muses Lord Byron, John Randolph was "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Nancy made the mistake of inviting him to Morrisania.

The Harlem River was a Morrisania boundary.
 The High Bridge, an aqueduct, was begun in 1837, 
the year before Nancy died.

Nancy had known him since childhood. Her Morris cousins included John's brothers Thomas, husband of Jefferson's daughter Martha, Richard who married Nancy's sister Judith, and Theodorick who impregnated Nancy before he died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. Eighteen-year-old Nancy suffered a miscarriage at a friend's, awakening the household with her screams. Scandal!!! An unwed, pregnant teenager from an aristocratic Virginia family---but things got worse.

Although a body was never found, the slaves whispered a baby had been murdered. A trial followed, called not by the state but by Nancy's brother-in-law Richard who hoped to put an end to rumors he was the father who had conspired with Nancy to kill the innocent evidence of their affair. He was acquitted but reputations were ruined. Then Richard died, leaving Nancy, John and Judith together at the plantation called Bizarre.

John Randolph in 1811
Painting by John Wesley Jarvis, National Portrait Gallery.
Whittier wrote a poem about his
"serpent hiss of scorning."

A decade later Nancy left Bizarre. Unmarriageable, penniless and alienated from the Randolphs, she sought work as a governess (It is just like Jane Austen!) in Newport, Rhode Island. Gouverneur Morris heard of her plight and invited her to be his housekeeper at Morrisania. Here the plot switches from Austen to Bronte. "Reader, she married him."

Nancy was housekeeper for a few months
 before becoming mistress of the estate

John Randolph's letter-writing campaign against the Morrises began in late 1814. He accused Nancy not only of infanticide but of murdering Richard, of prostitution and of sex with the gardener (in this rendition the murdered infant was black). Nancy was a vampire who sucked "the best blood of my race...and struck her harpy fangs into an infirm old man."

Private battles were made public in open letters

Nancy parried with her own letters including one to the First Lady, Mrs. Madison. "I pray you to shew the enclosed [calling Randolph a 'malignant madman'] to every Virginian in Washington who possesses honor."

Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)
Detail of a portrait by Charles Willson Peale

Wait a minute, we digress. We were talking about Gouverneur Morris's opposition to the War of 1812. I know Nancy's troubles make a better story so I suggest you choose one of the books below to read more about it and I'll go on to quilts of the era.

I couldn't find any quilts attributed to the large Randolph family but the first style that comes to mind is Cut-Out-Chintz applique, in which images are trimmed from one piece of fabric and arranged on another, a technique popular in Virginia and the Chesapeake area in the early 19th century. 

Cut-out-chintz quilts were also made in New England, New York and the Carolinas. The quilts pictured here might have been made in any of the United States (although we tend to see them originating in areas close to the Atlantic coast.)  The style can represent Ann Randolph Morris, a Southern transplant in New York.

This cut-out chintz center was auctioned recently in London
but could be from the U.S.

Quilt attributed to the family of Thomas Hammond in Virginia
in the collection of the George Washington Foundation.

Click here to read more about this quilt.

The early examples often feature a central tree.
This one was published in Dr. Dunton's book Old Quilts
and said to have been date-inscribed 1807.

This one was auctioned in London, probably English.

Because American chintzes came through London we tend to believe the cut-out chintz style
originated in England, but the date-inscribed English versions aren't significantly earlier than
 those in America.
The tree-of-life compositions reflect a fashion for "arborescent chintzes" (arbor= Latin for tree) that feature gnarly branches so popular in Indian and Chinese imagery and in Jacobean embroidery.

Arborescent chintzes printed in England were quite popular in America in the teens. Many pieces made it through the embargo. A tree-of-life center framed with dogtooth applique seems to be a typical early 19th-century design convention.

This lovely example was featured in the Folsom History Museum's annual Antique Quilt and Vintage Fashion Exhibit in the fall.
Another name for this applique style is Broderie Perse (French for Persian Embroidery).

I'll post more on cut-out-chintz as it was such an important early 19th century style. For more about Ann Cary Randolph Morris see these books.

Alan Pell Crawford, Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Cynthia A. Kierner, Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor & Reputation in Jefferson's America. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Richard Brookhiser,  Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. Free Press
Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. Harper Collins, 2005
Phillip Hamilton, The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family: The Tuckers of Virginia. University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Jay & Audrey Walz, The Bizarre Sisters. Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1950
Barbara Bentley, Mistress Nancy. McGraw Hill, 1980

The house at Bizarre burned to the ground in 1813.
John did not blame this misfortune on Nancy.

St Ann's in the Bronx was built by
Nancy and Gouverneur's son as a tribute to his mother's memory.
She and her husband are buried here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So interesting, so many things I didn't know about her. I love the block at the beginning.