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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center international visitor Frank Cogliano

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A portrait of Henrietta Liston by Gilbert Stuart (c. 1800).
A portrait of Henrietta Liston by Gilbert Stuart (c. 1800).
Photo Credit: 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frank Cogliano is Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and former president of the Scottish Association for the Study of America, he holds history degrees from Tufts University and Boston University. Cogliano also serves as Dean International (North America) at the University of Edinburgh. In that capacity he helps to develop and implement the university’s strategy and relationships in the United States and Canada. He makes regular appearances on the BBC to discuss American history and politics.

Cogliano’s research focuses on the political and intellectual history of the early United States. His most recent book, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy was published by Yale University Press in 2014. He is currently working on several projects: a state-of-the-field assessment of the current historiography on the American Revolution as well as a book-length consideration of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The third edition of his book, Revolutionary America, 1763–1815: A Political History (Routledge), appeared in early 2017. Cogliano also co-hosts a weekly podcast, "The Whiskey Rebellion," on American history and politics. During his tenure as the 2016–17 Bliss Carnochan International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center, Cogliano answered a few questions about his archival research at the National Library of Scotland. The NLS houses a vast collection of maps, manuscripts, and letters, many of which are available in digital form. Among them are the journals of Henrietta Liston, the subject of Cogliano’s current research.

Who was Henrietta Liston? 

Henrietta Liston was a diarist and botanist who lived during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. She was born Henrietta Marchant in Falmouth, Antigua in 1752. She came from a family of prominent and wealthy Scottish planters who owned several estates on Antigua. She was orphaned at age nine and was sent, along with three of her brothers, to live with an aunt and uncle in Glasgow. Her aunt and uncle were generous guardians: she was privately educated (her brothers attended the University of Glasgow), learning French and music.

Henrietta was widely read and followed current affairs closely. She was also well connected in the community of Scots with West Indian connections, which was centered in Glasgow. In February 1796, Henrietta married Robert Liston, a British diplomat. She was 44 years old and he was 53. Immediately after their marriage the Listons departed for the United States, where Robert served as the British minister to the new American republic for five years. During their time in the U.S., the Listons traveled widely around the United States, Canada, and the West Indies. After returning from the United States in 1801, Robert was posted to the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands and later served as the British ambassador to Denmark and to the Ottoman Empire.

Henrietta Liston is unique because she was among the best-traveled women of the eighteenth century. She had a keen eye for detail and was a shrewd, often caustic, commentator on what she observed. She kept detailed travel journals and wrote numerous letters, particularly to her uncle, James Jackson, in Glasgow. She also collected botanical specimens, which she sent back to Scotland (later planting an “American garden” at the Liston family estate, Millburn Tower, outside of Edinburgh). Her travel journals and letters, which are being digitized by the National Library of Scotland, provide perceptive insights on the many places that Henrietta Liston visited and lived in — including the United States, British North America, the West Indies, Europe, and Constantinople.

What do Liston’s travel writings say about politics and high culture in the early United States?

Throughout their time in the United States, the Listons expressed sympathy for and socialized 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. They were particularly anxious to meet George Washington, 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 the president’s public leveeswhere 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.(1)

This passage is typical of Henrietta’s journals. She provides us with a uniquely detailed perspective — as a woman and a foreign observer — of high politics in the early United States. After this initial meeting, the Listons met the Washingtons regularly as part of the regular round of diplomatic social engagements. In so doing, she exemplifies the degree to which women participated in and shaped high politics and diplomacy during those years. The Listons visited the Washingtons in retirement at Mount Vernon, including a visit right before George Washington’s death in December 1799.(2)

What do Liston’s diaries reveal about American intellectual culture at the end of of the eighteenth century?

Liston’s diaries and letters reveal that public discourse and intellectual culture on politics in the United States during the 1790s was robust. She wrote of Abigail Adams, “she has spirit enough to laugh at Bache’s abuse of her Husband.”(3) She referred to Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, a leading Jeffersonian newspaper that was very critical of President John Adams. Liston’s writings demonstrate that she closely engaged with political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic through the medium of print (she often asked her uncle to send her the latest periodicals and publications from London and Scotland). She read widely, using Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as a guidebook when she visited the Natural Bridge in Virginia. Her political perspective on both sides of the Atlantic was conservative. She met with, conversed with, and chided British radicals who had gone into exile in the United States in the aftermath of the French Revolution (in America she had little time for the Jeffersonian Republicans).

While residing in the United States, the Listons spent a good deal of time traveling. What, in her view, was travel like at the time?

Travel was very difficult. The roads were poor, accommodation and food were often basic and sometimes hard to find. Henrietta preferred travel in the Southern states (although the roads were better in New England) because large planters could be relied upon to provide accommodation and food even for travelers who turned up uninvited. She provides a dramatic account of the journey she and Robert made to see Niagara Falls. This involved traveling on foot, by horse and canoe in very difficult terrain. She and Robert were well into middle age when they made their journeys around the United States, but they come across as doughty travelers. Despite the challenges posed by travel the Listons visited sixteen U.S. states, Upper Canada, and the West Indies. Prompted by Henrietta, Robert was better traveled than most other members of the foreign diplomatic community in Philadelphia.

Though she traveled through the American South, mentions of slavery are consciously absent from her diaries. Why do you think this is so?

Henrietta’s life was intimately connected to, and dependent on, the labor of enslaved persons. When her father died in 1761 his will stated, “‘To my daughter Henrieta Marchant £2000 c at 21 & 4 negros …”.(4) When she visited Antigua in 1801 she remarked, “it was not one of my smallest gratifications in Antigua to see some of my Fathers old Negroes & my own…free and in good circumstances” (frustratingly, she doesn’t explain how they became free).(5) The fortunes of her family in both Antigua and Glasgow depended on slavery. Despite this, she only makes passing and incidental reference to slavery in her writings. I suspect that there could be two explanations for this. One possibility is that she was embarrassed about her involvement with the institution of slavery. She wrote at the very moment when slavery was being abolished in the northern states in the United States and British reformers and radicals were campaigning to eliminate the Atlantic slave.

As an astute observer and reader, she couldn’t have been unaware of this and may have been ashamed by her association with the institution. That is, alas, the most charitable interpretation of her silence. More likely she, like many slave-owners and others dependent on enslaved labor, chose not to see or recognize the moral challenge posed by slavery. She is not unusual in this, as many men and women chose not to comment on slavery. She is a little bit unusual, however, in that many British travelers in the early national and antebellum United States did comment, usually in a highly critical manner, on slavery and race relations in the country.

The National Library of Scotland also produced a video about Henrietta Liston’s life and her observations of the first years of the American republic.

Notes (1) Journal of Henrietta Liston, 1796, MS5696, National Library of Scotland. (URL) (2) Description of Washington’s Retirement and Death, 1797–1799, MS5698, National Library of Scotland, MS. (URL) (3) Henrietta Marchant Liston to James Jackson, 12 July 1797, MS5590, f. 108, National Library of Scotland. (4) Vere Longford Oliver, The History of the Island of Antigua, volume II (London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1896. (URL) (5) Journal to the West Indies and the United States, 1800. Library reference, MS.5704, National Library of Scotland.