Henrietta Marchant Liston

Historic journals that tell of “special relationship” now online

The remarkable story of how a Scottish diplomat and his wife helped to forge one of the first examples of the “special relationship” between the governments of Britain and the United States is being told at the National Library of Scotland.

In 1796, only 13 years after the two nations fought against each other in the War of Independence, Henrietta Liston arrived in Philadelphia with her husband, Robert, who had just been appointed British Minister to the United States. By the end of their four-and-a-half year posting, the Listons had won the trust and admiration of leading figures in the new government including the first US President George Washington. It was a triumph of personal charm and cultured diplomacy.

This is demonstrated in rich detail by Henrietta’s handwritten North American journals which are part of the Library’s Liston papers archive and are now being made available online to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Although her acute observations of life in the early days of the United States have long been studied by researchers, the online offering will make them easily available to a much wider audience.  

In the Liston papers are invitations to the couple to dine with George Washington and his wife Martha and an invitation to the funeral oration of the former President after his sudden death in 1799.  The esteem in which the Listons were held is demonstrated by Henrietta when she writes about the celebratory dinner to mark Washington’s retirement. “I had, as usual, the gratification of being handed to table and of sitting by the President.”

It was a turbulent time as the United States sought to establish itself as an independent nation. Relations with France – its wartime ally against the British – soured and Henrietta wrote of the prospect of war between the two former allies. “So violently does the tide now flow in favour of the English nation & against the French, – that there are moments when I think Magic-art must have worked it.”

It would be almost 150 years before the term “special relationship” would be coined by Winston Churchill to describe the bond between the two nations but Frank Cogliano, Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh, said: ” We have a hint of what is to come in the relationship between the Listons and the Washingtons in particular and the United States more generally.”

Henrietta, or Hennie as she was known, was born in Antigua to a family of Scots descent. Orphaned by the age of 10, she and her brothers were sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Glasgow where she grew up. She was 44 when she married Robert Liston, departing for the United States almost immediately.

Her writings record observations on the major figures who established the United States including Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Benjamin Rush, and Alexander Hamilton. “Henrietta’s friendship with Washington reflects how successful the Listons were in repairing the relationship between Britain and the US at this very uncertain and unstable time,” said Dora Petherbridge, the Library’s Curator of US and Commonwealth collections. 

“She writes about sitting between the rising sun, Adams, who was to be the second president, and the setting sun, Washington, and she says she feels perfectly easy and familiar with both great men. This is extraordinary for a woman at this time to feel that ease in front of such political power.”

As well as having a front row seat in the political theatre of the emerging United States, the Listons travelled extensively throughout the country, including trips into Canada and the Caribbean.  They covered thousands of miles by stagecoach, canoe, ship and carriage.

“The journals have style and character,” said Dora. “Henrietta’s writing is full of opinion and wonderment. Her inquisitive voice fills the pages with a sense of discovery; she takes us to the streets, suppers, and taverns of the early republic.”

These travels are represented on an interactive map which is part of the new online resource. Showing the routes the Listons took, the map provides a way of searching Henrietta’s journals by the places they visited and opens up the exciting research potential of her writing.

The digitisation of Henrietta Liston’s American journals was made possible with a generous donation from Walter Grant Scott.  They can be found at http://digital.nls.uk/travels-of-henrietta-liston/

Contact Information

Bryan Christie

0131623 3738