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Cora Livingston was born in New Orleans, “the little Paris of America,” on the i6th of June, 1806, the year of the great eclipse. Her father, writing to announce her advent to his sister in New York, said God had given him so fair a daughter that the sun had hidden its face.
Though she was a great belle with a national reputation during the decade from 1820 to 1830, those who attempted an analysis of her charm declared that she lacked that attribute which many would esteem the first requisite to belleship, beauty. Yet she was a notable example of that subtle power that raises a woman above her contemporaries that evokes an involuntary homage from every eye.
Her mother, writing of her when she was about sixteen and already the belle of New Orleans, to one who had never seen her, said, “She is not a beauty, not a genius, but a good and affectionate child.”
Josiah Quincy, that ubiquitous beau who paid his court to the belles of so many cities, seeing her in Washington in 1826, declared that she was not handsome, while he admitted that she was undoubtedly the greatest belle in the United States. “She has a fine figure, a pretty face, dances well, and dresses to admiration,” he continued, endeavoring to solve the mystery of the attraction exercised by this exquisite specimen of womanhood. He further confessed that when he left her he bore away an image of loveliness and grace never to be erased, and he went on to quote Burke’s apostrophe to the Queen of France, “Surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision.”
She was the daughter of Edward Livingston, a brother of that Chancellor Livingston who, on the 30th of April, 1789, administered the oath of office to the first President of the United States, and of an eminently beautiful Creole, Louise Moreau.
Fleeing the terrors of the Negro insurrection in San Domingo, Madam Moreau, a young widow, arrived in New Orleans just as the Louisiana Purchase was consummated and the province became the property of the United States. French then to the very core, the city has retained evidences of its origin longer than any city of the Union. The thrill of anguish with which it realized that Louisiana had been sold by Napoleon to the United States “on this 9th of July, 1803, at seven p.m., “left its indelible impression upon a people loyal to their nationality and tenacious of its prerogatives.
The wave of emigration which swept into the newly acquired territory from the north bore thither Edward Livingston, of New York. Fortune’s reverses had driven him into the new country with the hope of finding there a more promising field for his talent and labors.
The Americans were not well received. Scarcely more than a hundred out of the eight thousand inhabitants had greeted the stars and stripes as they were raised for the first time over the city. So strong, indeed, was the prejudice against them that every unfortunate occurrence was instantly attributed to them. Miss Hunt relates that upon one occasion when a ball was interrupted by an earthquake an indignant old Creole gentleman exclaimed that the pleasure of ladies had never thus been interrupted in the days of Spanish or French dominion.
Livingston’s knowledge of the language, his tact, his adaptiveness, together with his splendid ability, soon raised him to a conspicuous place at the bar. He was a widower, thirty-nine years of age, when he married Madam Moreau, who was but nineteen. Cora was the only child of this marriage, and ever, even after her own marriage, the inseparable companion of both parents. From her father she derived a sound knowledge of the political questions of the day that made her an intelligent spectator of the historic period in which she lived. From her mother she inherited that grace, mental and physical, that so indelibly impressed her upon the life of which she formed so brilliant a part that her name can no more be eliminated from it than can the names of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, or Henry Clay.
The cultivation of her mind was entrusted to her uncle, Major August Davezac, from whom she received an education of unusual scope. She matured early, being probably more or less at all times a part of the social life that surrounded her parents and into which she made her formal entree at the age of fourteen.
The social atmosphere of New Orleans at this time was like that of no other city on the North American Continent. Creole tastes and institutions were predominant. The only society of the city was Creole, and very delightful and very exclusive it was. The French opera was then, as it has been since, one of its conspicuous features. Tuesdays and Saturdays were the nights when the fashionable world was to be seen in the boxes, and the stage presented nothing more attractive than the beautifully dressed women of the audience, with their artistic coiffures. There were receptions in the boxes between the acts, and a belle’s powers of attraction were thus publicly manifested to a people ever ready to add the tribute of its homage.
Cora Livingston before she was sixteen years old, gentle and retiring, shrinking from publicity such as attaches to belles at this end of the century, was known throughout the city of her birth as its greatest belle. In the evenings of the warm season, when the balcony of her house in Chartres Street was converted into a reception room, in the midst of a devoted family she received not only the admiration of distinguished guests, but the chivalrous and silent homage of many an unknown passer-by.
Frenchmen visiting New Orleans frequently brought letters of introduction from Lafayette to Livingston, whom he had known in New York. Cora thus early became accustomed to an association not only with people of her own city, but with many eminent cosmopolites. In 1812, when war was declared against England, New Orleans fell into line and gave glorious proof of her loyalty. Her prejudices were swallowed up in the common cause that drew all sections of the country together, and she became indeed, as she already was in name, an American city.
General Jackson’s friendship for the Livingstons, of which he gave so many handsome proofs, began at this time.
In 1822 Edward Livingston was elected to Congress, and for eleven years thereafter Washington became his home. While he achieved prominence as a legislator and statesman, the brilliancy of his daughter was acquiring for her a national reputation. He leased the Decatur residence on Lafayette Square, within a stone’s throw of the White House, and there gathered about this distinguished family the most cultured element of the Washington of that period,the Calhouns and their gifted daughter with her perspicuous political theories, the Adamses, Webster, Clay, Chief Justice Marshall, Martin Van Buren, Mrs. Madison, their neighbor across the Park, and the widow of Admiral Decatur.
It was the exception in those days for members of Congress to have their own homes. They lived for the most part in hotels and boarding houses, and the resident branch of society was more distinctive. Mrs. Decatur, widowed by the famous Bladensburg duel of March 20, 1820, had retired to her estate at Kalorama, which became one of the most delightful centers of resident society. She favored the Livingstons with her sincere regard, and included them among her guests, frequently as often as three times in one week. To stand forth as she does from among the bevy of brilliant women who led the social life of Washington, at a time when conversation was a fine art, deriving a stimulus from such men as Randolph, Pinckney, Webster, and Story, and when women were quite the equals, in wit, humor, and happy rejoinder, of these veteran conversationalists, is an indisputable proof of the superior mental endowments of Cora Livingston.
The Capitol was then as much a feature to the people of Washington as it is today to the people outside of Washington. Thither the belles and beaux of the city betook themselves as regularly as the session opened, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue beneath the double row of Lombardy poplars, planted when Jefferson was President. The halls of Congress were smaller and better adapted to both seeing and hearing than they are at present. The discussion of public questions differed also from what one hears nowadays, there being more spontaneity in the oratory and a larger number participating, unless, indeed, there was a grand occasion when the big guns were brought into action, and Clay’s mellifluous voice was heard, or Webster’s organ notes pealed forth, or Randolph’s shrill pipe rent the air.
A distinctive social feature of the time were the assembly balls, held usually at some such place as Carucci’s, where Cora Livingston’s graceful dancing again made her the cynosure of all eyes. The set in which she danced there were no round dances in those days was continually surrounded by admiring spectators, many dancers foregoing that pleasure for the greater one of watching her. Cora Livingston in a ball gown, going through the stately evolutions of a quadrille, the very embodiment of winsome grace, was a vision that tarried long afterwards with many who so beheld her.
It was at Carucci’s in the winter of 1826, when Miss Livingston’s belleship was at its height, that the waltz was first seen in Washington. Baron Stoekelburg, of the Russian legation, was its sponsor, and all Washington looked on with dismay, the Baron and his fair partner, whose name has been lost in oblivion, though her temerity, should have earned her a better fate, having the floor to themselves.
In 1829 Livingston went into the Senate, and in May, 1831, he succeeded Van Buren as Secretary of State, Van Buren having taken the high ground, so Livingston expressed it, that as a candidate for the Presidency he should not remain in the Cabinet. In 1833 President Jackson offered Livingston the mission to France. Our affairs with that country were in a complicated condition, and Livingston’s patriotism induced him to accept the office.
In April of that year his daughter was married to Thomas Pennant Barton, a son of Dr. Benjamin Barton, of Philadelphia. President Jackson appointed him Secretary of the legation at Paris, sending his appointment enclosed in a note to Cora, that she might have the pleasure of presenting it to him with her own hands. Her intimate acquaintance with the President dated back to her early childhood, when she was scarcely taller than the cavalry boots worn by the hero of the battle of New Orleans, who readily promised to hang Mitchell, the highest English officer among the prisoners, if the British so much as touched a hair of her father’s head. He evinced a paternal pride in the adulation she everywhere received as a woman. At his request she stood as godmother to his wife’s great niece, Mary Donalson, now Mrs. Wilcox, who was born in the White House during his term of office. On their return to America, in 1835, both the Livingstons and Bartons made their home at Montgomery Place at Barrytown on the Hudson, an estate of three hundred acres, which Mr. Livingston had inherited from his sister, Mrs. Montgomery, the widow of General Montgomery, of Revolutionary fame.
Mr. Barton was a man of scholarly tastes, to which the tranquil atmosphere of Montgomery Place, with all its historic associations, together with the close companionship of his gifted wife, was an inspiration. He accumulated there a library which, at the time of his death, was considered one of the most valuable private collections in America. He bequeathed it to his wife with the request that she make such disposition of it as best pleased her. Shortly before her death she arranged for its transfer to the Boston Library, where it is preserved, as she knew her husband desired his life work should be, in its entirety, and known as the Barton collection.
In 1870 she went to France to superintend there the publication of a new edition of her father’s work on Penal Laws, which appeared simultaneously with an English edition. In France a number of her father’s friends were still living, among them Mr. Charles Lucas, of the French Institute, who wrote the Preface to the edition brought out in that country.
Having survived her parents and husband, Mrs. Barton died suddenly at Montgomery Place on the 23d of May, 1873.
The last two winters of her life were spent in Washington, where, at a time when American society was singularly rapid, she shone as the last ray from the glory of an age that was gone, in her whole manner and bearing the unmistakable gentlewoman.
Going one day to her former home, the Decatur House, she requested, without giving her name that she might be permitted to see the drawing room. General Beale, who then occupied the house, of which his widow still retains possession, in courteous compliance with her request, led the way thither. As she entered the familiar apartment, memory, conjuring up the forms that were no more, shut out the actual presence of her host. At length regaining her self-possession, she said, “A strange desire has of late possessed me to see again this house in which I spent such happy days. Just where I am standing now I stood thirty-nine years ago and was married.” “You then were Miss Cora Livingston,” said the general, entering into her mood and reverting instinctively to the days when her scintillating wit had made the name famous, though in the sorrow laden woman there was no trace of the glorious girl.