Early Philadelphia Litterateur: Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Written by Holly Mengel on February 28th, 2011

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson was such an amazing lady!  She was a poet and an intellectual whose opinions mattered to people developing the world in which we live today.  She is found not only in her own collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, but also in the John Dickinson papers and the Rush family papers.

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The Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson papers consists of six volumes of her writing.  It is probable that these volumes represent the bulk of her writing.  The content of the volumes is very indicative of who she was:  there are two volumes of poetic interpretation of Psalms, with an introductory letter explaining her project to her friend Reverend Richard Peters; two volumes of poetic translation of Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemaque, which was, according to notes within the volumes, a favorite book during her childhood; and two volumes containing a variety of writings including poetry, prose, letters and memorandum.  All these volumes include writings about topics which meant something to Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, but the last two do so in an unstructured manner.  A poem memorializing a yellow fever victim might be next to query regarding currency.  These volumes show the lively and diverse intellect of a woman in the late 18th century.

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I would love to have the chance to write all about Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson who was, as mentioned before, a truly amazing lady … but I am not going to because there is already a really good biography of her.  But to pique your interest and encourage you to read about her, let me simply say that she is a plucky figure (engaged to William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, who married someone else; married to Hugh Fergusson, whose loyalty to the new United States was questioned; vilified by many of her contemporaries for her relationship with her husband; and championed by her friends in helping her regain her property after it was seized as a result of the Confiscation Act of 1778). After writing that, I am surprised there is not a film about her!

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I am going to write, instead, about my discovery of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.  Not being an early American scholar, prior to processing this collection, I did not know anything about this woman, but now I have worked with three collections in which she is referenced or to which she contributed:  her own, the Rush family papers, and the John Dickinson papers (all at the Library Company of Philadelphia).  Together, with a few other collections at Dickinson College and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, these collections paint a fairly complete picture of this woman’s life—far more complete than a researcher would find if accessing only her collection of poetry and writings.  For instance, examples of the legal aid provided to her by her friends in order to help restore her property after her husband’s alleged treachery is found within the John Dickinson papers.  Benjamin Rush, one of her closest friends, received letters, poems and drafts from Fergusson, which he saved and are now available for research.  The real question I have is how many more collections containing material created by or about Fergusson are still out there, unprocessed and still hidden?  Regardless, when the Library Company of Philadelphia’s finding aids are made available, researchers will have a lot more to look at when researching Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.

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Right around the time that I was processing this collection, I was on my way to a coffee shop and passed directly next to Christ Church.  As I was slowly meandering through the tombstones, I happened upon Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s marker.  After all the time I spent with her (intellectually speaking), I felt as if I was greeting an old friend.  I was actually a little surprised when I reminded myself that only a few months earlier, I had never even heard of her.

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1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Graeme Park says:

    You can also tour Elizabeth’s country home, Graeme Park, in Horsham, PA to learn more about her remarkable life. We have one of her commonplace books here too.

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