Letter Reading, Deciphering, Pondering

Week 8

by: Michelle Dempsey

Over the past couple weeks, I have been conducting a deep dive of letter-reading. The letters I received from the New-York Historical Society are letters written by Christina Cantine, Van Buren’s niece, to her close friend Caroline Ludlow (Frey). The collection itself is part of the Frey Family Papers, the family that Caroline married into in 1828. These letters very much contain what one would expect in correspondence between good friends: local news, gossip, fears, hopes, and remonstrances for not writing more often. However, I am mining Cantine’s letters in particular for material relating to women’s lives and experiences in the antebellum period, the Van Buren family, and anything connected to wider movements or concerns of the day (e.g. the Second Great Awakening and evangelical revivalism, Indian removal, slavery, or women’s socio-political standing).

In reading these letters, I had to overcome a certain level of frustration, as Cantine’s letters were very often almost indecipherable due to her habit of turning her page ninety degrees to continue writing over what she had just written (see image below).

Perhaps one of the most interesting passages I have encountered relates to Cantine’s refusal to live with her uncle in Albany, when Van Buren’s term as US Senator from NY was ending, and his term as state governor would start the following year. These letters unveil her reasons why she declined, as she wrote, “I would cheerfully make a sacrifice of my own feeling for his [Van Buren’s] gratification if I thought I could do it consistently – but do you not think, my friend, that I would be putting myself in the way of temptation by going to Albany – & could I go there & then with confidence pray ‘lead me not into temptation’…. I wish to comply with all his requests…that I may have the greater influence over him & if possible bring him to reflection but I dare not, even to accomplish this desirable object, endanger my own peace & bring guilt on my conscience” (Kinderhook, July 25, 1828). Cantine reveals her reservations for visiting for fear of temptation, but what temptation she refers to is unclear.

Several months later, Cantine wrote again to Frey, as Van Buren had asked her once more to come live with him and his family in Albany. This time, however, she provided a little more context for her reservations and reasons for denial, writing, “I could not consent to live as he would wish to have me – he would expect me to do many things that would be repugnant to my feelings & my principles – He said I might live as retired as I chose except he should expect me to entertain ladies when they came & during the winter he should be obliged occasionally to make evening parties & then of course it would be expected that I should be present, that is, when the ladies visited.” Cantine felt ganged up on by those who attempted to persuade her to stay, and she noted that “I never had my feelings more tried in my life. I hardly knew what was my duty – For a moment I thought perhaps I could be very useful here – perhaps I may do much in restraining John – If I am faithful I may do much for the servants – I thought it may be that I am shrinking from my duty in being so unwilling to stay,” but ultimately, Cantine feared “I might in time take delight in those very things I now consider sinful” (Kinderhook, October 10, 1828). Wile she never clarifies what sinful or tempting “things” she means, Cantine reveals a severe discomfort with aspects of Albany political society. Considering the pious and deeply religious nature of her other letters, I would not be surprised if Cantine opposed the drinking and luxury that accompanied the society of a prominent politician. As hostess to her uncle, Cantine, as Van Buren himself noted, would be responsible for entertaining a group of people whose lifestyle she clearly felt uncomfortable with.

In this situation, Cantine’s religious views come through in a unique way, for many of her letters describe sermons, contain prayers, and discuss the various revivals and church meetings sweeping through New York. As a Sunday School teacher for African Americans, an abolitionist, supporter of temperance and opposer to Indian removal, Cantine’s reform-mindedness informs much of her religiously-inspired daily activities. A long-term stay or visit with the president, playing hostess to state and federal politicians, removed from her many organizations, meetings, and societies, would be sure to disrupt her routine piety and devotion in a way Cantine clearly viewed as dangerous. In these writings about Van Buren we can see Cantine struggle with her feelings about the family she chose (her religious family as a child of God) and the family she was born into (the future president of the United States).

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