Alice Lee Shippen

Alice Lee, born 1736, was the younger daughter of Thomas and Hannah Lee of Stratford.  After her mother died in 1749, Alice—the only daughter still at home—assumed the role of mother to her brothers William and Arthur, ages 10 and 9.  When Thomas Lee died the following year, Alice’s inheritance from her father’s estate was to be “one thousand Pounds Sterling to be paid her at twenty-one years of age or day of marriage and till such time I desire her a reasonable maintenance, board and education out of my Estate.”  In addition, Alice was to receive a fourth part from whichever youngest son who inherited Thomas’s “stock in Trade in Company with Col. Tayloe and Mr. Anthony Strother.”

By 1758, all of Alice’s brothers had received their inheritances of land from their father’s estate.  However, claims against Thomas Lee’s estate had prevented oldest brother Philip Ludwell Lee (one of the administrators in charge of carrying out the terms of his father’s will) from distributing monetary inheritances.  Alice, who had already reached the age of 21 and could rightly claim her thousand pounds, had not been able to collect any of her money from Philip Ludwell.  From all accounts, Alice got tired of waiting for her legacy, sold the rights to her prospective inheritance to brother William for 40 pounds sterling, and left America in May 1760 to live with her maternal uncle, Philip Ludwell III, in England.

At the time of her departure from Stratford, Alice was 24 years old, without a dowry, and well past the age at which she would have normally been married;  her situation was unlike that of older sister Hannah, who married at age 18 with a sizable dowry and was already widowed.  By 1760 the house at Stratford would have seemed fairly crowded with Lees:  Philip Ludwell, Arthur (who had returned from England in 1759), William, and Richard Henry Lee, his wife and at least one child.

Living in the London household of Philip Ludwell on Cecil Street, off the Strand, would have been a dramatic change from the isolated, rural atmosphere of Stratford.  Cecil Street was a “fair street with very good houses, fit for persons of repute.”  Ludwell, a member of the Virginia Council, was a widower with three daughters[i], so Alice had the opportunity to socialize with members of her own sex and the multitude of visitors who came to call.  At various times, Alice’s younger brothers, William and Arthur, also resided with their uncle.

Franklin portrait by Chamberlin

Frequent quests of the Ludwell household included Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Fanny Burney, John Paradise, surgeon Sir John Hunter and Dr. Home—as well as Benjamin Franklin, who had met Philip Ludwell in Virginia in spring 1756.[ii]  Ludwell had become an admirer of Franklin, and, returning from New York to Virginia in 1756, had stopped in Philadelphia, where he donated money to the Pennsylvania Hospital and academy.  Franklin’s son William [Billy] would likely have accompanied his father on his many visits to the Ludwell home.  Philip Ludwell was fascinated by the scientific inventions of his fellow countrymen, particularly Franklin.  Before Benjamin Franklin left England for Philadelphia in 1762, Ludwell commissioned artist Mason Chamberlin to paint a portrait of Franklin to hang in his Cecil Street house.[iii]  William Franklin liked the portrait—his father’s favorite likeness—so much that he commissioned Chamberlin to make a replica of it for his own home.

Dr. William Shippen

While in London, Alice often visited Anne Home [Hunter], daughter of Dr. Robert Home, a prominent physician.  At the Home residence, she met Dr. William Shippen, Jr., who had graduated from the University of Edinburgh and had made the Grand Tour.  Alice and William “Billy” Shippen married on April 3, 1762, and returned to live in the imposing family residence in Philadelphia, where the Shippen family was as renowned as were the Lees in Virginia.

Alice differed greatly from her new husband in temperament.   Both were highly educated and intelligent, but Alice was noted for her “heavenly mildness” and affectionate nature while Billy was more outgoing and boisterous.  However, Alice had been trained well at Stratford for her new social duties as mistress of the Shippen house.

Ironically, while her physician husband made significant strides in the emerging medical field of obstetrics, Alice endured the loss of all but two of her eight children in childbirth or soon after birth.  Only her first two children, Anne Home “Nancy” (b.1763) and Thomas Lee “Tommy” Shippen (b. 1765), survived to adulthood.  It is not surprising that Alice, perpetually pregnant and losing her babies during , or soon after, childbirth, was physically drained and mentally depressed in 1772 when she traveled to the seashore for recuperation.  For years afterward, Alice sought to forget the loss of her children by doing charitable deeds around Philadelphia.

The Shippens entertained frequently, especially during the exciting early days of the Revolution when Alice’s brothers attended the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia.  The Shippens hosted most of the Virginia contingent, as well as John Adams, in the house that still stands at Locust and Fourth Streets. [Shippen house image]

The Shippen House

When the American Revolution began in 1776, Billy Shippen left home for medical service in the Continental Army.  With daughter Nancy at Mistress Roger’s school in New Jersey and Tommy at Needwood Forest Academy in Frederick Town, Maryland, Alice found herself alone in Philadelphia.  After losing another baby in August 1776, Alice, outraged by Philadelphia’s occupation by British troops, took refuge in early 1778 with Philip Ludwell Lee’s widow at Stratford and Richard Henry Lee’s family at nearby Chantilly.

While exiled at Stratford, Alice wrote her husband in January 1778, “I feel I love in my very heart the true liberty of America, the liberty and saying and doing everything that is beautiful and proper.”  She may have harbored very little resentment toward her older brother Phil since she later wrote to a relative, “Kiss your dear little son Philip Sidney for me.  I admire the name but I think I should have loved the name of Philip Ludwell Lee better.  They are both great names.  If your brother will get you the genealogy of the Lees which is at Stratford you will find that the Lees are no contemptible family.  I hope it is not family pride that makes me write this but affection… .”

During this time of exile from her home, Alice received a letter from older sister Hannah Corbin asking her to use her influence upon their brother Richard Henry to help “desolate widows” and requesting that Alice pray for her “eternal happiness.”  Hannah even sent Alice a male slave named Cyrus, who later got homesick and misbehaved in order to be returned from Philadelphia to his home in Richmond County, Virginia.  In return, Hannah requested medicines for her children.  By 1778, Hannah had already become a Baptist.  Hannah’s response to one of Alice’s letters during the Revolution implied that Alice had criticized Hannah’s choice of religion, which Alice likely thought was too evangelical and emotional in nature.  However, Hannah assured her sister that she had not gone back to her former way of life.[iv]

Alice was so distraught at not hearing regularly by mail from her husband, that she arranged for a house in Maryland by late spring so she could be near the troops.  By this time, Billy had been appointed by George Washington as Director General and Chief Physician of the Continental Army.  At various times Alice joined her husband in the army encampments at Reading, Pennsylvania; at Middlebrook, New Jersey (with Nancy) ; and finally at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (with Tommy).  Alice also supported Billy through three years of attacks on his administration of duties, charges of malpractice and dishonesty, and a court-martial trial in which he was acquitted by a single vote.

Frigate Alliance in foreground

During the Revolution, Alice complained to son Tommy about “old Franklin” receiving money from the French court for uniforms, arms and ammunition and not following instructions to send the clothing to America immediately aboard the ship Alliance; she accused the Franklins, both Benjamin and his grandson and secretary, William Temple, of cheating the crew of the Alliance of its share of prize money for 3 cruises while Franklin detained the ship’s departure and ordered her crew to capture more ships and cargoes.   Finally, the Alliance, with Arthur Lee aboard, forcibly left for America with what arms it had already loaded.[v]

By fall 1780, Billy was back in Philadelphia, teaching and practicing medicine.  Alice had defended him and her brothers throughout the difficult political attacks surrounding the Revolution.  Alice would berate their enemies and defend their honor at every turn.   Even youngest brother Arthur, troubled by a recall from France in 1780 by Congress for his part in the Silas Deane affair, stayed with the Shippens for several months before returning home to Virginia.

In 1781, while Arthur still remained with her in Philadelphia, Alice began a correspondence with Elizabeth Welles Adams, wife of Samuel Adams.  Alice evidently knew Samuel Adams—he had probably been a guest in her home—and Alice’s husband knew Samuel’s wife Elizabeth.  In her letter dated 17 June 1781, Alice sent Elizabeth an update on British action in Virginia and her frustration at the lack of a French fleet there, indicating that “Mr. F___” [Benjamin Franklin] had hampered naval assistance and was “now blackening the Character of Mr. J:A. [John Adams] to Congress more than he did Mr. L__’s,[Arthur Lee] and he has got the French Minister to join him.”  By a strange misdirection, Alice’s letter was delivered to Mrs. John Adams, who, after realizing it was not intended for her, read it anyway, had it copied and forwarded the original to its intended recipient.  Abigail Adams, whose husband John knew Alice well, replied immediately to the letter, asking Alice’s forgiveness for reading it and thanking her for the enlightenment it cast on Franklin’s motives: “Her [America’s] Frankling, Dean, and Arnold may be ranked with her Hutchinson and Galloway.  If the Aspercions you mention are such as to obtain the Notice of congress, I hope they will do my Friend [John] the justice to acquaint him with them before they give credit to a Gentleman whom they have long had reason to execrate and who if continued in office will still embarrass their affairs and discourage the faithfullest servants of the publick from engageing in its service.”  Alice’s response to Abigail Adams included her opinion on the recent assignment of John Adams to work with Benjamin Franklin in negotiating peace, “’tis most probably if an advantageous peace should be negociated, Dr. Franklin will take the credit; if otherwise, he will throw the blame on him [John Adams] he has already marked out…”  [vi]  Alice possibly never knew that her intimate knowledge of foreign affairs would be passed along to John Adams.

Abigail Adams

The impact of Alice’s misdelivered letter was not lost on James Lovell, a Massachusetts delegate to Congress and friend of the Adamses, who wrote Richard Henry Lee, “I own I depended on your Brother L [Arthur] and Sister S [Shippen] to convey information, which, discovered by interceptors, would not have the same ill Consequences as if from my Pen.  I have not the leisure for Cyphers and the Nature of the Things which would be the subjects for the Letters is such that I could only write in Cyphers.”  [vii]  Abigail had written to Lowell upon reading Alice’s letter, “At length the mistery is unravelld, and by a mere accident I have come to the knowledge of what you have more than once hinted at…The duce take the enemy for restraining my pen.  I want to ask you a hundred Questions and to have them fully and explicitly answered.  You will send me by the first opportunity the whole of this dark process.”[viii]  Much of the correspondence of families connected with important political figures was subject to interception by Loyalist sympathizers, so names were regularly omitted.  Abigail would have made sure that Congress and her husband were aware of the aspersions made against him by Franklin.

After the Revolution, Alice had difficulties dealing with her two teen-aged children, who had been doted on and spoiled.  Alice had often scolded her daughter for poor etiquette and had at times resorted to bribery to ensure the desired social skills.  At age 16, Nancy was attractive, well educated… and flirtatious.  Of the many suitors at Shippen House, her favorites were Col. Henry Livingston and French diplomat Louis Otto; while Livingston was from a rich, New York family, Otto—Nancy’s first choice—was poor, but devoted to her.  While Nancy liked her relatives to think that her parents were pressuring her to marry Livingston, Alice and Billy wanted Nancy to make her own choice.  Nancy married Livingston in March 1781…and left him the following October.  After a ruinous attempt at reconciliation, the couple was legally separated.

Nancy Shippen Livingston & daughter Peggy

In 1784, Alice withdrew from society to cope with her concerns with family matters, including Nancy’s disastrous marriage, her own inability to have more children, and her only granddaughter being reared by the Livingstons.  Alice was deeply depressed, with the idea that God was somehow punishing her for her pride and for instilling pride in her offspring.   Later Alice would write to niece Lucy Carter, “I have observed with surprise that genius runs in families but happier far are those families when Heaven blesses with Piety…If your brother will get you the genealogy of the Lees which is at Stratford you will find that the Lees are no contemptible family.  I hope it is not family pride that makes me write this, but affection.”  She secluded herself at the Shippen country property, Mount Peace, five miles outside of Philadelphia, and, later, Quis vis, another country place about half a mile from Mount Peace.  At those houses, Alice spent her days meditating, reading the Bible, and praying.[ix]  Trips to visit family in the city were very short and infrequent.  In addition, her daughter’s journal documented problems with Alice’s physical health.[x]  However, in 1788, with her outlook remarkably improved, Alice returned to managing the Philadelphia household.

William Shippen died in 1808, leaving Alice very lonely widow who began to focus on her grandchildren.  Always an enthusiastic letter-writer, Alice continued to keep up with family and friends by mail.  Her extant letters illustrate her own advice that, “a woman always speaks within the postscript and that half her letter is postscript.”   Her grandson Thomas Lee Shippen wrote her in 1809 from Lower Dublin Academy promising to write his next letter in French, which Alice was evidently capable of reading.   Responses to Alice’s letters written during the War of 1812 by her niece Lucy Lee Carter, daughter of Henry and Matilda Lee of Stratford, show that Alice knew what was happening politically and that she was still concerned about her family’s religious outlook, recommended Bible readings and inquired about Mr. Maffitt.[xi]   Alice also sent gifts of jewelry—a gold necklace to Lucy and a cornelian for one of her daughters.  In addition, her letters show that Alice was fascinated about the newly invented machine of perpetual motion[xii]—an interest possibly kindled during her few years spent in England and enhanced by being privy to advances in the scientific field of medicine.

In her old age, Alice helped to rear her grandson, William Shippen III, whose father, Tommy Shippen, had died young.  At times she was overbearing in her expressed opinion that William should take care of her, especially since William, a young man, was ready to be on his own.   Alice died in 1817… the last survivor of the children of Thomas and Hannah Ludwell. Lee and the only one of them who lived into the 19th century.  She was buried in Shippen plot at the Second Presbyterian Church and, with her husband, was later reinterred in Mt. Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia.

[i] Hannah Philippa Ludwell, the eldest daughter, married Alice’s younger brother William Ludwell Lee; Lucy Ludwell married John Paradise, who was possibly the first naturalized American citizen; and Frances Ludwell died unmarried, soon after her father’s death.

[ii] Ethel Armes, Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1935 (52).

[iii] Benjamin Franklin letter to Jonathan Williams dated Philadelphia, February 24, 1764, he wrote, “Just before I left London, a Gentleman requested I would sit for a Picture to be drawn o me for him by a Painter of his choosing.  I did so, and the Pourtrait was reckon’d a very fine one.” The painting is currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[iv] ALS Hannah Lee Corbin to Alice Lee Shippen dated c.1780: “You express a fear…that I may have gone back after putting my hand to the Plough, but my Dear Sister I hope so dreadful an evil will never happen to me.  I hope I shall never live to see the day that I don’t love God, for there can nothing I know befall me so horrible as to be left to myself.”  Original manuscript from Shippen Papers in the Library of Congress.  After her husband’s death, Hannah had lived with Dr. Richard L. Hall in a common law relationship, producing two children.  Sometime after Hall’s death, Hannah joined the Baptist Church.

[v] The Alliance, so named by the Continental Congress, was assigned in January 1779 to carry Lafayette to France so he could ask the French Court for increased support for American troops.  Her commanding officer, Capt. Pierre Landais, was supposed to take on munitions and supplies and quickly return to America.  Franklin detained the ship in France, assigning the Alliance to a squadron commanded by Capt. John Paul Jones.  The frigate, after a series of battles, repairs, near mutinies and other mishaps, did not make it back to an American port until August 1780.

[vi] All quotes from the 1781 Adams-Shippen correspondence are from the Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Text from Digital Edition of the Adams Papers at

[vii] Lee Letter: n650 at from the Lee Family Digital Archive at Washington & Lee University

[viii] Letter from Abigail Adams to James Lovell, June 30, 1781.  Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.  Text from Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.

[ix] It is uncertain how much influence had been exerted upon Alice in her younger, impressionable years by her uncle Philip Ludwell III.  At age 22, Ludwell was the first Russian Orthodox convert in America and brought his daughters to England to join the Orthodox Church.  Ludwell’s translation of the Orthodox Confession of Peter Moghila, Metropolitan of Kiev, was published in London in 1762.  Ludwell was granted a dispensation to attend the Anglican Church in Virginia, perhaps to appear in keeping with his position on the Virginia Council.  For the information on Ludwell’s religious affiliations, I am indebted to Nicholas Chapman, who has written several articles on Orthodoxy in Colonial Virginia at

[x] Ethel Armes, Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book.  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1935.  A February 3, 1784, entry states, “Mamma continues weak & long after her illness which she thinks was something of the apoplexy.” After her mother’s health improved, Nancy recorded on March 4, “Mamma a little better today but still very low & week.  Her spirits are much depress’d; she called me to her bedside & told me she was not long for this world, & gave me some particular directions about laying her out…”

[xi] This was probably the Reverend William Maffitt.  Maffitt, a Presbyterian minister, married Mrs. Harriotte Lee Turberville (daughter of Richard Henry Lee and Alice Shippen’s niece).  After Harriotte’s death, Maffitt married Mrs. Ann Beale Carter, daughter of Robert Wormely Carter of Sabine Hall.

[xii] This “perpetual motion machine” was a scam by Charles Redheffer, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1812 with his miracle machine and asked the city to fund a larger version of it.  City inspectors soon discovered the hoax and the man fled the city.