In the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex, young firebrand Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes dramatic use of Abigail Adams’ 1776 admonition to “remember the ladies.” Sadly, Abigail’s husband, future President John Adams, spurned her request to consider property rights and other protections for women in drafting a legal framework for the rebellious colonies.
So it’s not surprising that so little is known about female Adams descendants, who were relegated primarily to interior spheres. Yet there have always been women who pushed against the limits and had broader vision and ambition. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, it seems long overdue to celebrate Abigail and John’s great-granddaughter, Caroline Downing Monell, and her circle.
Caroline Elizabeth DeWint was born in 1815 in Fishkill Landing (part of present-day Beacon). Her grandmother was the ill-fated Nabby Adams Smith – oldest child of founding couple John and Abigail. Nabby’s younger brother John Quincy Adams became the sixth President of the United States, but her own life was marred by marriage to a financially reckless husband (a much older war-hero) who occasionally deserted her and the four children for long periods, without funds for food and fuel. Nabby’s early death from breast cancer left her 18-year old daughter, Caroline Amelia Smith, in the care of an aged, doting and overbearing Abigail Adams.
Then wealthy young John Peter DeWint Jr. whisked her away to his vast property along the banks of the Hudson. The DeWints had 11 children, of whom Caroline Elizabeth was the oldest. In 1838, she married an unknown horticulturist and aspiring writer from across the river in Newburgh – Andrew J. Downing.
In the distant revolutionary past, flinty New Englander John Adams had been appalled by the juxtaposition (in Paris) of high culture with vicious extremes of corruption and inequity. He expressed a vision for a future in which political freedom would lay the foundation for a healthy flourishing of the arts:
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
It’s well-acknowledged that Downing ‘married up.’ Prior to marriage, he was co-managing a family nursery business with his brother Charles and had published a few articles. The future writer’s formal education had gone no further than secondary school – at the Montgomery Academy, 20 miles west of Newburgh.
Immediately after their wedding, A.J. and Caroline began building a gothic revival mansion on the grounds of his family’s nursery property. The massive structure faced Liberty Street (across from present-day Mount St. Mary’s College in Newburgh). The fabled landscaping provided breathtaking views of the Hudson at artfully placed intervals.
The project showcased Downing’s ideas, provided him with a workplace and enabled the couple to entertain guests in the manner Caroline had learned at the DeWint residence, where the hospitality was legendary.
The unknown young writer struggled to find a publisher for his first book – the now classic Treatise on Landscaping Gardening. Caroline’s family connections obviously helped smooth the way. The same publisher (Wiley and Putnam), in the same year (1841), produced the first of two volumes of Caroline’s grandmother Nabby’s diaries and correspondence, edited by Caroline’s mother. Both works – Downings Treatise and the Nabby books – were dedicated to John Quincy Adams. The time was ripe for a North American gardening book, and the Treatise became a runaway best-seller.
Downing followed up with the first scientific guide to growing fruit trees in the New World, and two books on residential architecture. He became the first editor of a new magazine, The Horticulturist, which was soon being read nationwide.
By 1850, A.J. Downing was a kind of cultural guru on a scale that has arguably never been rivaled in the U.S. Novelist Catherine Sedgwick explained to the Downings’ Swedish houseguest, feminist writer Frederika Bremer, that his books “are to be found everywhere, and nobody…rich or poor, builds a house or lays out a garden without consulting Downing’s works. Every young couple who sets up housekeeping buys them.”
There is not currently a known image of Caroline, and the Downings’ vast correspondence has largely disappeared. Frederika Bremer (sometimes described as the Swedish Jane Austen) idolized A.J. Downing and provided this tantalizingly brief description of his wife: “a charming, merry, and amiable little creature, of a highly cultivated mind, and equal to her husband.”
It is impossible to delineate Caroline’s own contribution to Downing’s ideas. Throughout the 19th century, her male relatives brooded (publicly and privately) over the fate of the American republic and the character of its people. Her second cousins – well-known intellectuals Henry Adams and Brooks Adams – despaired over gilded age decadence and boorishness.
The echoes in Downing’s work are unmistakable, but his message was optimistic. He wrote: “People’s pride in their country is connected to pride in their home. If they can decorate and build their homes to symbolize the values they hope to embody…they will be happier people and better citizens.”
His “amiable little” wife’s strength of character became abundantly clear later in her life.
The Downings had no children, but the air in the house was filled with poetry, music and ideas. Famous visitors mingled with a relaxed group of personal friends. The Monells, who lived a block away at 288 Grand Street, were especially close.
John J. Monell was a prominent attorney who had known Downing since Montgomery Academy. His wife Mary was described as a gifted poet, but only a few of her works are currently known. Both Monells were connected with a landmark moment for historic preservation. At the July 4, 1850 opening of the Washington’s Headquarters State Park in Newburgh, a crowd of 10,000 heard a choral rendition of a patriotic ode by Mary Monell. Her husband was one of the keynote speakers.
It is generally believed that Downing designed the Monell’s home, which is still standing, as well as the long-since disappeared grounds behind the house, which were known as “The Glen.” It was already complete when John married Mary Goodrich in 1842. There followed a magical decade for the two couples, which came to an abrupt and tragic end in the Henry Clay disaster.
Disaster on the Hudson
Caroline Downing’s world collapsed on July 28, 1852, when a Downing/DeWint family excursion to Manhattan turned into a hellish nightmare. The steamboat engine room had burst into fire just past Yonkers. In the ensuing chaos, some 80 passengers died, including both A.J. Downing and Caroline’s mother.
Caroline managed to escape over the railing and float on wooden deck chairs to the rocky shore. In the following days, she buried husband and mother on opposite sides of the river and began coping with the exigencies of life.
The great writer’s financial affairs were a tangled mess. House and furnishings were quickly auctioned.
Fortunately, the Monells were just down the street. Mary’s heartfelt tribute to Downing appeared in The Knickerbocker, the most prestigious literary publication of the day. John Monell’s legal and business expertise was much needed. As estate executor, he sued the owners and captain of the ship. Although they had been acquitted of criminal manslaughter charges, he obtained a substantial settlement on Caroline’s behalf.
Caroline devoted the remainder of her long life to perpetuating Downing’s cultural legacy. The effort began very quickly – possibly for financial reasons.
A Downing compilation entitled Rural Essays was published in 1853. It included touching memorial tributes from Bremer and George William Curtis, who was beginning a successful writing career and had been a frequent visitor to the DeWint and Downing homes.
The original Treatise was revised and republished several times during the remainder of the 19th century, while Downing’s brother Charles undertook major new editions of the book on growing fruit trees (and became the nation’s leading pomologist.)
Caroline’s mostly invisible hand in the ongoing publishing empire is evident in correspondence with the great landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, whom she urged to undertake a revised edition of a Downing architecture book.
A pair of marriages in the aftermath of the disaster linked Caroline’s family to two promising figures who had been begun working for Downing shortly before his death. English-born architect Frederick C. Withers and Clarence Cook, who eventually emerged as a defining art critic of post-Civil War America, each married one of her sisters. A third sister was already married to artist Christopher Pearse Cranch.
The widow’s personal life took another turn. Poetic and beautiful Mary Monell died in 1858, and left John Monell a widower with two young children. He and Caroline were quietly married in 1860. F.C. Withers designed a new home forthem, called Eustatia, on a scenic bluff across the river in Fishkill Landing. After Monell passed away in 1885, Caroline remained in the house with the Monells’ surviving daughter.
A Park for Newburgh
During the halcyon days, Downing had recruited a young English architect, Calvert Vaux, to join his architectural practice in Newburgh. The collaboration that created New York’s Central Park essentially began at the Downing’s home, where Vaux first met Frederick Law Olmsted, who was then a gentlemen farmer from Connecticut and Horticulture contributor.
But one of Caroline’s abiding frustrations was the lack of a monument to her first husband in his native Newburgh. In 1887, when the city fathers proposed a recreational park for the growing city, they were caught unawares by the onslaught from the 72-year old double-widow.
Caroline campaigned for a larger and more beautiful park dedicated to Downing. She persuaded the aging designers – Vaux and Olmsted – to reconnect for a final joint project. The former partners offered to create plans for free, conditioned on the Park being named after the deceased mentor. George William Curtis and other influential friends wrote editorials supporting her effort. The struggle took years, and by the time Downing Park was finally completed in 1897, Vaux was dead and Olmsted confined to an institution. Their sons finished the task.
A few miles north of Newburgh, Cedar Hill Cemetery hosts a permanent reunion of sorts. Caroline lies alongside her first husband, in iron caskets probably designed by Vaux. Next to them, an obelisk marks the grave of Charles Downing and his own wife. A few feet away, across a small grassy patch, an unusual stone monument marks the final resting place of Mary and John Monell, along with their children.
It’s a truism of early U.S. history that a woman had to be a troublemaker in order to be noticed. Limited by the Victorian-era roles assigned to them, four DeWint sisters carried out the Adams ethic by nurturing talented spouses. The oldest sister, Caroline, and her Newburgh friend Mary were high-minded and idealistic but sought to improve society with gentility and graciousness.
The author respectfully submits that all were women worth remembering. One imagines their ineffable spirits, still hovering above the scenic bay that separates Newburgh and Beacon, where the daily tides press upstream against the river’s natural course, and the waters can be seen flowing, simultaneously, in opposite directions.
Images, from above: 1847 Map showing location of Downing house and grounds and Monell house, courtesy of Joseph Santacroce Photography; Downing Residence, Residence of the Author, near Newburgh, N.Y., in A. J. Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), pl. opp. 398, bottom image; Monell home, 2019 photo by author; Burning of the Henry Clay; “An Ode” by Mary Monell courtesy Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Hudson Hudson Highlands, and Monell/Downing grave site courtesy of Joe Santacroce Photography.