- Historic Sites
George Washington had his Martha; John Adams had his Abigail—and Henry Knox had his Lucy. Or did Lucy have him? She was high-strung, demanding, and stubborn, but she loved him unto death
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
In March, 1785, Henry Knox took up his new duties in New York at a salary of $2,450, considerably less than his household expenses. There was little to do at first because there was neither an army nor a navy, but he busied himself drawing up plans for an effective defense force. Lucy, annoyed that Harry had rented a country house on Bowery Lane (“I am an urban person”), arrived from Boston in June with the children. The house was four miles out from the center of the city, but this did not prevent a continual stream of carriages from arriving to receive the Knox hospitality. Lucy soon got her way, and a fine town house at No. 4 Broadway rang with the voices of her children and was kept lit far into the small hours to the sound of music, laughter, and the cries of Lucy’s victims at whist. Harry anxiously made a breakdown of yearly costs, calculated in pounds: total expenditures £1,304; salary, £980; discrepancy, £324, to be met by borrowing on Lucy’s estates. Their extravagant living became fashionable gossip. Lucy had added to the mouths to feed by producing four more children in less than four years: William Bingham, Caroline (who lived less than a year), Augusta, and George Washington.
New York became livelier still as the national capital under the Presidency of George Washington. The “Secretary at War” became Secretary of War. He was one of the most experienced department heads, and his position was further enhanced by his friendship of fourteen years with the President. It was the Knoxes who were called upon to shop for the brown broadcloth of American make for George Washington’s inauguration suit, to which they added some handsome buttons with an eagle design. Henry Knox stood close behind the President as he took his oath of office at Federal Hall, and at the end of the crowded day it was to the Knoxes’ house that the President came to watch the fireworks display in New York Harbor.
Their impressive position seemed expressed in their outward appearance. Harry and Lucy had both become enormously fat. The sturdy youth had turned, at near forty, into a monumental man of 290 pounds, yet easy of step, quick in gesture, erect and alert, with keen gray eyes, his hair powdered and held back in a queue, his left hand always elegantly draped in a black silk handkerchief to conceal the loss of two fingers shot off in a hunting accident. Lucy, now thirty-three, weighed 250 pounds and carried herself with tremendous hauteur. “Her size is enormous,” wrote Mrs. William Smith to her mother, Abigail Adams, wife of the Vice President; “I am frightened when I look at her; I verily believe that her waist is as large as three of yours at least.” Her clothes made her even more noticeable, flamboyant creations hung about with fichus, bows, cascades of lace, mantillas. She retained a French hairdresser at twenty shillings a month to create some startling edifices upon her head: for instance, a wire skeleton towering a foot high, over which her hair was drawn up to a pinnacle and held by a vast crooked comb from which streamers of black gauze floated down her back. The front hair was puffed out, while the back was finished in something like a man’s queue—“she seems to mimic the military style, very disgusting in a female,” remarked one observer.
Lucy placed herself firmly in the center of all official activity, certain that she was one of the few who knew how to handle it. Thomas Jefferson, while in Paris as United States minister, recorded in his diary a gossipy report that at a presidential ball in New York, Lucy Knox had pushed herself closely behind President and Mrs. Washington and tried to mount the dais to sit upon the sofa with them—“but unfortunately the wicked sofa was too short.” Martha Washington was not present at the ball in question, and the gossip was untrue, but Lucy’s grandiose manners laid her open to unkind stories and made her repugnant to those who feared that the new American nation might swing away from its democratic principles. Henry Knox, though never bigoted, was a Federalist. His wife, more a social being than a political one, felt comfortable only in the world of privilege, and it was upon her head that the blame fell from Antifederalists when it was seen that Knox would always align himself with Hamilton against Jefferson—“the shadow of Hamilton,” Jefferson called him. The Society of the Cincinnati, founded by Knox for officers of the Revolution, was held up as proof of his aristocratic leanings, particularly because it was a hereditary body in which membership passed to sons.
Henry Knox had not needed Lucy to prod him into large-scale living. It had attracted him as a bookseller in Boston when he made his shop an “elegant morning lounge” and married a girl from the gentry. He believed in his own worth and became a grand seigneur by choice and effort. Still, he was a passionate patriot and swore by the ideals on which the new republic was founded. “I believe a republican government formed upon natural principles … may exist a great length of time,” he wrote to General Samuel Parsons. “I confess I hate the office of king. It is impossible to restrain their power.”