May 18, 2020
By: Ryan Schwartz, Interpretive Programs Manager at First State Heritage Park
Though an obscure figure today to all but those with an interest in Delaware’s Revolutionary past, Dover’s Mary Vining was once celebrated as perhaps the most admired young lady in Colonial America. Such was her beauty, wealth, and refinement that word of her qualities supposedly made their way to the French court at the Tuileries Palace in Paris and into the ear of the doomed Queen Marie Antoinette herself. How did a woman who cultivated an ocean-spanning reputation, maintained influential relationships, and who became noteworthy for her social sagacity and personal feminism end as anything less than a Revolutionary icon?
As with many notable historical figures from the American Revolution, it is often difficult to separate fact from lore.
It is firmly established that Mary Vining was born in Dover on August 20, 1756. She was born into great wealth, being the daughter of Chief Justice John Vining and his wife, Phoebe (née Wynkoop); she was also related to the Ridgely and Rodney families and was a notable favorite of both. When her father died in 1770 and with her mother consumed by grief, the fourteen-year-old Mary Vining and her eleven-year-old brother found comfort and support from their cousins, creating a lifelong bond between them.
Her privileged upbringing manifested itself in a number of ways. It was said, for instance, that she disdained to walk in the street and would instead travel even short distances via horse or carriage. Her education too was apparently excellent, with French acquaintances later complimenting that she spoke impeccably “with a Versailles accent.” Vining developed personal quirks as well, most prominent among these being her habit not to set foot out-of-doors without shielding her face with a veil of silk crepe.
These idiosyncrasies drew comment but not recrimination, and Mary Vining remained at the paramount of Delaware’s social circle. That circle, and her place in it, elevated significantly with the coming of the Revolutionary War. It was during this turbulent time that this image above, her only known portrait, is believed to have been created by a British officer with his own touch of tragedy: Major John André.
Pictured here ca. 1897 is No. 606 Market St. in Wilmington, DE, reputed to be where Caesar Rodney lived from 1778 to 1781. Already famed for his work with the Second Continental Congress, including his arduous ride to Philadelphia for the vote on American Independence, Rodney was elected President of Delaware (a term used instead of “governor” at the time, that title having unfortunate Royal connotations) in 1778. Although the state’s capital had since been moved from New Castle to Dover, he established himself in Wilmington to be nearer the center of the Revolutionary struggle in Philadelphia. A confirmed bachelor of fifty years and in declining health, he required assistance to maintain the rigorous social schedule expected of him; for that assistance, he turned to his able cousin, Mary Vining.
A persistent story through the years holds that Rodney carried a torch for the “Belle of Delaware,” explaining why he asked her to play hostess on his behalf. This tale is, in fact, a case mistaken identity. In a much-deteriorated letter dated either 1761 or 1764, Rodney does indeed profess his love to a Mary Vining; however, at this time, our subject was just eight years old. Instead, this letter seems to have been addressed to an aunt of the same name, who would go on to marry the Reverend Charles Inglis before dying sadly young. Caesar Rodney’s selection of his vivacious young cousin as hostess may, in part, have been inspired by his lingering affection for the woman whose name she shared, but it also speaks of strong family ties between the Rodneys and Vinings, as well as simple proximity.
Following the death of their patriarch in 1770, Mrs. Vining moved the family to Wilmington, residing at a townhome located at 3rd & French St. that is no longer extant. It was there that the 21-year-old Mary Vining—possessed of grace, charm, wit, and wealth—became the object of affection of many suitors in uniform. In the late summer of 1777, General Washington moved the headquarters of his army to Wilmington to counter an expected British thrust at Philadelphia from either the Delaware or the Chesapeake rivers. He brought with him a retinue of young officers who fairly showered the eligible Ms. Vining with their attentions. Although she was amiable to all and seems to have been the recipient of several proposals, she boldly declined each in favor of maintaining her independence. One young officer who did lodge himself somewhere in her heart, however, was the recently-arrived Marquis de Lafayette, with whom she maintained a close friendship and correspondence for the rest of her life.
Following Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Brandywine and the British occupation of Philadelphia in September, Wilmington too was occupied by detachments of redcoated soldiers. Those officers in scarlet, now in their turn, paid their compliments to Mary Vining. According to lore, one even risked a court-martial by abandoning his post in Philadelphia to ride overnight to Wilmington to beg Vining’s hand in marriage, an overture that she politely yet firmly declined. It was at this time that she likely met the talented Major John André, and received a sketch of herself from him.
When asked why she declined the offers of so many eligible suitors, she was said to reply (honestly, if perhaps not modestly), “Admiration has spoiled me. I could not content myself with the admiration of one man.”
Given that she was pursued by passionate young Americans, courtly British officers, and aristocratic Frenchmen without result, it was surprising to many of Mary Vining’s contemporaries when they noted an attachment forming between her and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, one of Washington’s chief commanders in the Continental Army. Wayne was known to be perfectly courageous in action, but some considered him coarse in his manner and eleven years her senior besides. At the time of their meeting, he was also married with children, and their relationship—which observers never quite knew how to classify—always seemed to waver just on the safe side of scandal.
Wayne was something of a womanizer, so the attention that he and Vining drew when seen together (most often in Philadelphia) speaks volumes of their “strange affair.” Wayne was known to address her familiarly as “Molly” and referred to her to others as his “favorite fair.” In March of 1780, Wayne made contact with a brother officer then held prisoner in British-occupied New York City, Colonel Robert McGaw. He requested that McGaw purchase yardage of fine English cloth to be made up into clothes for the “very amiable-but too fascinating-“Ms. V—-g.” In addition to showing questionable fidelity to his wife, this request was also made despite strict military and civil laws forbidding trade with the enemy. His infatuation must have been intense indeed.
This unorthodox relationship would continue on and off for at least sixteen years.
In the ten years following the end of the Revolutionary War, the two were frequently noted in each other’s company. Friends observed Vining’s habit of traveling to Philadelphia from Wilmington whenever Wayne was planning to be in the city. However, the nature of their relationship seems to have changed decisively in 1793, with the death of Anthony Wayne’s wife.
Though nearing 40, Vining still retained a magnetism that held her at the heart of society in the early American Republic. Her parlor had become a salon of sorts, where philosophy and revolutionary ideas reigned. Their especial focus had shifted from America to the upheaval in France—a revolution that came about thanks in no small part to her dear friend, Lafayette. Society gossips still marked her stubborn personal independence, but that seemed about to change in 1796 when Wayne’s military duties on the frontier allowed him to return to Philadelphia. After much martial fanfare upon his arrival, the two attended the theatre together that evening and their relationship was renewed, apparently with greater intensity.
Mrs. Williamina Cadwallader wrote to her aunt, Mrs. Ann Ridgely, that spring, “Is it true Ms. Vining is engaged to General Wayne?” She continued to describe her surprise, stating that, “Such a weather-beaten, vulgar, affected old soldier I should have thought would not have suited her refinement.” In spite of this, their courtship proceeded in earnest. Although no official announcement was made, before returning to his command in the Northwest Territory (today’s Midwest), he bought for her a beautiful porcelain tea set (pictured above) to accompany her newly-purchased silver service. Both of these acquisitions were seen as evidence of an intent to create a new shared household together. Rumor was that the wedding would take place upon his return, sometime in early 1797.
Tragically, it was not to be. As Wayne returned from his uneventful tour of the frontier defenses, he fell ill and suddenly died from complications of gout on December 15, 1796, at Fort Presque Isle (today’s Erie, PA). Word of his passing arrived in Philadelphia just after the New Year. According to Ann Ridgely, “Miss Vining has put on mourning and retired from the world in consequence of General Wayne’s death.”
She would wear a widow’s black for the rest of her life.
Mary Vining would live a further 25 years after General Wayne’s death, spending most of those years in seclusion at a modest brick home on the outskirts of Wilmington, known as The Willows. She rarely left its walls and never reentered the society of which she was once a centerpiece. Indeed, her remaining days seem to be marked by one harsh blow after another. Her younger brother, John, and his wife both died in 1802, leaving behind four young boys whose upbringing Vining devoted herself to. She was left to do this on a threadbare budget: the wealth that had marked her early years vanished, primarily settling the debts that her brother had incurred. This poverty extended to the point that Vining was compelled to take on lodgers, surely wounding her pride. Her nephews too were lost to her one by one, three dying before adulthood; the fourth outlived her by only a year, dying of tuberculosis at 27.
The one great comfort of her final years came in the person of Ms. Jane Mauthrell. Not long after her withdrawal from society, Vining suffered a fainting spell, igniting a commotion that drew the passerby Mauthrell’s attention. After being revived by the sensible Mauthrell, Vining asked her to stay on as a housekeeper and the two became close companions. After one of their habitual morning Bible readings, Vining is said to have commented, “Jane, you have clung to me through life, and in death, we shall not be parted; where they put me to rest, there must you lie also.”
The Willows, as pictured above, no longer survives at 10th & Market St. in Wilmington. It was torn down and replaced by the DuPont Building in 1908.
Mary Vining passed away on Good Friday, 1821, at the age of 64. Her services were held that Easter Sunday and, with six young ladies as her pallbearers, was laid to rest in the churchyard of Old Swedes in Wilmington. Sadly, her final resting place there is no longer known.
Indeed, little remains today to recall the memory of one of the most accomplished women of the Revolutionary Era: her papers, letters, and an unfinished manuscript history of the American Revolution were consumed by fire in the mid-19th Century. What might an intelligent, observant woman like Mary Vining have written in that manuscript’s pages about the turbulent, remarkable times in which she lived as the celebrated “Belle of the Revolution?” All that remains are family stories, a single small portrait, one letter, and a case of unused porcelain purchased for a wedding that was never to be. But all of history is stories and certainly, from these bits and pieces, Mary Vining’s truly is a remarkable one.