The Schuyler Sisters and Their Role in the American Revolution

The Schuyler Sisters and Their Role in the American Revolution

With the current popularity of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," there's been a resurgence of interest in not just Alexander Hamilton himself, but also in the lives of his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, and her sisters Angelica and Peggy. These three women, often overlooked by historians, left their own mark on the American Revolution.

The General's Daughters

Elizabeth, Angelica, and Peggy were the three oldest children of General Philip Schuyler and his wife Catherine “Kitty” Van Rensselaer. Both Philip and Catherine were members of prosperous Dutch families in New York. Kitty was part of the cream of Albany society and was descended from the original founders of New Amsterdam. In his book "A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr," Arnold Rogow described her as "a lady of great beauty, shape, and gentility"

Philip was privately educated at his mother's family home in New Rochelle, and while growing up, he learned to speak French fluently. This skill proved useful when he went on trade expeditions as a young man, parlaying with local Iroquois and Mohawk tribes. In 1755, the same year he married Kitty Van Rensselaer, Philip joined up with the British Army to serve in the French and Indian War.

Kitty and Philip had 15 children together. Seven of them, including a set of twins and a set of triplets, died before their first birthdays. Of the eight who survived to adulthood, many married into prominent New York families.

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Angelica Schuyler Church (February 20, 1756 - March 13, 1814)

Angelica Schuyler Church with son Philip and a servant.

John Trumbull / Wikimedia Commons

The eldest of the Schuyler children, Angelica was born and raised in Albany, New York. Thanks to her father's political influence and his position as a general in the Continental Army, the Schuyler family home was often a site of political intrigue. Meetings and councils were held there, and Angelica and her siblings came into regular contact with well-known figures of the time, like John Barker Church, a British MP who frequented Schuyler's war councils.

Church made himself a sizable fortune during the Revolutionary War by selling supplies to the French and Continental armies - one can safely assume this made him persona non grata in his home country of England. Church managed to issue a number of financial credits to banks and shipping companies in the fledgling United States, and after the war, the U.S. Treasury Department was unable to pay him back in cash. Instead, they offered him a 100,000-acre tract of land in western New York State.

In 1777, when she was 21, Angelica eloped with John Church. Although her reasons for this are not documented, some historians have assumed it was because her father may not have approved the match, given Church's sketchy wartime activities. By 1783, Church had been appointed as an envoy to the French government, and so he and Angelica relocated to Europe, where they lived for almost 15 years. During their time in Paris, Angelica formed friendships with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and painter John Trumbull. In 1785, the Churches moved to London, where Angelica found herself welcomed into the social circle of the royal family and became a friend of William Pitt the Younger. As the daughter of General Schuyler, she was invited to attend George Washington's inauguration in 1789, a lengthy trip across the sea at the time.

In 1797, the Churches returned to New York and settled the land they owned in the western part of the state. Their son Philip laid out a town and named it for his mother. Angelica, New York, which you can still visit today, maintains the original layout set up by Philip Church.

Angelica, like many educated women of her time, was a prolific correspondent and wrote extensive letters to many of the men involved in the fight for independence. A collection of her writings to Jefferson, Franklin, and her brother in law, Alexander Hamilton, reveals that she was not just charming, but also politically savvy, sharply witty, and aware of her own status as a woman in a male-dominated world. The letters, particularly those written by Hamilton and Jefferson back to Angelica, show that those who knew her respected her opinions and ideas a great deal.

Although Angelica had a mutually affectionate relationship with Hamilton, there is no evidence to suggest that their connection was inappropriate. Naturally flirtatious, there are several instances in her writing that could be misconstrued by modern readers, and in the musical "Hamilton," Angelica is portrayed as secretly longing for a brother-in-law she loves. However, it is unlikely that this was the case. Instead, Angelica and Hamilton probably had a deep friendship for one another, and a mutual love for her sister, Hamilton's wife Eliza.

Angelica Schuyler Church died in 1814 and is buried at Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan, near Hamilton and Eliza.

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Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (August 9, 1757 - November 9, 1854)

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.

Ralph Earl / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler was Philip and Kitty's second child, and like Angelica, grew up in the family home in Albany. As was common for young ladies of her time, Eliza was a regular churchgoer, and her faith remained unwavering throughout her lifetime. As a child, she was strong-willed and impulsive. At one point, she even journeyed along with her father to a meeting of the Six Nations, which would have been highly unusual for a young lady in the eighteenth century.

In 1780, during a visit to her aunt in Morristown, New Jersey, Eliza met one of George Washington's aides-de-camp, a young man named Alexander Hamilton. Within a few months they were engaged, and corresponding regularly.

Biographer Ron Chernow writes of the attraction:

"Hamilton… was instantly smitten with Schuyler… Everyone noticed that the young colonel was starry-eyed and distracted. Although a touch absentminded, Hamilton ordinarily had a faultless memory, but, returning from Schuyler one night, he forgot the password and was barred by the sentinel."

Hamilton was not the first man Eliza had been drawn to. In 1775, a British officer named John Andre had been a houseguest at the Schuyler home, and Eliza found herself quite intrigued by him. A gifted artist, Major Andre had sketched pictures for Eliza, and they formed a tenuous friendship. In 1780, Andre was captured as a spy during Benedict Arnold's foiled plot to take West Point from Washington. As the head of the British Secret Service, Andre was sentenced to hang. By this time, Eliza was engaged to Hamilton, and she asked him to intervene on Andre's behalf, in hopes of getting Washington to grant Andre's wish of dying by firing squad rather than at the end of a rope. Washington denied the request, and Andre was hanged in Tappan, New York, in October. For several weeks after Andre's death, Eliza refused to reply to Hamilton's letters.

However, by December she had relented, and they married that month. After a brief stint in which Eliza joined Hamilton at his army station, the couple settled in to make a home together. During this period, Hamilton was a prolific writer, particularly to George Washington, although a number of pieces of his correspondence are in Eliza's handwriting. The couple, along with their children, moved briefly to Albany, and then to New York City.

While in New York, Eliza and Hamilton enjoyed a vigorous social life, which included a seemingly endless schedule of balls, theater visits, and parties. When Hamilton became the Secretary of the Treasury, Eliza continued to help her husband with his political writings. As if that wasn't enough, she was busy raising their children and managing the household.

In 1797, Hamilton's yearlong affair with Maria Reynolds became public knowledge. Although Eliza initially refused to believe the accusations, once Hamilton confessed, in a piece of writing that came to be known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, she departed for her family's home in Albany while pregnant with their sixth child. Hamilton stayed behind in New York. Eventually, they reconciled, having another two children together.

In 1801, their son Philip, named for his grandfather, was killed in a duel. Just three years later, Hamilton himself was killed in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Beforehand, he wrote Eliza a letter, saying, “With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu, best of wives and best of Women.”

After Hamilton's death, Eliza was forced to sell their estate at public auction to pay off his debts. However, the executors of his will hated the idea of seeing Eliza removed from the home in which she had lived for so long, and so they repurchased the property and resold it back to her at a fraction of the price. She lived there until 1833 when she purchased a townhouse in New York City.

In 1805, Eliza joined the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, and a year later she helped to found the Orphan Asylum Society, which was the first private orphanage in New York City. She served as the agency's director for nearly three decades, and it still exists today, as a social service organization called Graham Wyndham. In its early years, the Orphan Asylum Society provided a safe alternative for orphaned and destitute children, who previously would have found themselves in almshouses, forced to work to earn their food and shelter.

In addition to her charitable contributions and work with New York's orphaned children, Eliza spent nearly fifty years preserving her late husband's legacy. She organized and cataloged his letters and other writings, and worked tirelessly to see Hamilton's biography published. She never remarried.

Eliza died in 1854, at age 97, and was buried beside her husband and sister Angelica in Trinity Churchyard.

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Peggy Schuyler Van Rensselaer (September 19, 1758 - March 14, 1801)

Peggy Schuyler Van Rensselaer.

By James Peale (1749-1831) / Wikimedia Commons

Margarita “Peggy” Schuyler was born in Albany, the third child of Philip and Kitty. At age 25, she eloped with her 19-year-old distant cousin, Stephen Van Rensselaer III. Although the Van Rensselaers were social equals to the Schuylers, Stephen's family felt he was too young to be married, hence the elopement. However, once the marriage took place, it was generally approved of - several family members privately agreed that being married to Philip Schuyler's daughter could help Stephen's political career.

Scottish poet and biographer Anne Grant, a contemporary, described Peggy as being “very pretty” and possessing a “wicked wit.” Other writers of the time attributed similar traits to her, and she was clearly known as a vivacious and spirited young woman. Despite her portrayal in the musical as a third wheel - one who vanishes midway through the show, never to be seen again - the real Peggy Schuyler was accomplished and popular, as befitting a young lady of her social status.

Within a few short years, Peggy and Stephen had three children, although only one survived to adulthood. Like her sisters, Peggy maintained a lengthy and detailed correspondence with Alexander Hamilton. When she fell ill in 1799, Hamilton spent a good deal of time at her bedside, looking in on her and updating Eliza on her condition. When she died in March 1801, Hamilton was with her, and wrote to his wife, “On Saturday, my dear Eliza, your sister took leave of her sufferings and friends, I trust, to find repose and happiness in a better country.”

Peggy was buried in the family plot at the Van Rensselaer estate and later reinterred at a cemetery in Albany.

Looking for a Mind at Work

In the smash Broadway musical, the sisters steal the show when they sing that they're “looking for a mind at work.” Lin-Manuel Miranda's vision of the Schuyler ladies presents them as early feminists, aware of both domestic and international politics, and of their own position in society.

In real life, Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy found their own ways to influence the world around them, in their personal and public lives. Through their extensive correspondence with one another and with the men who would become America's founding fathers, each of the Schuyler sisters helped to create a legacy for future generations.