Happy Birthday to Peggy Schuyler!
September 18, 2020
Today is the 262nd birthday of the bodacious Peggy Schuyler. In her time, the Schuyler family would have greeted it with toasts and blessings like this one Papa Philip wrote to Eliza for hers, “(Peggy) dined with us yesterday and in good spirits we congratulated each other on the Anniversary of your birth. May heaven, my beloved Child, grant you many and may each future year afford you that happiness which you bestow on your parents, your husband, your children, and all your Connections.”
Birthday cakes were not a thing back then, but wealthy families would often host lavish dinners or maybe even a ball. Fancy desserts included! Sadly, we can’t throw a dance. So to celebrate the “wicked wit” Peggy, “the favourite at dinner tables and balls,” please enjoy this recorded roundtable discussion with Jessie Serfilippi, one of the Schuyler Mansion’s wondrously generous and oh-so-knowledgeable historical interpreters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnCtL2gdSXg&feature=youtu.be
Since my biographical novel HAMILTON AND PEGGY: A Revolutionary Friendship is rooted in fact—so you can learn all that is documented about Peggy during the Revolution—we focused our conversation on aspects of her life AFTER my book’s time frame (which ends in June 1782). We had such fun discussing Peggy's:
1. abiding friendship and intellectual affinity with A. Ham (who immediately began calling her "My Peggy," "my little sister," or "spritely” Peggy, screened her beaus for whether they were worthy of her, and who was by her bedside when she died, all too young);
2. her vast self-education (Among other things, it looks like Peggy taught herself German by reading her father’s engineering manuals! Adding that language to her fluency in French);
3. her interest and knowledge in both local and international politics;
4. her friendship with a French aristocrat who escaped the guillotine and came to America;
5. and Peggy’s tutoring her nieces and nephews.
We also talked about Peggy's romance and marriage with Stephen Van Rensselaer. Stephen was quite smitten with the "lively” and well-read Peggy. So much so, it seems Papa Schuyler might have gently reprimanded Stephen about being too flirtatious in his courtship of Peggy—warning against an "unbecoming forwardness in a young gentleman." (This letter ended with Philip’s typical paternal warmth with young people who came into his children’s circle: “Pardon this liberty. It proceeds from a heart that wishes you honor and happiness.”) Interestingly, Papa Schuyler’s letter was dated the day before Peggy’s 23rd birthday in 1781.
People were a bit scandalized by the union of these two distant cousins—Peggy was twenty-five-years-old when they wed in June 1783 and Stephen only nineteen, a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard. I discuss Peggy’s “superior mind” in other blogs (see below for links), but I’ll add here that Peggy was criticized by a Hamilton BFF, James McHenry, as being too much of a “Swift’s Vanessa.” His criticism was a reference to an obscure Jonathon Swift poem and 18th century code for a whip-smart woman too insistent and interested in politics and philosophy with men. “Tell Peggy so,” McHenry wrote Hamilton, “I am sure her good sense will soon place her in her proper station.” (Ha! I don’t think her brother-in-law did any such thing—he clearly admired her smarts, trusting her to educate his children during summer visits and dismissing the potential courtship of her by a Captain Beebe, because, “He is not clever enough for (Peggy). He sings well and that is all.”)
Peggy and Stephen seem such kindred spirits in both their intellectual curiosity and revolutionary patriotism. Surely Peggy was not only an enormous support to Stephen’s political career, but an influence on his being a strong advocate for higher education. During her lifetime, he helped found the Albany Public Library, was a state assemblyman and senator, and then served as New York’s Lieutenant Governor. He also presided over the state’s constitutional convention in 1801. Hamilton was a strong and devoted political ally. Supporting Stephen’s run for governor further frayed Hamilton’s relationship with Aaron Burr, who supported Stephen’s opponent.
Here’s Schuyler’s notation of Peggy’s birth in the family bible:
Translating the Dutch: 1758 September the 19th in the morning was born our third child named Margarita, baptized by Domine Theodorus Frelinghysen. Witnesses by brother Jeremiah van Renselaer and stepmother Gertruydt Van Rensselaer. The Lord grant her peace on earth and eternal salvation hereafter.
Life is full of so many ironies. Catharine’s brother, Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, who witnessed his niece’s baptism, would end up being an outspoken political adversary of her brother-in-law and husband. An ardent patriot himself, and a member of Albany’s Sons of Liberty, Jeremiah became an antifederalist and supporter of Republican Thomas Jefferson.
I’d love to hear what kind of “Cabinet Battle” rap-style song that Linn Manuel Miranda might create for a dinner party at the Schuyler Mansion where these two opposing Van Rensselaer men were together across the table—perhaps toasting Peggy for her birthday! And with the formidable Mama Catharine—(who survived giving birth fifteen times and managed a large estate flawlessly)—presiding over the debate between her son-in-law and baby brother.
For more on the extraordinary, feminist-thinking Peggy, please read the novel! And see my earlier blogs: