Peggy: How Much Is True?
When my editor, Katherine Tegen, suggested a novel about Alexander Hamilton’s circle—(given the national hunger to know more spawned by Lin Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical)—I knew I was diving into a sea of expectations and the most stringent of scrutiny by diehard fans. So let me say at the get-go: The vast majority of Hamilton and Peggy: A Revolutionary Friendship is fact. All else is plausible and even likely, given what is known of historic events and what can be gleaned about the “characters” from their own writings and from biographies like Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambitions, and Don Gerlach’s on Philip Schuyler.
I also knew I should focus on less-explored personas. And who could be more tantalizing than that younger sister, Peggy, mentioned but then omitted by necessity in the musical’s second half? (Miranda managed to condense and include an astounding amount of history, but something had to give!) My first bit of fishing pulled in the family lore that Peggy had bravely rushed into the fray of an attempted kidnapping of her father to save her baby sister. I knew I had my protagonist.
Here are the bare-boned facts of Peggy’s life: Born in Albany, the morning of September 19th, 1758, Margarita was a mere 13 months younger than the famous Eliza, who was 18 months younger than the oldest Schuyler sister, Angelica. Their back-to-back births clearly made them playfellows and a tightknit trio. Records indicate the girls attended school in New York City, received dancing, music, and art lessons, and that Peggy often played babysitter to the large brood of younger siblings (three brothers and two sisters). Cross-referenced documents also show Peggy was in the right place at the right times to witness General Philip Schuyler's work as war strategist during the Northern campaign and the Battle of Saratoga, as George Washington's most trusted spy-master, as negotiator with the Iroquois nations, and as liaison with French troops under Rochambeau.
In 1783, Peggy married her distant cousin Stephen Van Rensselaer. She gave birth to three children before dying in 1801, at the age of 43.
This skeleton tells us little about the vibrant, smart, and often sassy Peggy Schuyler. That I found in letters. Beginning with an impassioned plea Hamilton sent in February 1780 to solicit Peggy’s help in his courtship of Eliza.
“Though I have not had the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you,” Hamilton wrote, ”I have had the good fortune to see several very pretty pictures of your person and mind, which have inspired me with a more than common partiality for both…. It is essential to the safety of the state and to the tranquility of the army that one of two things take place; either that (Eliza) be immediately removed from our neighbourhood, or that some other nymph qualified to maintain an equal sway come into it… she will be much less dangerous when she has a rival equal in charms to dispute the prize with her. I solicit your aid.”
Hamilton’s only other direct correspondence with Peggy (that survives to today) was a long postscript attached to a note from Eliza right after their wedding. But scattershot throughout his love letters to Eliza are passing references and tidbits of gossip about his soon-to-be little sister—(whom he immediately dubbed “My Peggy”)—and fond, teasing messages he asks Eliza to pass along to Peggy. Pieced together, they reveal much about Peggy’s high-spirited personality. They also reflect a quick, intuitive, and affectionate friendship with her brother-in-law. This affinity became the unifying thread that binds the novel—even though my focus is on Peggy herself, her wit and Revolutionary sensibilities.
I’ve quoted letters from Hamilton and others from the Schuyler circle throughout my novel—misspellings and all, and with signature lines, dates, and locations appearing as they do on the original documents—so readers can experience the letters’ immediacy firsthand. Within them, the heartaches, hardships, and hopes of the people fighting our Revolution resonate palpably. Their notes are filled with tenderness, compliments, longings to see one another, love advice, and gentle jests. Personas are laid bare in the most delightful ways.
Hamilton’s poeticism, insecurities, bluster, and passion rise off his pages and handed me much of his dialogue. I immediately knew how to write Peggy’s uncle, Dr. John Cochran, for instance, when reading his letter calling a fellow officer a “nincompoopa!” And Lieutenant Colonel Varick’s constant “please to give my best to Miss Peggy” in his letters from the Saratoga battlefield led me to suspect the earnest Dutchman had quite a crush on the youngest daughter of his commanding general. (For more on Cochran and Varick see their entries in Cast of Characters)
Sadly, no letters written by Peggy during this novel’s time period survive. What we do know of her is gleaned from what others said, including the appearance and disappearance of Marquis de Fleury as a suitor. (For more on Fleury see Cast of Characters) Given what people said of her zeal and pith, it also felt totally plausible that Peggy could have actively participated in several crucially important war efforts—like her father’s spy rings.
Contemporaries called Peggy “lively,” “charming,” “bright, spirited, and generous,” “the favourite of dinner-tables and balls,” even “wild” (according to Benjamin Franklin), and possessing “a wicked wit.” Hamilton obviously considered her confident enough, possessed with enough charisma and appreciation for satire, to jokingly promise to write a play about matters of the heart in which she would star. In 1795, a French aristocrat who escaped the guillotine to settle in the United States described Peggy as “endowed with a superior mind and a rare accuracy of judgment for both men and things.” Madame de la Tour du Pin was not at all impressed by the intellect or sophistication of most Americans she met. But she admired Peggy.
Peggy spoke French fluently, taught herself German by reading her father’s engineering books, sketched and painted miniatures, and clearly was just as interested in politics and philosophies as her more famous oldest sister, Angelica. James McHenry’s called Peggy a “Swift’s Vanessa” in a letter to his fellow aide-de-camp, Hamilton. That was eighteenth century code for a woman who was well read, articulate, and passionate in talking about philosophy and political ideas—conversations at that time deemed more “masculine” than feminine. (McHenry’s dialogue in Chapter Seventeen was taken directly from that 1782 letter.) Tragically, McHenry dubbed her a Vanessa disparagingly, displaying his own discomfort with a smart, strong woman as well as the societal constraints that must have so frustrated Peggy. If McHenry is to be believed, Angelica was saved from the same negative label because of her lighter, more flirtatious touch, and her ease with other women. (For more on McHenry see Cast of Characters)
It says a lot about Hamilton that he found intelligent and articulate women so attractive. The same can be said of Peggy’s father. All visitors to his Albany mansion, The Pastures, praised the lively and well-informed conversation among his “amiable, dark-eyed” daughters. Clearly, Schuyler encouraged their learning and discourse. In many ways, he was quite progressive, dividing his primogeniture (his legal right as firstborn son to inherit his parents’ entire estate) with his brother and sister. His letters to his daughters typically began with “My beloved child . . .”
Schuyler family documents also unveil a gutsy and loyal young Peggy—detailing her saving her baby sister during the Loyalist kidnapping raid and traveling through the wilderness of upstate New York to help nurse Schuyler. She appears an unflinching caretaker. General John Bradstreet, a father figure and close family friend, is said to have died in the comforting arms of a teenage Peggy, who had stayed by his sickbed. Her younger siblings were often left in her care, even after she married. And, according to a letter from Schuyler to General Heath asking he safeguard his daughters’ passage, Peggy accompanied Angelica on a dangerous trip to Yorktown from Albany to rejoin her husband—most likely to help tend to her newborn nephew and his young siblings.
Such devotion among sisters was commonplace in the eighteenth century—think Jane Austen novels a few decades later—but seems especially beautiful and symbiotic among the Schuyler trio. As much as Peggy clearly loved them, and possessed traits of each older sister, she must have struggled for notice given the dazzling, intellectual Angelica, “the thief of hearts,” and Eliza, “the little saint” of the Revolution. Hence my theme of Peggy’s coming-of-age and finding her own sense of self and agency within this novel.
I speculate the real-life Peggy had a particularly strong, empathetic bond with her father. Madame de la Tour du Pin, for instance, stated that Peggy had learned to speak French so well by “accompanying her father to the general headquarters of the American and French armies.” Peggy also suffered the same physical ailments that plagued Schuyler. Plus, she simply seemed to be at home more than her sisters. In the letters of 1777, I can find no mention of Eliza being in Albany. Angelica, of course, was already in Boston at that point with her new husband.
All the family events, battles, spies, visits (of Iroquois, French, and Patriot delegations), plus the “celebrity” appearances in this novel are factual. The details of my scenes were gleaned from journals, letters, and news accounts of the time. Much of the dialogue spoken by the novel’s real-life characters comes straight from words they wrote themselves—such as George Washington’s love advice to Peggy at the end of the novel, which I pulled from a letter he wrote to his grandniece.
Out of their Albany home, Schuyler did run a critically important “black chamber operations” network of Canadian, Iroquois, and New Yorker informants, spies, and double agents. He gathered information on enemy movements and intentions through his scouts and informants and by intercepting British communiqués. He and his staff would open, copy, and reseal these letters and then send them on to their intended recipients, who’d never know the information was compromised. Schuyler also fed his enemies false information and fake letters between him and George Washington. He was probably the Revolution’s most skilled military intelligence and counter-intelligence officer.
In many ways, Schuyler was Washington’s right-hand man—detecting conspiracies for surprise attacks in New York, Canada, and adjacent northern states; guarding our vulnerable back door at the Canadian border; and finding ways to supply the Continental Army when others left its soldiers to starve and freeze. He continued to do so even after his honor was so publicly maligned by Congress and the New England delegates, chiefly John Adams. Besides serving as the commander of the Northern Army from 1775 to mid–1777 and as a New York delegate to Congress, Schuyler was also the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, responsible for negotiating war alliances with the six Iroquois nations. (For more on Philip Schuyler see his post in Cast of Characters)
Perhaps because of what seems a failed romance with the French officer, Marquis de Fleury, perhaps because she was more interested in the Revolution and politics than marriage, Peggy did not wed until June 1783. Then she chose her distant cousin, Stephen Van Rensselaer. Some accounts have them eloping—perhaps because the match scandalized Albany since he was only nineteen and she twenty-four years old. But her family seemed very pleased. Kindred souls in intellect and devotion to public service, Peggy supported her spouse running for office and becoming Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1795. He also served as a state senator and US congressman. He inherited one of the largest fortunes in United States history, becoming Lord of Van Rensselaer Manor, the last Dutch land-granted patroon in America. Hamilton teasingly nicknamed Peggy “Mrs. Patroon.”
Peggy gave birth to three children, but by 1801, at age forty-three, she was chair-bound, crippled with gout and suffering what might have been stomach cancer. Hamilton was in Albany on legal business when her condition deteriorated. Hamilton remained in the city for three weeks, visiting her sickbed almost daily. True to her brave, witty self to the very end, Peggy “was sensible to the last and resigned to the important change,” Hamilton wrote Eliza at their New York City home. He seems to have been by his little sister’s side as she drew her last breath.
Even then, Hamilton remained loyal to his Peggy, their fates intertwined. He threw his energy into supporting her husband’s campaign for New York governor. This pitted Hamilton against Aaron Burr, who promoted Van Rensselaer’s opponent. The competition fueled their political animosity. Three years later, Hamilton died in their infamous duel.
I like to believe Peggy was waiting for him on the other side.