The Holidays at the Schuylers
December 29, 2020
If you know me at all, you probably know that I am an ardent fan of primary documents. Especially as I was writing Hamilton and Peggy, primary documents such as letters gave me such a clear, personable glimpse into the lives of the founding fathers.
They also provided me with some hilarious anecdotes and delightful gossip, such as when Hamilton said that he didn’t like one of Peggy’s suitors because “he is not clever enough for her—he sings well and that is all.”
One of the biggest gold mines of information came from a diary kept by Francois-Jean de Chastellux, who was a major general in the French expeditionary forces led by Rochambeau during the American Revolution. His Travels in North America, in the Years 1780-81-82 is full of stories about George and Martha Washington, the French soldiers, and our beloved Schuyler family. He stayed at the Schuyler mansion for about a week in between Christmas and New Years, and in between the semi-constant partying with the Schuyler family and French soldiers, he took the time to put his thoughts down to paper. And he had MUCH to say. I thought you might enjoy some of my favorite tidbits and quotes:
On arrival at the Schuyler mansion, Chastellux described the house as: “a handsome house half way up the bank opposite the ferry.” Since he arrived in December on the river, a sled was sent down to pick him up, and “convey” him into “a handsome saloon, near a good fire.” He was particularly fond of the wine served with dinner, saying that it “made us completely forget the rigor of the season, and the fatigue of the journey.”
Chastellux was very impressed with Papa Philip Schuyler, saying: “He is pretty communicative, and is well entitled to be so; his conversation is easy and agreeable; he knows well what he says, and expresses himself well on every thing he knows.”
Chastellux adored both George and Martha Washington and said of Martha “she appeared to me to be one of the best women in the world.” Of our first president, he wrote “His stature is noble and lofty, he is well made, and exactly proportioned; his physiognomy mild and agreeable…he has neither a grave nor a familiar air, his brow is sometimes marked with thought…in inspiring respect, he inspires confidence, and his smile is always the smile of benevolence.
He similarly gushed about Hamilton to an almost absurd extent, including the following: “…there is no doubt that, with such talents and such knowledge, Mr. Hamilton must be in peace, as well as in war, one of the most considerable citizens in his new country.”
The fashionable Angelica Schuyler
Chastellux was quite shocked at how affectionate the Colonial Americans were, particularly teenagers, at one point saying of two teenagers: “[they] were not only kissing and embracing each other, but proceeding to such familiarities as would shock modesty, and draw down the vengeance of the virtuous citizen of London.” On the other hand, he mocked a parochial farmer who was shocked at Angelica being in “a rather elegant French undress” when she came down to the breakfast table.
In one of his footnotes, he goes on a bit of a rant about Canada that lasts for several pages, including: “…if Canada should become populous, it will revolt; and if it do not become so, it will not be worth the expense of holding. But Canada never will become populous.”
Chastellux seems to have an equally dim view of American children, writing of little Philip Schuyler junior that he was “a little spoilt child of about seven years old, very forward and arch, as all the American children are, but very amiable.”
I am happy to report though, that he loved the Schuyler sisters, and his diaries provided me with one of the few surviving descriptions of Peggy, calling her face “animated and striking.”
And finally, at one point during his stay with the Schuylers, Chastellux witnessed a horse and carriage fall through the river ice, which gave me the inspiration for a scene in Hamilton and Peggy: “We passed the Mohawk river on the ice, a mile above the cataract. It was almost the first attempt, and succeeded with all but Major Popham, whose two horses broke through the ice, and sunk in to the river. This event will appear fatal to Europeans; but let them not be alarmed at the consequences. It is a very common accident, and is remedied in two ways: one by dragging the horses on the ice by force, and if possible, by the help of a lever or plank to raise them up; the other by strangling them with their halter, or the reins, as soon as they have lost their respiration and motion, they float on the water, and are lifted by their fore-feet on the ice; the stricture is loosened, they are bled, and in a quarter of an hour are reinstated in the harness…the accident did not detain us above seven or eight minutes.” I got very worried about those poor colonial horses!
Wherever you are during this final week of December, I hope you are cozy, happy, and healthy. If you are interested in learning more about Chastellux and his writings, check out this resource from Mount Vernon.