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Who Were the Real Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton?
In Hamilton, his award-winning Broadway musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda depicts Alexander Hamilton’s wife and sisters-in-law as a proto-feminist girl group, singing in formation and demanding that the Founding Fathers “include women in the sequel.” But who were Eliza Hamilton’s sisters, Angelica and Peggy Schuyler, and were their politics as revolutionary as Hamilton suggests? An investigation into their lives reveals that, although Miranda fudged many of the biographical details, the real Schuyler sisters were truly as unforgettable as the fictionalized characters in the musical.
Angelica Schuyler, born in 1756 in Albany, New York, was the eldest daughter of Continental Army General Philip Schuyler and his wife, Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. As the firstborn child of a wealthy and landed Dutch family that had lived in Albany since the early days of the colonies, Angelica was a prominent socialite, mixing with the many high-profile Revolutionary War figures that frequented the Schuyler home due to her father’s rank and stature. Angelica was witty, spirited, and well-read, as well as “the thief of hearts,” according to her contemporaries.
Yet in the matter of stealing hearts, the love triangle depicted in Hamilton takes some creative license with the historical record. In “Satisfied,” a song set at the 1780 Midwinter Ball where the Schuyler sisters first encountered Hamilton, Angelica sings, “I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich / My father has no sons so I’m the one who has to social climb for one.” In reality, Philip Schuyler had three sons and an ample fortune inherited through marriage, meaning that Angelica had her pick of the litter where suitors were concerned. Yet even so, the suitor Angelica chose was far from a satisfactory match.
Angelica chose as her husband John Barker Church, an English-born businessman and supplier of the Continental Army who settled in the colonies either to escape gambling debts or retribution for a duel. Angelica first encountered Church in 1776, when he was sent to the Schuyler home by Congress to audit her father’s accounts, as Congress suspected General Schuyler of poor command. Church was handsome, cosmopolitan, and vaguely dangerous, enchanting Angelica through a series of illicit notes and letters. Schuyler refused to bless the union due to his suspicions about Church’s unsavory past, yet one night in 1777, Angelica left the family home under the cover of darkness, eloping with Church against her parents’ wishes.
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At the time of the Midwinter Ball in 1780, where the Schuyler sisters first encountered Hamilton, Angelica was a married mother of two toddlers—far from the lovesick young socialite portrayed in the musical. Hamilton depicts a lifelong flirtation and correspondence between Hamilton and Angelica, both of whom the musical suggests were powerless to resist the attraction and intellectual chemistry they shared, even after Hamilton married Angelica’s sister. Certainly their flirtatious and playful letters fueled contemporary gossip, with Angelica joking in one letter to her sister, “If you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.” Yet historians tend to agree that no actual affair took place, as Angelica and her growing family spent sixteen years living abroad in Europe, apart from occasional visits to America.
In the musical, Miranda depicts Angelica as a noble martyr, setting aside her own attraction to Hamilton in order to play matchmaker for Hamilton and a lovestruck Eliza. Yet in reality, it was Peggy Schuyler who played matchmaker. Born Margarita Schuyler in 1758, Peggy was the youngest of the Schuyler sisters, known as a “wicked wit… endowed with a rare accuracy of judgment in men and things”; she was also “a favorite at dinner tables and balls.” One of Hamilton’s closest friends criticized Peggy as a “Swift’s Vanessa” (eighteenth-century parlance for a woman too enamored of talking politics with men to be likable), writing to Hamilton, “Tell her so. I am sure her good sense will soon place her in her proper station.”
Smart, beautiful, gregarious Peggy was a close confidante to Hamilton, who affectionately called her “my Peggy” in his letters to Eliza. Days after meeting Eliza, he wrote to Peggy, saying that he had already formed “a more than common partiality” for her “person and mind,” then begging her, as “a nymph of equal sway,” to distract Hamilton’s peers with her feminine wiles such that he could monopolize Eliza. In answer to the letter, Peggy dutifully rode through record-setting snow to attend the series of military balls hosted that winter, where Hamilton wooed Eliza.
Like Angelica, Peggy made what her parents considered an ignoble match in marriage, forcing her to elope at the family’s country home. At 25 years old, she married 19-year-old Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a distant cousin whose young age caused controversy. Together they had three children, with only one surviving to adulthood.
As the sisters aged, circumstance drove them to opposite ends of the globe. Angelica and her family decamped to Europe in 1783, setting up shop in Paris, where she befriended Benjamin Franklin, who was then America’s Minister to France. After the family moved to England, her husband became a member of Parliament; during that period their lives, Angelica briefly returned to the United States to attend the presidential inauguration of George Washington. In a cruel irony, it was Angelica’s husband who owned the pistols that Hamilton brought to his fateful duel with Aaron Burr—the very same pistols that Hamilton’s son Philip died holding.
In 1799, Angelica and her family returned to the United States permanently, accepting a 100,000 acre parcel of land in upstate New York. Her eldest son, Philip Schuyler Church, developed a village on the land, naming it Angelica after his mother. Simultaneously in 1799, Peggy fell ill, with her health worsening over the following two years until she died in 1801. Hamilton was by her side at the time of her death, writing to Eliza, “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.” Angelica lived until 1814, while Eliza dramatically outlived both of her sisters, dying at the advanced age of 97 years old in 1854.
As the musical notes, Angelica was interred in Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City, along with Hamilton and Eliza. Though Hamilton fudges many of the chronological and biographical details about the Schuyler sisters, it captures the irrepressible spirit of these three bold, ambitious women, each of whom were determined to marry and live on their own terms, to the best of their ability. It’s safe to say that the portrait of independence and sisterly devotion between these three women, who grew up at the vanguard of a country’s birth, is closer to truth than fiction.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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