Hamil-Fam: The Death of Peggy Schuyler

On March 14, 1801, Margarita (Peggy) Schuyler Van Rensselaer died at her husband’s mansion in Albany after prolonged suffering from an unknown illness.  She was laid to rest in a private family vault on the grounds of the Van Rensselaer Manor House.  I’ve written previously about the romance between Peggy and her husband Stephen, who had eloped against her father’s wishes when Peggy was 25 and Stephen was 19.

Hamilton was in the Albany area attending court, and kept an eye on Peggy and reported back to his wife Eliza:

“Your Sister Peggy had a better night last night than for three weeks past and is much easier this morning. Yet her situation is such as only to authorise a glimmering of hope. Adieu my beloved. A thousand tender wishes for you.”

On March 10, 1801, Hamilton’s legal business in Albany was complete, but he wrote to Eliza that Peggy and his father and mother-in-law had asked him to stay in town during her illness:

The Senate has refused on account of the interference with other business to hear any more causes this session; so that were it not for the situation of your Sister Peggy, her request that I would stay a few days longer and the like request of your father and mother, I could now return to you. But how can I resist these motives for continuing a while longer?

Things must change this week but at all events I set out for New York the beginning of the next. I cannot resolve to be longer kept from you and my dear Children.

There has been little alteration either way in Peggys situation for these past four days.

On March 16, 1801, Alexander Hamilton wrote to Eliza, conveying the news that Peggy had passed away and reassuring her that Peggy had been “sensible” and “resigned” as she faced her death.

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.

Viewing all that she had endured for so long a time, I could not but feel a relief in the termination of the scene. She was sensible to the last and resigned to the important change.

Your father and mother are now calm. All is as well as it can be; except the dreadful ceremonies which custom seems to have imposed as indispensable in this pla⟨ce⟩, and which at every instant open anew the closing wounds of bleeding hearts. Tomorrow the funeral takes place. The day after I hope to set sail for N York.

I long to come to console and comfort you my darling Betsey. Adieu my sweet angel. Remember the duty of Christian Resignation.   Ever Yrs

In 1848, the old vault which had housed Peggy’s remains was demolished, and her remains were removed to an underground vault in Lot 1, Section 14 at the Albany Rural Cemetery. Above the vault is a large white marble monument. The east face of the monument bears the inscription “Margaret Schuyler Wife of Stephen Van Rensselaer Died March 14th, 1801.”

Peggy was survived by her husband and her son, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV.  Her husband remarried in 1802, a year after her death, to Cornelia Paterson.

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV.jpg
Image of Stephen Van Rensselaer IV from Wikipedia

Hamil- Fam: Peggy Schuyler’s Romance

I wrote earlier about Hamilton’s advice on finding a husband to his sister-in-law, Margarita (Peggy) Schuyler and wanted to share a little more about Peggy’s daring elopement with her distant relative, 19 year old Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1783.

According to an account by Maunsell Van Rensselaer, Stephen “was in love with Margaret Schuyler, daughter of the General, and although only nineteen was anxious to get married.  To this the father objected, and the young couple settled the matter by getting married without delay.”

In A Place in History: Albany in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1825 Warren Roberts writes:

“Margarita climbed out of her second-floor room in her father’s mansion to elope with her 19 year old husband.  She was 25 and six years older than her husband.”

James Peale painting of Margarita Schuyler from Wikipedia

Van Rensselaer’s cousin Killian Van Rensselaer was General Schuyler’s private secretary. According to Annals of the Van Rensselaers in the United States: Especially as They Relate to the Family of Killian K. Van Rensselaer:

“The general’s temper was none of the mildest, and he was greatest enraged at this defiance of his paternal authority, and vented his wrath upon his secretary, accusing him of having aided the escapade.”

Stephen was a wealthy orphan who had just graduated from Harvard College a year before the couple was wed, but had not yet attained his majority and come into his inheritance.  Because of his young age, mutual friends expressed concern that the marriage between Peggy and Stephen would fail.  Harrison Gray Otis, a friend of Van Renesselaer’s, wrote  to Killian Van Rensselaer :

“Stephen’s precipitate marriage has been to me a source of surprise and indeed of regret.  He certainly is too young to enter into a connection of this kind; the period of his life is an important crisis; it is the time to acquire Fame, or at least to prepare for its acquisition.  It is the time to engage in a busy life, to arouse the Facultys into action, to awake from a lethargic Inattention, which is generally the consequence of youthful pleasures, and make a figure upon the active Theatre.  Instead of this our friend has indulged the momentary impulse of youthful Passions, and has yielded to the dictates of Remorseful Fancy.”

StephenVanRensselaerIIIPortrait.jpg
Gilbert Stuart portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III from Wikipedia

Fortunately for the couple, Otis’ fears were unfounded.  Mary Gay Humphreys wrote in her biography of Catherine Schuyler:

“The young couple, handsomely entrenched in wealth and position, were doubtless speedily forgiven, as well they might be.  Neither fame nor happiness passed by their married life, which was only too brief.  Mrs. Stephen Van Rensselaer, the wife of the Patroon, is still the lively Peggy, the favorite of all the dinner-tables and balls.”

In a letter to Angelica Schuyler Church, Alexander Hamilton described having dinner with Peggy and Stephen in 1794:

“Your sister Margaret is also wonderfully restored. She and Mr. Rensselaer supped with us — She never was in better spirits. The sight of these friends has diminished though not dissipated a sadness which took possession of my heart on my departure from New York. I am more and more the fool of affection and friendship. In a little time I shall not be able to stir from the side of my family & friends.”

Interestingly, Van Rensselaer had played an important role in the elopement of Peggy’s sister, Angelica in 1777.  The couple had exchanged vows in Van Rensselaer’s home, and he reportedly helped convince Angelica and Peggy’s father, General Philip Schuyler, to accept the newly married couple.  Little did General Schuyler know that six years later, the boy Patroon would be eloping with another one of his daughters!

Hamilton’s Guide to Dating/Marriage

In a January 21, 1781 letter to his sister-in-law Margarita (Peggy) Schuyler, Hamilton lay out his philosophy on marriage and selecting the right partner.  Hamilton noted that his wife, Eliza:

“….fancies herself the happiest woman in the world, and would need persuade all her friends to embark with her in the matrimonial voyage. But I pray you do not let her advice have so much influence as to make you matrimony-mad.”

He noted that despite Eliza’s happiness with their early married life, it was important for Peggy to be cautious before making such a commitment.

Image from Wikipedia
However, when marriages were made between two incompatible people, Hamilton expressed the skeptical view that:

“…its a dog of life when two dissonant tempers meet, and ’tis ten to one but this is the case.”

Therefore, Hamilton urged Peggy to be “cautious in the choice” and recommended that she:

“Get a man of sense, not ugly enough to be pointed at—with some good-nature—a few grains of feeling—a little taste—a little imagination—and above all a good deal of decision to keep you in order; for that I foresee will be no easy task. If you can find one with all these qualities, willing to marry you, marry him as soon as you please.”

Two years later, Peggy eloped with young Stephen van Rensselaer III.  The marriage raised some eyebrows because Peggy was 25 and van Rensselar was only 19.  The couple had three children, but only one, Stephen van Rensselaer IV, survived to adulthood.  Peggy died at age 42 in 1801.