Sunday, May 29, 2016

ANGELICA SCHUYLER ~ America's First Heart Throb




Angelica, older sister to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, was a piece of work. Perhaps you've met someone like her--enchanting, intelligent, daring, filled with boundless energy, bubbling over with wit. She was also a champagne tastes kind of gal who brought the party along with her, brightening any room she entered. Men and women alike adored her. She had admirers not only in America, but in France and in Britain, too, among them the leading lights of the time.  
The French Statesman Talleyrand, the Whig Leader, Charles Fox, the play-write Richard Brinsley Sheridan, as well as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Lafayette were among the many luminaries who fell beneath her spell. 
We can no longer see the glamor in this picture of her and her first child, painted by Trumbull. Fashions in beauty change. In one letter to his father-in-law, Hamilton speaks of Angelica and his wife Elizabeth as "our brunettes." I'm not certain if Angelica had blue eyes or the melting black eyes of her younger sister.  Whichever, it was her animating high spirits, wit, and a killer sense of style which knocked 'em all dead. In her own time, she was known as "the thief of hearts."

While accompanying her husband to England, Angelica thrilled to visit the glamorous European capitols, to be introduced at the French Court and to meet the Prince of Wales et al, but she missed her warm extended family, too. Here's an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton:

You are happy my dear friend to find consolation in words and thoughts. I cannot be so easily satisfied. I regret America. I regret the separation from my friends and I lament the loss of your society. I am so unreasonable as to prefer our charming family parties to all the gaieties of London…I shall send by the first ships every well written book that I can procure on the subject of finance…"

Good as her word, she sent our soon-to-be First Secretary of the Treasury a copy of Adam Smith’s seminal work on economics, The Wealth of Nations.
Angelica and Hamilton engaged in a life-long flirtation, evidence of which survives in any number of letters.

Hamilton playfully writes to her: "I seldom write to a lady without fancying the relation of lover and mistress. It has a very inspiring effect.”

Angelica writes: "Indeed, my dear, Sir if my path was strewed with as many roses as you have filled your letter with compliments, I should not now regret my absence from America.”

Note the odd placement of the comma. The romantic in Hamilton certainly did!

“...You ladies despise the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter.  It is my interest it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental…” and in return he signs: Adieu ma chere, Soeur.  A. Hamilton

Though Hamilton's political enemies made a great deal of their public repartee, it seems highly doubtful that these two, for all their word-play round the subject, ever shared a bed.  For one thing, the Schuylers were a proud and tightly-knit family, all of whom, from beginning to end, whole-heartedly admired Hamilton. The sisters, Elizabeth and Angelica, loved and supported each other from the beginning of this triangular relationship to the end--and beyond.
Here is a letter Elizabeth wrote to her sister just after her departure to England: “My very dear beloved Angelica: I have seated myself to write to you, but my hearts is so saddened by your absence that it can scarcely dictate, my eyes so filled with tears that I shall not be able to write you much. Tell Mr. Church for me of the happiness he will give me in bringing you to me, not to me alone, but to fond parents, sisters, friends and to my Hamilton, who has for you all the affection of a fond own brother."

Speaking of Talleyrand and Chevalier Beaumetz, who had traveled to America to escape Madame Guillotine, Angelica call them: "Martyrs to the cause of moderate liberty…To your care, dear Eliza, I commit these interesting strangers. They are a loan I make you till I return to America, not to reclaim my friends entirely, but to share their society with you and dear Alexander the Amiable.
By my Amiable you know that I mean your husband, for I love him very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while. But do not be jealous, my dear Eliza, since I am more solicitous to promote his laudable ambition than any person in the world and there is no summit of true glory which I do not desire he may attain, provided always that he pleases to give me a little chit-chat and sometimes to say I wish our dear Angelica was here…Ah! Bess! You were a lucky girl to get so clever and so good a companion.”
Thomas Jefferson by Mather, elegant at the French Court

Amusingly, Hamilton's chief political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, seems to have also fallen under the spell of the formidable Mrs. Church's, this during 1788, when he was America's ambassador in Paris. The Ancien Regime still ruled France at this time, although events were only an eye blink distant from the coming Revolution. Here is a graceful excerpt from a letter from Jefferson to Angelica: 

The morning you left us, all was wrong, even the sunshine was provoking, with which I never quarreled before. I took it into my head he shone only to throw light on our loss: to present a cheerfulness not at all in unison with my mind. I mounted my horse earlier than common. I took by instinct the road you had taken...

"I think I have discovered a method of preventing this dejection of mind on any future parting.
"It is this. When you come again I will employ myself in finding or fancying that you have some faults & I will draw a veil over all your good qualities if I can find one large enough."

Six months after, Jefferson begs Angelica to return to Paris and in August 1788 he seductively proposes that she accompany him on shipboard when they both return to America.

Think of it, my friend, and let us begin a negotiation on the subject. You shall find in me all the spirit of accommodation with which Yoric began his with the fair Piedmontese.


(The characters Jefferson refers to were in an erotically charged scene in Sentimental Journey, a best-selling novel of the day by English writer Laurence Sterne. Yoric is forced to share a room at a crowded Italian country inn with a lovely female stranger. These two characters will eventually have sex.)

"Let’s go back together then. You intend it a visit; so do I. While you are indulging with your friends on the Hudson, I will go to see if Monticello remains in the same place, or I will attend you to the falls of Niagara, if you will go with me to the passage of the Potowmac, the Natural Bridge, etc.,"

A decade later, Jefferson, then Vice President, is still trying: "... I shall entertain the hope that we may meet at this place, as on a middle ground. perhaps you may find it not unpleasant in winter to get this much nearer to the sun. but whether we meet or not, I shall for ever claim an esteem which continues to be very precious to me, and hope to be, at times, indulged with the mutual expression of it."


Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop version of the Schuyler Sisters~
~Elizabeth, Angelica, Peggy~
But we're all overlooking Angelica's most important man--her husband. Biographers and armchair historians alike think of him as dull and boring. So apparently did Angelica after a decade of marriage.

In the beginning, however, John Barker Church was a handsome fast-talker, a down-on-his-luck aristocrat in America, fleeing the consequences of a duel and a host of unpaid debts. He courted his American princess under the cover of a war-time commissary business, using the alias 'Carter.'

After Major General Schuyler, her father, soon forbade the smooth-talking Englishman access to the house, but the damage was done. They eloped in classic style. One night, she climbed out the window and down a ladder into John's waiting arms.  Angelica's doubly patrician parents, (her mother was a van Rensselaer) were beyond furious. It took a year, stern interventions by Dutch grandparents, and a suitable offering in the shape of a son christened 'Philip', to reconcile them. 


It looks quiet today, but The Pastures, the Schuyler's home on the banks of the Hudson, was once the site of high romantic drama. Over the years, four thwarted and love-struck Schuyler daughters, one after the other, climbed out those upstairs windows into the arms of lovers.*

Once upon a time, before he became a successful insurance underwriter, (one who was by contemporary accounts was "fonder of premiums than payouts,") John Barker Church was a dashing rakehell with the scent of brimstone about him.  He seems to have been a type America loves--entrepreneur/con-artist. Once he reached America, his luck turned; all the cards went his way. He ended his Revolutionary War with a tidy fortune in his pocket. 

In the 18th Century it was more or less expected that graft would be a large part of the pay-off for a nimble supplier, so the tarnish--the unpaid soldiers of the Revolution and their blood-on-the-snow sufferings--didn't stick. From an aristocratic welcher, Church was, by the end of war, transformed into a man sufficiently wealthy to return to England with a colonial princess on his arm and with his pockets sufficiently full to "win" a seat in Parliament. 

In later years, letters sent by New Yorkers-in-the-know reported John Church's immense wealth as well as his appetite for underwriting all day and gambling all night. Both were occupations that, though fraught with risk, were also liable to bring immense rewards. For me, the picture that comes together is of a man of high intelligence and energy who had a positive delight in walking the edge--whether it was a bet laid upon the turn of a card or upon the successful return of a cargo of spices or a whaling ship.

Today, we call such people "thrill junkies," and perhaps this is the trait which brought Angelica and her husband together. From the number of passionate letters written to her that have survived, she thirsted for romance and was a mistress of leading on her admirers. Her looks, education, and brains ensured that she had but to crook a little finger and men came running. And why would we be surprised at her life-time of daring? She had, after all, climbed out that window, risking her honor and her future with a man whose real name she'd probably, even then, hadn't known.


~~Juliet Waldron

See All My Historical Novels At:    
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And for a fictional riff which uses elements of Angelica's story check out:

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*Elizabeth is the only daughter who was married (properly) at the house, because her sweetheart, Alexander Hamilton, was the only suitor for any of his girls of whom Philip Schuyler approved


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