Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
A biographical sketch by Georgina Schuyler, written to her niece, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.
(Letter accompanying photography of a portrait of her namesake, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)
37 Madison Ave
June 21st 1908
My Dear Elizabeth
This is the day of your ___ and this letter is written to you—to give given to you when you are older, with the portrait of the lady for whence you are named, Elizabeth Schuyler, afterwards Mrs. Alexander Hamilton. She was your father’s great-grandmother, and my great grandmother. But though she lived so long ago, some of us still remember her, and all of us love her because she was so lovely, good and king; and we hope you too will love and be like her.
She was born on the 9th of August, 1757, and was the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, of Albany, and she, and her father, and mother, and brothers and sisters lived in a large house just outside the City of Albany, overlooking the Hudson River. It was called “the Pastures,” and is still standing, though the city streets are all about it now.
When this portrait was painted, in 1787, Mrs. Hamilton had been married eight years, and had three little children. Two years later, in 1789, her husband was appointed by Washington Secretary of the Treasury. The President and Cabinet then lived in New York City and at the Hamilton house there were dances and parties and many people coming and going—Wednesday evening was their reception evening. Marie Antoinette, was then the Queen of France. She wore the same kind of high head dress you see in the portrait—it was the Fashion of the day. Mrs. Hamilton’s older sister Angelica, Mrs. Church, had married an Englishman and lived in Paris and in London for many years. Mr. & Mrs. Church knew many French people noblemen and ___. Most sought refuge in England during the French Revolution; and a number of the gentlemen came to America introduced by Mrs. Church to her sister and brother-in-law. Mrs. Hamilton was kind and hospitable to them and they needed kindness in exile from their country, sad and lonely, separated from their family.
For it was Mrs. Hamilton’s kindness and the nature of her disposition that attracted people. She was not so very pretty—not as pretty as her older sister—but she was good tempered, and everyone liked her. There was a young gentleman from Maryland, Mr. Tilghman, an aid de camp of General Washington, who stayed at her father’s house when she was a girl. He writes that she had “the most good natured, dark, lovely eyes I ever saw,” and everyone one told him how sweet tempered she was. She was also active and fearless. They all went on a picnic near Albany; and he describes how Miss Betsey Schuyler climbed up the banks of the waterfall, and jumped from rock to rock, declining all assistance, and making merry at the fears of the other girls.
Mr. Carroll of Maryland was detained at the country place of her father, General Schuyler, at Saratoga, for a week, owing to the illness of old Mr. Benjamin Franklin. [He] writes what a pleasant week he had passed. He was very much older than Miss Betsey, but he found her and her sister very good company, so bright and cheerful, and ready and glad to take not of older people. Miss Betsey was straight forward and simple in her manner. One of the French gentleman speaks of her in later years—of her simplicity and adds that “she is a charming woman.”
So, when this portrait was painted, she had passed through a happy girlhood, and was most happily married. She was a devoted wife. She appreciated her husband’s genius and she did all she possibly could to help him. He had to work very hard to support his family (he was a lawyer by profession) and whenever possible, he was pre-occupied with public affairs. But he, too, was kind and wished to help people when they were in trouble and so this is the story of the portrait:
The artist, Mr. Earle, had made debts he could not pay, and was put in the New York City Debtor Prison (such was the law of those days). Mr. Hamilton was sorry for him and worked to get [him] out, and consulted his wife as to the best way of doing so. She decided that she would dress and visit the Debtors Prison and ask for her portrait there, in a room that was set apart for Mr. Earle to paint her in. She persuaded the ladies to do the same thing. They also came to the prison and sat for their portraits; and son Mr. Earle had made enough money to pay his debts, get out of prison, and be a free man once more: Thanks to her we have the portrait, and the memory of her kind heart. This story was told to me by her son James, my Grandfather Hamilton, who loved to tell it of his mother.
In her later life she had great sorrows, and showed much strength of character. Her husband’s death left her with many children to support and educate, and but little fortune with which to do so. However, they all grew up and made their way, and then she thought of other children, poor children left without money or father to care for them, and she helped to found the first orphan asylum in New York City. She also took into her home a little orphan girl and brought her up and started her in life. She lived to a great age. I remember perfectly her sweet old face and her white hair under her cap as she used to sit in the ball at Nevis where now this very portrait hangs.
I am my dear little Elizabeth
To Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
source: Columbia University, Hamilton Family Papers