In October 2016 my wife and I went to visit the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York. We went because of Susan’s interest in Alexander Hamilton who, as many know, married Gen. Philip Schuyler’s daughter Elizabeth, and then went on to help change the world only to perish in a duel with Aaron Burr. As part of the Schuyler family, Hamilton spent considerable time at this estate known as The Pastures, which at one time stretched some twenty-four acres from the Schuylers front door to the western banks of the Hudson River.
The weekend before, we visited Schuyler’s country estate, the Schuyler House in Schuylerville, about thirty miles north of Albany on the Hudson River and ten or so miles east of Saratoga Springs. In Philip Schuyler’s day, it was known as the Saratoga Patent – tens of thousands of acres amassed by generations of Schuylers that would be added to by his marriage to Patroon Johannes VanRensselaer’s daughter Catherine, or “Sweet Kitty VR” as Philip called her. We were curious to see what they had to offer about Hamilton’s visits to the farm.
By the time Schuyler was finished with the Saratoga Patent, he had created what he considered a colony of artisans and craftsman who greased the wheels of his many lucrative enterprises like lumber mills and fisheries, and churned out goods that were shipped not just around the colonies but internationally as well.
This comfortable country home, very near the river, was built by Schuyler after Gen. John Burgoyne’s troops destroyed the original one during the pivotal Saratoga campaign in 1777, parts of which were fought on and around Schuyler lands. It took Schuyler all of three weeks to replace it with the structure that stands there now, built with lumber from his own mills.
Although politically outmaneuvered in the Continental Congress by Gen. Horatio Gates, and stripped of his command as the major general of the Northern Army because of illness and the Fort Ticonderoga debacle, Schuyler’s participation in the Battle of Saratoga was nonetheless important. He swallowed his pride and did what he did best-work the logistics and amass food and provisions while keeping the supply lines open.
We were at the Schuyler farm for an October candle light tour, and we stood at the edge of the front lawn amidst a string of wood burning torches known as cressets that lined the pathway to the house. The air was crisp and filled with the smell of the fires and somewhere beyond the reach of the torches’ arcs of light, someone was playing a penny whistle while volunteers in period costume mingled with us and told us stories about the Patent.
We moved through the candle lit house in groups of ten, past volunteers dressed in period costume, telling us about each room – where Philip and his wife Kitty slept, where the children played, how dinner was served and what they ate and where they played whist and backgammon on quiet evenings. By the time we exited the house, out through the cookhouse and onto the back lawn, savoring homemade cookies and hot cider, we were making plans to visit the Albany mansion.
I wandered around to the back of the house where there is a brick Dutch oven. The oven was built on the outside of the kitchen house. Being outside kept the oven’s heat out of the house in summer and insured the kitchen house didn’t burn in case of an accident with fire. I thought about the slaves who would have to bake the bread and pies for the coming day in Schuyler’s time. How the smell of the baking must have permeated the house and the grounds.
Over its life, there were three houses built at The Patent. The first, a modest brick home built by Schuyler’s uncle (another Philip) was destroyed by marauding Iroquois and French soldiers who slipped down from Canada to terrorize the area during the French and Indian War. In the middle of a summer’s night they shot Uncle Philip three times, took a few women slaves hostage and torched the house, burning to death the remaining slaves in the basement.
Philip Schuyler inherited the Patent when his mother died, and as he prospered, built a brick house which by all accounts was a beautiful country estate. It was eventually torched and ruined, this time in October 1777 by the British in the waning days of the Saratoga campaign.
Philip designed and built the replacement house while Kitty entertained the captured General Burgoyne and his staff at The Pastures before the prisoners were sent to the Boston area. Philip did not go home to his mansion in Albany while Burgoyne was housed there. He was in a hurry to replace the house and get his Saratoga Patent enterprises back up and running. I also imagine he was just a bit pissed.
When his son John Bradstreet Schuyler (named after Philip’s mentor, Gen. John Bradstreet) became sixteen, Philip began to groom the boy to take over the Patent so that he could pursue other interests.
He must have thought his boy John had some of his old man’s juju, because when John turned twenty-one, Philip deeded him the entire Saratoga Patent to own and run, which he did until his untimely death at age thirty. Philip reluctantly had to take the Patent back. He was old and sickly and running out of cash because of a scheme he launched to build a canal from the Hudson River to the Mohawk River and beyond – a precursor to the Erie Canal. The visionary had gotten the better of the businessman. Philip Schuyler never recovered.
The Albany mansion was designed by Schuyler in the Georgian manner. For 1760s Albany, the house was a radical statement, as the town was a bastion of Dutch architecture. It also shouted a kind of liberation from the Dutch to the emerging English culture that was slowly making its way north. Schuyler was becoming his own man. Masons and bricklayers began work on the house on May 12, 1761. The exterior was planned before he left for England and the interior finishes, after he returned. Schuyler was twenty-eight years old.
He was clearly influenced by his visits to New York City and more than likely the home of the colorful Sir William Johnson’s Fort Johnson which was Georgian-influenced. By Schuyler’s own reckoning in an inventory of his library that he performed in 1789, he had a slew of books on architecture that pointed in that direction.
Philip left for England on March 3, 1761 on an eventful voyage that included an attack by privateers and the mortal wounding of the ship’s captain. It took him until May 24, 1762 to finish his business there that included purchases for his new house: wallpaper, window glass, fabrics, silver and brass items, brassware, hardware. Philip was as careful furnishing his house as he had been designing and building it.
When we entered the Schuyler Mansion, we went through an improbable hexagonal entryway that has little to do with the architecture of the house. It was stuck on by John Bryan, who purchased the house from Schuyler’s estate for ten thousand dollars in 1815.
Once inside the house, we were in the great hallway, a massive room that was built to impress visitors as well as serve as a waiting room for the many appointments that visited Schuyler throughout his life. In the summers, a large dinner table was laid in this room and the back and front doors opened, so a summer’s breeze from the Hilderberg Mountains to the west washed down through the mansion to the Hudson. As I stood at the foot of the staircase at the back of the mansion, I knew I wanted to be in this world and explore these fascinating figures and try to reconstruct what happened there in a creative way. For the next year I wrote a novel, Schuyler’s Ghost.
On either side of the hallway are two formal drawing rooms and towards the back of the house, through an archway, a massive staircase and Schuyler’s study and a formal dining room. The carpenter who built and installed the staircase was John Gaborial, who may have built a more elaborate staircase in the Hancock house in Boston. Gaborial may have also built the paneled fireplace walls in the first-floor drawing and dining rooms. The drawing room on the south side of the house is called The Hamilton Room, because Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler were married there. It is an impressive room, high ceilinged, beautifully detailed with a striking fireplace. The drawing room to the north was the family room where the Schuylers would gather in the evenings. It is a bright yellow, beautifully appointed room.
The door beyond the fireplace in the Hamilton Room leads to Schuyler’s study from which he ran his enterprises and, one imagines, to which he retreated to craft his vision. It was also in this room that Hamilton studied for the New York bar examination, cramming from the books in Schuyler’s law library. Schuyler had a hand in changing the law that required lawyers to attend law school which paved the way for Hamilton’s entry by examination to the bar. There was another visitor to The Pastures during this time who was also studying for the bar – Aaron Burr.
Schuyler’s time in the mansion stretched from 1761 to 1804 – forty-three years, from age twenty-eight to seventy-one. During that arc he would inherit the Saratoga Patent from his mother where he built the first flax mill in the colonies, and he was appointed by the New York Assembly to handle the thankless mission of negotiating the boundary dispute with New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Schuyler was selected as a delegate to the Colonial Assembly and in 1775 became a delegate to the Continental Congress where he, along with George Washington, were among the architects of the Continental Army. He became major general of the Northern District and was appointed Commissioner of Indian affairs. He also presided over the problem-riddled task of helping to extract Benedict Arnold from the unfortunate Quebec campaign quagmire. In his later years he would also serve as a United States Senator only to be later unseated by Aaron Burr.
Schuyler’s hospitality was renowned, and many wanted to be his guest. Cherokee warriors on their way to seek peace with the Iroquois, were housed there for part of their journey. During the Revolution, Ben Franklin and Charles Carroll along with Father John Carroll (later to be the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States), George Washington, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Jay, and others came to visit with Philip and Kitty. Interestingly, Schuyler’s former military protagonist, Horatio Gates, came back for a visit.
Outside the Schuyler bedchamber’s massive windows, the sun tracked across the Hudson illuminating the room where Philip Schuyler died in bed on a cold November night, on the eve of his seventy-first birthday. Earlier in 1803, he had lost Kitty and the next summer, Alexander Hamilton would be killed in a duel fueled by a political rivalry and animus matching anything we are experiencing today.
The room looked as if the Schuylers just stepped out of it. Philip’s reading chair and his opened medicine box on the floor, a wig on a stand on a dresser, a clock gently marking time on the mantlepiece. Out the eastern windows, the Hudson moved relentlessly south, and beyond it on the eastern bank, the Van Rensselaer’s house Craillo, looked more like a dull, unrefined fort than a Patroon’s home. Schuyler had outdone his in-laws.
The Mansion was begun in 1760, when Schuyler was twenty-eight years old and finished in 1765. The truth is, like most buildings, it evolved over Schuyler’s life, no doubt because of his restlessness and impulse for change. It is as refined a building as you will find anywhere and truly remarkable considering its location. At the time, Albany was a stubborn Dutch backwater trading post with a wall built around it to stave off the French and Indians. Of course, Schuyler built his mansion outside of those walls. It was the first house a visitor would see when coming up the Hudson.
His pregnant wife miscarried twins while Schuyler was away in England and construction had begun on the mansion, and the neighbors whispered about John Bradstreet and Kitty. Bradstreet lived in an apartment in the house while Schuyler was away, and he supervised the construction. The friendship between the two men was deep. You see, Schuyler lost his father when he was eight years old and was raised by his mother and his aunt Margaretta, the matriarch of the family, at yet another family property, Schuyler Flatts. This less elegant, decidedly Dutch brick (literally, as the brick was imported from Amsterdam) structure, sat on the Schuyler family farm about two miles north of Albany along the eastern banks of the Hudson. All that is left are traces of the foundation and the burial grounds of early family and their slaves.
For all his family’s pull, at the time he met General Bradstreet, Schuyler was thrashing around, trying to get a foothold, looking for opportunities to feed his growing family and maintain Schuyler Flatts.
When Schuyler, in his early twenties, met Bradstreet, who was twenty years older, both men sensed that their futures might be tied together. Schuyler served under Bradstreet during the French and Indian War where Schuyler shone because of his prowess with bookkeeping and logistics, two capabilities that would later combine with his political power to elevate him to become a major general during the American Revolution. Oddly, Bradstreet did not care much for the Dutch. He saw them as ponderous and boring.
Bradstreet purchased and made a gift of the land for the house and lent Schuyler the money to build it, which Schuyler repaid as soon as he got back home from England. Having received a hundred thousand dollars which his wife Kitty inherited at the death of her father, Schuyler was then flush with cash and even more so with land. It was the deal Bradstreet and Schuyler struck when Schuyler agreed to go to England, to explain how the crown’s money was spent by Bradstreet, who was the general quartermaster in the British army that occupied Albany. Schuyler kept the books for Bradstreet, who didn’t really understand bookkeeping anyway.
Nine additional children were born to Philip and Kitty after his return in 1762, with the last being born in 1781. Kitty would die in 1803 at age sixty-seven. She was forty-seven years old when she gave birth to her last child. Over the twenty-five-year span the children were born, the older children married and left home to start families, but they frequently returned to the house with their own children and spouses. At any given time, there was a large contingent of family at the mansion and it seems Philip and Kitty reveled in it.
The 1790 census shows thirteen slaves in residence. As far as the slave quarters were concerned, it is believed they were in the nursery wing just off the back of the house, connected by a door to the dining room, and in the garret of the Cook House. The more I researched Schuyler and his world, the more apparent it became that for all his accomplishments and purported gentility, the elephant in the room was always slavery. For the modern mind it is pretty much like squaring a circle. We are daunted when confronted with it and decency usually leaves us confounded and groping for a response. It requires empathy and knowledge and imagination.
In his last Will and Testament, Schuyler directed that his heirs take on the Pasture’s older slaves, to house and feed them because he knew they might be lost on their own. The younger slaves were to be manumitted and the house put up for auction. There was no one in the family who could afford to live in it. The land was to be subdivided into parcels and sold with only a few lots going to his heirs. I imagine no one was happy with the arrangement – the younger slaves bitter, the older resentful at being passed around. The heirs complained in letters to each other. What was the old man thinking?
Indeed, what was the old man thinking?