Guest Blog: The Power of Letters
March 5, 2018
No one is better qualified to write about the quest for female agency or could do so with more eloquence than my theatre artist/editor/researcher/feminist scholar daughter Megan Behm. Megan was crucial to the creation of Peggy, her persona, her challenges, and what feminist voice she could have within the restrictions of the 18th century and the promises of our Revolution. As a director, Megan often focuses on female narratives even within male-dominated classics, and as an actor, Megan so often plays the wit, the self-possessed intellect who narrates, comments upon, and ultimately makes sense of the play's journey. So, of course, as a Hamilton fan she would be drawn to Angelica, the exquisite letter-writer who profoundly influences Patriot leaders. And as we started research for Peggy, Megan immediately identified with the little sister "endowed with a superior mind and rare accuracy of judgment for men and things" who annoyed one of Hamilton's friends by wanting to talk politics!
In celebration of women’s history month, Megan writes of the power of the female letter.
The three oldest Schuyler sisters are a formidable group of women, but I have always had a particular pull towards Angelica, the eldest, (shown above c. 1790). She is simultaneously incredibly compelling and deeply problematic, her life a fascinating combination of contradictions. Yet she was undeniably brilliant, her sparkling intellect showing through her letters with many famous men of the era—including Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson.
The sad reality of the Revolution is that while America was fighting for its freedom as a country, many Americans were seen as second-rate citizens—including women. Under English law, women had no political rights and extremely limited legal, economic, or property rights. The United States continued these restrictions despite the revelations of our Revolution. However, passionate, well-educated, and articulate women could still hold profound influence over their spouses, male family members, and friends.
Wielding such influence required personal tenacity and parents who had been willing to grant them education. Most girls were taught the basics of managing a household, but not all to read and write. The wealthy also received lessons in ornamental embroidery, music, dance, and etiquette so they could join the gentry’s social circuit. Only the few, like the Schuyler sisters, were taught history and geography—contextual knowledge necessary to talk politics meaningfully—and French, which opened the door to the Age of Enlightenment’s philosophy and poetry. That is what gave them conversational entry to the circle of educated elite men who forged our new democracy. To remain and be heard required the ability to read her recipient’s receptiveness and the most deft use of intellect and quill.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Angelica Schuyler’s witty and vivacious personality is pretty much spot on, as far as I can tell—despite the liberties he took with some historical facts (Angelica was definitely married and already a mother when she met Hamilton, for example). I think it must have been incredibly frustrating for someone that brilliant to not be able to actively take part in politics, and letter-writing with the powerful men she knew was really the only way she could be directly involved. Over the course of her life, these letters discuss British, American, and French politics in great detail. Despite their deep political differences, and the fact that he was such an antagonist to her brother-in-law, Angelica had a particularly close correspondence with Thomas Jefferson in the years following the Revolution—they even worked together via letters to assist victims of the French Revolution, and Angelica would often send him news from the states that she received from her sister Eliza. Angelica sent books to Hamilton about finances, in particular Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. He sent her a copy of The Federalist Papers. They discussed everything from the creation of the National Bank, the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Jay Treaty.
Is there a trace of Angelica in some of Hamilton’s most famous essays, his legislation, his triumphs as Secretary of the Treasury? While it’s impossible to know for sure, many historians think it is very probable.
And fun fact: Angelica even used her letter-writing prowess (and the deep pockets of her husband) to help get Lafayette out of an Austrian prison in the mid 1790s!
Many other women during the Revolutionary era used letter-writing as an effective tool to reach men in power. One of the most famous of these women is, of course, the oft-quoted Abigail Adams, who like Angelica, was an incredibly eloquent, feisty, intelligent, and politically informed woman. One of my favorite letters from Abigail to John includes a sentence chastising him for only sending her four newspapers in his most recent package to her. In other letters, she demands to know more details about the movement of the armies; the concrete plans for the new government; and shares her delight about specific phrases in the Declaration of Independence.
Sadly, no such letters of Peggy’s remain. She may have written fewer because she did not travel away from family as much as her oldest sister. She also died young in 1801, at the age of 42, after a long and painful illness, possibly stomach cancer. But during her lifetime, Peggy’s young husband, Stephen Van Rensselaer, served for seven years in the NY State Assembly and Senate and for six years as lieutenant governor. Despite being the state’s richest man, Stephen became a reformer, going against his wealthy upper class peers to vote for extending suffrage. He also co-founded Albany’s public library. It’s easy to see in Stephen’s political career the invisible hand of Peggy—the “wicked wit” and determined political conversationalist, the woman who knew well the power of a library, teaching herself German by reading her father’s engineering books.
Other letters I read while researching this era included correspondence between writer Mercy Otis Warren and her husband James (a member of the Massachusetts legislature); between Patrick Henry and his younger sister Anne; between Henry Knox (our first secretary of war) and his wife Lucy; and many other less famous husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and friends.
In all of these letters you can sense a tenderness and love, but also, at least to my eyes, a palpable desire to be in the thick of things, to not be relegated to the sidelines of history. Clearly these women’s voices were often heeded if not directly credited by our leaders. This Women’s History Month, I hope we will all take this time to celebrate the influence of the wives, sisters, and friends “behind the scenes” of so many historical moments.