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Happy Birthday, Richard Varick!

- by Laura Malone Elliott

March 15, 2018




General Philip Schuyler’s steadfast aide was one of those delightful surprises that research can yield. As I read biographies on Schuyler, I kept seeing footnotes referencing some of Richard’s letters back and forth with his commanding officer. At first trying to get my hands on those letters was simply to verify Peggy’s whereabouts and any details Richard recorded of the circumstances surrounding the Schuyler Mansion that she would have witnessed. The only place those letters were to be had was at the NYPL special collection. And at that point, the letters were only on old-school microfilm— shadowy, grainy images—and only so well catalogued.

I was drowning in other research, given the quick turn-around necessary for PEGGY’s narrative, so assistant editor Mabel Hsu went for me. (Please see her beautifully written blog (Feb. 5th) about the experience: ) I am so grateful for her patience and meticulous search because I wanted specific letters that were scattered shot in different topic “folders.” Getting them took a lot of digging through reams of unrelated documents to locate and then following her own gut instincts about whether something I hadn’t requested was important.

Mabel began sending me copies of the microfilmed documents, still in Richard’s sweeping handwriting—which I have to say was quite difficult to read sometimes. To completely absorb the content and to be able to quote the letters correctly I would struggle through those looping, fast-scrawled words and ink blots to read them aloud into my cell phone. Then I emailed myself those texts and cleaned up the inevitable mistakes and infuriating auto corrects that garbled his sentences.

Tedious, aggravating…and oh so very wonderful.

What emerged was a window into an incredibly earnest, devoted man, prone to endearing outbursts of indignation when he felt someone had slighted Schuyler. And at the end of almost every note was treasure: Either a comment about Miss Peggy that he had observed that day, or when he was stationed at the Battle of Saratoga a plea to “Please give my best to Miss Peggy.”

Those words verified where Peggy was on those dates, so I could factually place her into certain scenes of her father’s critically important work as war strategist, spy master, and chief negotiator with the Iroquois. Because Richard didn’t mention the older sisters, Eliza and Angelica, I knew that those famed women were geographically elsewhere during much of my novel’s action. AND that “Please give my best to Miss Peggy” also told me that Richard Varick might have had a bit of a crush on his boss’s daughter.

I really hadn’t planned on including much of Richard Varick in Peggy’s narrative. But because of those letters he became a really sweet and important foil and support for the Schuylers, that ever-present “best friend” that a girl genuinely cares about but just can’t fall in love with. And in many ways he became a kind of Greek chorus telling my readers the political tragedies of Philip Schuyler.

Richard truly is one of those unsung behind-the-scenes heroes of the Revolution. Among many other things, he survived being Benedict Arnold’s aide when Arnold turned traitor (Richard’s bitter disappointment in his hero’s betrayal is heartbreaking) and probably thanks to Philip Schuyler interceding became George Washington’s recording secretary. He organized and edited thousands of Washington’s letters, dispatches, journal entries, and battle proposals. It is entirely fair to say that Varick and the diligent scribes he oversaw so carefully to produce the forty-four volumes of Washington’s wartime papers housed in the Library of Congress are responsible for our modern-day knowledge of the Revolution.

Please see his entry in Major Players to learn a little more about wonderfully dedicated patriot :

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