Resistance, dissent, protest. What began as demonstrations against tyranny and injustice became the war for independence, one that turned neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. Tensions ran high, as the colonists adopted Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” refrain.
Just as today, when protests have erupted across the country, giving voice to the “not my President” sentiment following the most contentious election in recent memory, colonists began an uprising through the written and spoken word before resorting to outright rebellion against the unfair taxation without representation imposed upon them. And, while we may be discouraged that we have lost friends and argued with family over the recent election (and engaged in provocative debates around our Thanksgiving tables), the colonists risked and often lost their friends, family, homes, land, and livelihood, all so that we might have the right to dissent.
Such was the state of her world as Eliza Schuyler came of age in the mid-1700’s. Her home was a bustling gathering place for leaders and dignitaries of the time, and she, her mother and sisters played hostess to an array of high-ranking patriots—and even enemy visitors! Her father, Philip Schuyler, had been named quartermaster general of the Northern Department of the Continental Army. However, his military career did not begin with the American Revolution but was forged in his earlier service to the crown as a captain during the French and Indian War. Therefore, like many of the patriots whose loyalty shifted as British rule became increasingly oppressive, it is reasonable to assume that he experienced deeply troubling inner conflict, conflict that was inevitably felt by every member of his family as each transitioned from loyal colonist to patriot.
Philip Schuyler did not come from humble beginnings. His ancestors were traders and landowners. His grandfather, Johannes Schuyler, became mayor of Albany and served as a militia officer, was an Indian commissioner, an alderman, assemblyman and deacon and elder of the Dutch church. He acquired land in the area then known as Saratoga, constructing a sawmill and gristmill, as well as establishing farmlands. Philip’s father, John, followed his example, serving in the Albany assembly and acquiring land thereby contributing to the family’s expansive real estate holdings. He married well above his station to Cornelia Van Cortlandt, further adding to the family fortune.
Philip was born in his father’s house, known at the Staats House, at the intersection of Pearl and State Streets in Albany, November 10, 1733.
Due to his Dutch lineage and the considerable accomplishments of his forefathers, Philip was privileged to be considered among the most influential families in the region at a time when political and societal status were rooted in land ownership. Like his father, when Philip came of age, he continued to acquire property, and following his father’s example, he too married “up,” to Catherine VanRensselaer, daughter of John Van Rensselaer. The marriage joined two of the most prominent and wealthy families, sealing their position among the Albany aristocracy.
The marriage itself was not without drama, however. Philip, then serving in the French and Indian War, was expected to fight in the Battle of Lake George, an uprising designed to thwart the French army’s construction of a fort at the critical juncture of Ticonderoga. However, he was urgently summoned from the front to marry his beloved “Kitty,” who was four and a half months pregnant with their first child, Angelica. An inscription in the family Bible, housed today at the Schuyler Mansion, commemorates the event and is translated from the Dutch as follows: “In the year 1755 and on the 7th of September did I Philip John Schuyler (being 21 years 9 months and 17 days old) enter the holy state of matrimony with Catherine Van Rensselaer (being 20 years 9 months and 27 days old). The Lord grant this marriage last long and in peace and to his honor.”
In line with the expectations of colonial women, Catherine was a devoted wife and mother. She was considered by her contemporaries to be a gracious, selfless person of strong character although there isn’t a shred of firsthand evidence concerning her temperament, likes and dislikes, opinions or sentiments because, like so many women of her time, none of her letters or other writings have survived. Thus, what is known about her is derived from the opinions of men whom she served in various capacities. However wealthy and privileged she may have been, she was incredibly ambitious and productive: “She made clothes for her husband’s slaves and personally supervised other domestic chores: preserving, weaving, soap-making, candle-dipping and dairying,” (Gerlach, Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York 1733-1777, 20); she gave birth to 15 children, eight of whom survived and the last of which was born when she was 47 years old. And she displayed no shortage of courage and strength: “When the British army marched on Saratoga, sending American refugees streaming south, Catherine Schuyler drove her wagon north, rushing to burn the wheat fields of her country home before the enemy could harvest the crop” (Roberts, 161).
Together the Schuylers created a home that was known in colonial society for its opulence and hospitality. Still, as strict disciplinarians with lofty expectations for their children, Philip and Catherine endured disappointments brought on by belligerent, free-spirited children, as well as the sorrow of losing seven children. The one child who seemed never to disappoint and who remained a loyal presence in her parents’ lives was Eliza. We’ll take a closer look at what it meant to grow up in the Schuyler Mansion and how a child of the colonies became a prominent force in the life of one of our most notorious founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, in our next post.
Still, it’s important –now more than ever—to remember the tremendous risk taken by colonists like Philip Schuyler, who defied his British military origins, taking a stand against undemocratic principles as he embraced the cause of the patriots. From the example of the colonists, we recognize that protest is ingrained in our society. It is inherently American. It is the way that we express our condemnation of threats to our civil liberties. Protest has given rise to the tremendous social progress: brave men and women marched on behalf of civil rights; women starved and subjected themselves to force-feeding until they earned the right to vote. The fight for gay rights began after the raid at Stonewall created a massive coming-out and coming together. From these movements it is evident that protest is more than a right: it is necessity–an expression of love for, rather than enmity against, our country. It spurs movements that protect its foundations of inclusion and freedom.
On November 29, 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they [sic] do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail.” No, Mr. Trump—The Constitution and the Supreme Court beg to differ. Americans cannot be punished for dissent, however one feels about flag-burning. Indeed, not to protest when our rights are compromised is un-American. And failure to protest dishonors the sacrifices of our founding fathers.
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Gerlach, D. R. (1964). Philip Schuyler and the American revolution in New York, 1733-1777.
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Gerlach, D.R. (1987). Proud patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783.
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Roberts, C. (2008). Ladies of liberty. New York: Harper Collins.
Schuyler Mansion Tour. (2016, October 6). Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.
Albany, New York.