Those of us lucky enough to be parents recognize that there are special days in the lives of our children that we would never want to miss. Among these most treasured events, perhaps the most precious to a parent is a child’s wedding. I have been fortunate to have been there for both of my children’s weddings and to have welcomed a wonderful daughter-in-law and son-in-law to our family. Planning the event may also be important to us, not so much to engage in the process itself but to share in the joy of anticipation. And, because I have only one daughter, Sara, when she got engaged I could hardly contain my happiness. Up till then, I’d played and replayed the search for my daughter’s wedding gown in my head, and I relished the day that we might spend together in this most treasured of mother-daughter moments. When the day finally arrived, she and I had a enchanting experience that started with a bridal salon in New York City.
We were ushered into a circular room edged by six open closets in which were hung racks of exquisite dresses, each one a unique masterpiece—a strapless with detailed beading at the waist beside another with a skirt made of delicate, flouncing layers of soft batiste, a third of subtle pale pink charmeuse, another with acres of toile skirt. A round, raised, white-carpeted platform at the center of the room and surrounded by mirrors gave the bride absolute perspective as she tried on her selections.
Our gracious hostess, Kristine, seemed as if she could have been one of Sara’s friends. She guided us into a mirrored, luxurious fitting room and brought a few gowns to try. The first had an intricate lace and beaded bodice over a full chiffon skirt. Kristine carefully cinched the material at the back together with heavy clips so that Sara could envision it at the right size. I felt tears well up as she stepped up on the platform, an image from the pages of Brides magazine come to life. A couple of gowns later—each one as magnificent as the last, Sara asked about a sleek halter gown we’d seen out front. By magical coincidence, it was her size.
In the fitting room, Kristine helped Sara step into the dress and began to fasten the row of tiny, silk-covered buttons that traced the outline of her spine. I watched from the sidelines, awestruck at the image of Sara in that perfectly-fitting, elegant gown, but I didn’t know that the most beautiful sight was yet to come. As Sara walked to the viewing platform and turned to see her reflection, her blue eyes filled with tears of undeniable joy. Radiant with recognition, she nodded her head. This was her dress.
I indulge myself, sharing this cherished moment because of the lasting effect of such an experience on a parent. We have but one chance to be a part of so important an event in our children’s lives, and if we miss it, there is no do-over. And no parents were more aware of the precious chance to join in their children’s nuptials than Phillip and Catherine Schuyler. They too harbored a hopeful wish to be beside their children as they took their wedding vows, and were quite vocal about their wish when Alexander Hamilton asked for their blessing.
Alexander expressed his desire to marry Elizabeth to his future father-in-law only a month or so after he’d met her, in March 1780. While such haste to marry is uncommon in our modern and more peaceful age, historically wars have lent an urgency to those who wished to marry–especially those, like Hamilton, who served on the front lines beside a General in charge of the armed forces. Phillip Schuyler thought it best to run Alexander’s request by his wife Catherine before giving his answer. Though Catherine had not yet met Hamilton, Phillip thought he might convince her of Alexander’s worthiness. Hamilton was delighted to receive his written response, which came on April 8, 1780. In his letter, Schuyler stated:
Until the child of a parent has made a judicious choice his heart is in continual anxiety; but this anxiety was removed the moment I discovered on whom she had placed her affections. I am pleased with every instance of delicacy in those who are dear to me, and I think I read your soul on that occasion you mention. I shall therefore only entreat you to consider me as one who wishes in every way to promote your happiness, and I shall.
But there was more. He cautioned Hamilton of the “impropriety of taking the denier pas (final step) where you are. Mrs. Schuyler did not see her Eldest daughter married,” he continued,” That gave me great pain, and we wish not to Experience It a Second time.”
In fact, Elizabeth’s sister, Angelica, had eloped three years earlier with John Barker Church. By marrying in secret, they had denied the Schuylers the opportunity to share in what they considered a sacred and holy event. Furthermore, given the Schuylers’ status in the community, the absence of a formal wedding was an embarrassment. Moreover, Phillip Schuyler did not approve of John Barker Church, who appeared to have some sketchy business dealings–even at times assuming an alias, John Carter–and had used the war to amass a great fortune rather than taking what Schuyler considered a more noble role in the war effort.
The elopement caused more than just immediate family strife. The newlyweds had taken refuge with their grandparents, Mrs. Schuyler’s parents, the Van Rensselaers. When Angelica’s grandparents crossed the Hudson to the Schuyler mansion to try to talk Phillip and Catherine into reconciling with the couple, they argued bitterly, the grandparents pleading the newlyweds’ case. Catherine expressed so much rage and resentment that her father remarked that he “did not know who she took after [although] he was sure not after her Father and Mother.” A few days later, the young couple made their way to the mansion to make amends, but upon seeing the Schuylers on the lane and realizing their parents had quickly returned to the house rather than greet them, they turned back to the Van Rensselaers. It wasn’t until a series of letters from the wounded parties and, finally a discussion involving requests for pardon and promises of loyalty, that they finally made their peace.
The elopement had such a negative effect on the Schuylers that the formal marriage of Alexander and Elizabeth took on greater significance. Thus, it was a very happy occasion when they were married on December 14, 1780 in traditional Dutch custom of home weddings, in what was known as the “blue parlor” of the Schuyler mansion. Theirs was an intimate ceremony attended only by close friends and family. Attending besides her parents and grandparents were Elizabeth’s Aunt Gertrude and her husband, Dr. John Cochran, who had hosted the young couple during their early courtship, as well as Eliza’s sister Cornelia and her brothers, John Bradstreet, Phillip Jeremiah, and Rensselaer Schuyler. The Churches, however, were unable to attend. Also missing was Alexander’s father, although he had written him a letter of invitation. Indeed, Alexander had no family members at the wedding, having lost touch with his brother and with his mother long since deceased.
The only one of Alexander’s friends to attend was James McHenry, also one of Washington’s aides, who composed a poem to commemorate the event. His poem does more than hint at the opportunistic aspect of Hamilton’s proposal to Eliza (see previous post, “the Checklist”) and his obvious advancement in status and wealth that this union promised:
For, borne beyond a certain goal,
The sweetest joys disgust the soul.
He too instructs us how to use
What’s more a blessing than the muse (wealth);
For well he knows, deprived of this
That toil and care is human bliss.
However,the poem ends more positively with this stanza expressing sound advice to the newlyweds:
All these attendants Ham are thine,
Be’t yours to treat them as divine;
To cherish what keeps love alive;
What makes us young at sixty five.
What lends the eye its earliest fires;
What rightly managed still inspires.
Sadly, Hamilton was not always to “rightly” manage his marriage, despite Eliza’s faithfulness both to him and to the wifely ideals of the time. Still, it is impossible to imagine that his love for her was not real, especially when one considers the affection he expressed through letters shortly before their marriage. October 5, 1780:
“I have told you and I told you truly that I love you too much. You engross my thoughts too entirely to allow me to think anything else. You not only employ my mind all day, but you intrude on my sleep. I meet you in every dream and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness.”
If his words remind us of the type of commitment that should endure, we may learn from their relationship, a relationship that survived war, loss, disloyalty and illness; a relationship which was which was made sacred at an intimate wedding, December 14, 1780 but which was kept sacred through Elizabeth’s undying devotion to her husband.
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.
Flexner, J.T. (1997). The young Hamilton: a biography. New York: Fordam University Press.
Hamilton, A. (1961). The papers of Alexander Hamilton. (Vol. II). H.C. Syrett (Ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Hamilton, A. M. (reprinted 2015). The intimate life of Alexander Hamilton. London: Forgotten Books.
Schuyler Mansion Tour. (2016, October 6). Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.Albany, New York.
Wilkerson, Kylie J. Photography, June 19, 2015.