In September 1793, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, contracted yellow fever. The epidemic that struck Philadelphia—then the capital of the United States—in the summer and fall of 1793 stole the lives of ten to fifteen percent of the city’s population.[i]
The Hamiltons were lucky – they survived. After they recovered, they went to Albany, New York, to stay with Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler and Philip Schuyler. Philip Schuyler, born in Albany in 1733, was a powerful figure in New York as a politician, landowner, and, like his wife, a well-connected descendant of New York’s original Dutch colonists. He was also an officer in the French and Indian War, a Revolutionary War general, and an Indian commissioner. The Schuylers had fifteen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Schuyler’s patriarchal reach extended to the people he owned as Albany’s largest enslaver.
Schuyler was also an anxious observer of the yellow fever epidemics that battered American cities on the Atlantic coast between 1793 and 1805. He expressed these anxieties in letters to Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton. Some of these letters have long been in the Family Papers series of the Alexander Hamilton Papers at the Library of Congress, but most are part of a 2017 purchase of largely unpublished Hamilton family letters. These were added to the Library’s existing Hamilton papers and subsequently digitized. In summer 2021, Manuscript Division staff transcribed Schuyler’s letters to his daughter and son-in-law so that you can now toggle between the Image and Image w/Text links for each document to see the original and transcription side-by-side. You can find other transcriptions in the published edition of Hamilton’s papers on Founders Online.
Much of what Schuyler wrote about yellow fever was shaped by the sensibility of a man who was preoccupied with illness. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when few understood the mechanics of disease, family letters were normally full of detailed descriptions of unnamed ailments, but Schuyler’s are supercharged with reports of his many symptoms. A tall, imposing figure, toughened by his backwoods and military experience, he was also sickly from boyhood, when he developed something described as “rheumatic gout.”[ii] His experience with sickness appears to have sharpened his awareness of yellow fever. It also seems to have helped shape the emotional texture of his family life and his relationship with Alexander Hamilton. Schuyler adored his son-in-law, and Hamilton, who was a poor West Indian orphan when he first arrived in the American colonies, benefited from the Schuylers’ warm embrace.
Philip Schuyler’s letters to Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton about yellow fever date roughly from 1797 to 1803. During this period, Alexander had left his post as treasury secretary and, with Elizabeth and their children, lived in New York City, where he worked as a lawyer. Schuyler’s observations break down roughly into three categories: his beliefs about the malignancy of yellow fever and how it was caused and spread, news about yellow fever cases he had heard about, and his feelings about yellow fever, especially when he believed it was threatening his family.
Schuyler repeatedly begged the Hamiltons to leave New York whenever he heard that yellow fever was in or approaching the city. He was not above using emotional blackmail to press his point. In 1797 he begged Elizabeth: “If the yellow fever which rages in Philadelphia should extend to New York, for Gods sake let me not suffer the apprehensions I experienced when it last visited your city, but come away instantly with all the family for I am too infirm to sustain the distress” (August 28, 1797). The following year, learning that “citizens are quitting the city, to fly from the effects of this fatal disorder,” he again urged them to leave and, referring to one of his own ailments, warned: “I’m rather better, but I fear my anxiety may bring on a relapse” (August 31, 1798).
Schuyler’s anxieties often centered directly on “my Hamilton,” “my dear Hamilton,” or, after 1798, when his son-in-law was appointed inspector general of the army, “my beloved general.” On learning in 1801 that “the Yellow Fever not only generally pervades the city but is extreamly malignant, that hardly any survive who are attacked,” he entreated Elizabeth to warn “my dear Hamilton” to stay out of the city. “I shudder when I reflect that by exposing himself to the baneful influence, we may all be plunged into [irretrevible] sorrow and distress. – Oh my Dear Child, suffer him not to go into the City” (October 11, 1801). Schuyler backed up his warnings with dire news about people he heard had been attacked with the fever. “Mr. [R]ay we are informed has taken the fever by only once entering the city,” he told Elizabeth (September 20, 1799).
It would be another century before anyone understood that yellow fever was transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Schuyler, like many others, thought it was generated by rotting filth on streets or docks and spread through infected air. When he wrote of the “pestilential Effluvia which is so fatal to those who venture to N York,” that is what he meant (September 15, 1803).
Believing that yellow fever was carried in the air, Schuyler anxiously reported what he had heard about its movements through the city. “It is certain that it has reached Cortlandt Street and even extended to the Albany dock, for a person is now here dangerously ill of the fever who had not been beyond the broadway whilst in N York and who lodged in Cortlandt Street,” he wrote Alexander, adding “all business is at a stand” (August 15, 1803). A little over a week later he wrote his daughter that he had learned that her husband’s law office was “between the infected part of the city, and Greenwich Street in which the fever also prevails,” (August 24, 1803).
Philip Schuyler’s observations of the terrifying yellow fever epidemics were shaped by his temperament and filtered through his preoccupations. His letters also offer a look into the emotional life of the Schuyler and Hamilton families, including their sensibilities regarding slavery. In 1798 Schuyler wrote Elizabeth after he learned about the yellow fever death of a man named Dick, whom he described as “one of your servants.” Elizabeth’s distress at Dick’s death, Schuyler wrote, “has deeply affected my feelings.” He added: “may gracious heaven preserve you my Hamilton & the children from the fatal infection.”
Who was Dick? Enslavers typically referred to the people they kept in bondage by single names, and Hamilton, despite his role as a founder of the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, evidently did deal in and hold a few enslaved people. His wife, who grew up among enslaved people in her parents’ family, would have been familiar with this and other practices. Philip Schuyler’s letter to Elizabeth Hamilton records fragments of information about Dick’s life, his work for the Hamiltons, and his death, from yellow fever in New York in 1798, but nothing at all about the sorrow his own family must have felt.
Philip Schuyler’s letters about yellow fever reveal a complicated and many-sided character responding to a dangerous and frightening moment in American history. What they don’t say is just as interesting.
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[i] Martin S. Pernick, “Politics, Parties, and Pestilence: Epidemic Yellow Fever in Philadelphia and the Rise of the First Party System” in J. Worth Estes and Billy G. Smith, ed. A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic (Canton, MA: Published for the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Library Company of Philadelphia by Science History Publications, 1997), 119.
[ii] Don R. Gerlach, “Schuyler, Philip John (10 November 1733 – 18 November 1804),” American National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0100812.