Philip Schuyler, Autograph Letter Signed to Richard Varick on the war in Quebec and his slave, Prince, 1776.
Schuyler, Philip (1733 – 1804). Autograph Letter Signed to Richard Varick (1753 – 1831) on the war in Quebec and his slave, Prince. Fort George, May 27, 1776. Manuscript measuring 12 ¾ x 8 inches. Small chip with loss at margins. Mercantile Library stamp verso, accompanied by a Parke-Bernet receipt for the Mercantile Library collection sale from Jan 20-21st, 1947, invoice written to a M. Virginia C. Young. About fine condition overall.
An important letter from Philip Schuyler offering surprising insight into his relationship with the most famous enslaved member of his household, Prince, whom he here calls “a worthless scoundrel.”
Between June 1775 and October 1776, the newly formed Continental Army conducted its first major offensive, attempting to seize the Province of Quebec. General Philip Schuyler planned the campaign, and though illness compelled him to cede command to Richard Montgomery. The Continental Army captured Montreal in November, but were less successful in its siege of Quebec City. On December 31, 1775, the Continental forces were routed, and General Montgomery killed in battle. A hard winter delayed further action, but with the spring thaw a fresh onslaught was possible. In the first part of this letter to his military secretary, Captain Richard Varick, Schuyler acts to aid the revolutionary forces in Quebec City by organizing batteaux to ferry troops from Albany on Lake George and Lake Champlain to St. John’s along the Richelieu River and the St. Lawrence. Regrettably, his efforts came too late. On May 5th , about two weeks before Schulyer sent this letter, Gen. William Thomas had given orders to retreat. By June 2nd , Thomas was dead and his replacement, Gen. William Thompson, was captured along with many of his senior officers.
While the invasion of Quebec ended poorly for the Continental Forces, the campaign had an intimate impact on the Schuyler household. Among the prisoners captured at the fall of Fort Chambly in October 1775 was Prince, an African enslaved by Alexander MacCulloch, Deputy Quartermaster of the British forces in Quebec. The prisoners were transported to Albany, and MacCulloch would continue further south to confinement in New Jersey. But Prince took a remarkable initiative, writing Catherine Schuyler in February 1776 to offer his services. She accepted, and in March, Philip Schuyler purchased Prince from MacCulloch.
Prince as portrayed in a video in the Schuyler Mansion Visitors Center
Prince, who was literate and possibly multilingual, would serve as butler to the Schuyler family. He was said to have “placed every day a Tooth-pick by Mrs. Schuyler’s plate,” and he appears to have reviewed some of Schuyler’s correspondence. He was so firmly a fixture of the household that in 1780, John Jay proposed using Prince’s name, spelled backward, as a password in diplomatic correspondence. When British soldiers attempted to kidnap Schuyler in August 1781, Prince likely helped him hide in the cellar where the slaves were quartered.
The present letter reveals that Prince’s assimilation to the Schuyler household was not entirely smooth. Barely two months after purchasing the enslaved man, Schuyler instructs Varick thus:
Write to Mr. McCoullough [MacCulloch] to advise me what to do with his negro as speedily as possible, as I cannot keep such a worthless scoundrel in my house. If you have already written to him, pray write again.
The records of the Schuyler family and their later memoirs perpetuate the myth of slavery as a beneficent institution. But as the historian Andrea C. Mosterman demonstrates in Spaces of Enslavement: A History of Slavery and Resistence in Dutch New York, the complex dynamics of intimacy and exploitation even in such expansive households such as the Schuylers’, who held over 40 people in bondage, meant that harmony was a willful illusion. Prince had already shown initiative in engineering his sale from one enslaver to another. This letter suggests that his new position might not have been all that he hoped for. Perhaps by May 1776 news had reached Prince of Lord Dunsmore’s proclamation of November 1775 confiscating the property – including human chattel – of colonists who rebelled against the Crown and promising freedom to slaves who fought for England. At any rate, he seems eventually to have resigned himself to his fate.
Schuyler’s military career effectively ended after the loss of Ticonderoga in 1777, though he would serve in the Continental Congress and later in the United States Senate. Varick, who was like Schuyler a charter member of the Society of the Cincinnati, would serve as aide first to Gen. Benedict Arnold and then to George Washington. He was responsible for compiling the transcripts of the Continental Congress beginning in 1781, and would later serve as mayor of New York City, and one of the founders of both Jersey City (in 1804) and the American Bible Society (in 1816). Although Schuyler family lore celebrates their enslavement of “faithful old Prince” over 30 years, he disappears from the records in the 1790s.
The full text of the letter reads:
Fort George May 27, 1776
I enclose you a copy of my orders of the day which I hope will have a good Effect
on the soldiers employed in the batteaus; but as I greatly prefer hired batteau
men to soldiers, I desire you will immediately publish an advertisement for raising
five companies of 30 men each, offering the same pay, advance pay, and
provisions as to those now engaged and solemnly assuring them that they will be
employed between Albany and St. Johns and no farther until the first day of
January unless sooner discharged. You had best copy of Peterson’s or Lansing”s
agreements with the additions abovementioned. I should think a company or two
may be raised out of the troops come from Canada, I should prefer them for the
lake service. Send what you can get to this place as soon as possible paying
their officers the advance pay.
Send up some flints.
Write to Mr. McCoullough to advise me what to do with his negro as speedily as
possible, as I cannot keep such a worthless scoundrel in my house. If you have
already written to him, pray write again. Send Capt. Godwin to the place where
Major Stafford and the other gentlemen taken with him are, if he chuse to
remove. If not let him stay.
To Capt. Varrick
Offered in partnership with Auger Down Books.