I know that, like me, many of you will have been waiting for the 3rd July with baited breath for Disney+’s much anticipated release of the Hamilton film. It’s catchy songs, witty historical refrain, compelling characters, and powerful actors make it pretty much universally appealing which explains the show’s worldwide success. However, as I sat down to watch it for the second time this week, I couldn’t help but wonder more about the real Schuyler sisters who provide little more than a sideplot to Hamilton’s political career in the show. After a little bit of research, I discovered that the Schuyler sisters were in fact interesting enough to merit their own show, especially Hamilton’s put-upon wife, Eliza.
Elizabeth Hamilton (née Schuyler 1757 – 1854), aka Eliza was a philanthropist more commonly known for being the wife of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. However, she was an important lady in her own right.
Elizabeth was born in New York, daughter of a Revolutionary War General. Her mother’s family were one of the richest and most politically influential families in the state. As well as her two sisters of Hamilton fame, she had 14 siblings in total. Her family was among the wealthy Dutch landowners who had settled around Albany in the mid-1600s, and both her mother and father came from wealthy and well-regarded families.]It’s worth noting that they were also a slaveowning family and that much of the comfort Eliza grew up in was built on the labour of slaves, as was true of most elite classes at the time. Eliza was well-educated and brought up with a strong Christian faith that would remain with her throughout her life.
When she was a girl, Elizabeth accompanied her father to a meeting of the Six Nations and met Benjamin Franklin. It was said that she was somewhat “tom-boyish” as a child, and was noted for her impulsiveness and strong will (the horror! a woman with a will of her own!) She was described by an acquaintance as: ‘a strong character with its depth and warmth, whether of feeling or temper controlled, but glowing underneath, bursting through at times in some emphatic expression.”
In early 1780, while staying with an aunt in New Jersey she met Alexander Hamilton, one of George Washington’s aides. However, they had actually briefly met two years before when Hamilton dined with the Schuylers on returning from a negotiation. While in New Jersey, Eliza also met and became friends with Martha Washington, a friendship they would maintain throughout their husbands’ political careers. Eliza later said of Mrs. Washington: “She was always my ideal of a true woman.”
After meeting Eliza, it is said that Hamilton was so infatuated he forgot the password to enter army headquarters. Their relationship quickly blossomed, continuing through letters when Hamilton was deployed elsewhere. Their father gave them his blessing (unlike her two sisters who eloped). Eliza wrote to Hamilton asking him to save the life of her childhood crush, who had been captured by the army. Hamilton tried and failed. After two more months apart, Alexander and Eliza were married on December 14 1780.
After a short honeymoon at the Pastures, Eliza’s childhood home, Hamilton returned to military service in early January 1781. Eliza soon joined him, rekindling her friendship with Martha with whom she entertained other officers. However, Washington and Hamilton fell out, and the couple moved back to New York. As well as running their house, Eliza helped Alexander with his political writings—parts of his 31-page letter to Robert Morris, laying out much of the financial knowledge that was to aid him later in his career, are in her handwriting. I’m reminded of one of the songs in Hamilton, where Burr questions how Alexander wrote so much so quickly – it seems, with the aid of his devoted wife.
On discovering she was pregnant with their first child, Philip, Eliza moved back to her parents’ home. While apart, Alexander wrote her numerous letters reassuring her of his safety and, crucially, discussing confidential military secrets showing her importance to him personally and politically. Meanwhile, the war came close to home, when British soldiers attempted to raid the Pastures. (According to some accounts, the family was spared from harm thanks to her sister Peggy’s quick thinking: she told the raiders that her father had gone to town to get help, causing them to flee – another inversion of the damsel/white knight paradigm.)
After the Battle of Yorktown, Alexander was reunited with Eliza in Albany, where they would remain for almost another two years, before moving to New York City in late 1783. In 1787, Eliza agreed to sit for a portrait by the painter Ralph Earl so that he could some money and eventually buy his way out of.prison. At this time, she now had three young children and may have been pregnant with her fourth.In addition to their own children, in 1787, Eliza and Alexander adopted Frances Antill, the two-year-old youngest child of Hamilton’s friend Colonel Edward Antill. She was “educated and treated in all respects as [the Hamiltons’] own daughter.
The Hamiltons had an active social life, often attending the theatre as well as various balls and parties, for which she complained that: “I had little of private life in those days.” This brought her into contact with some of the most important political players of the day. After Alexander became Treasury Secretary in 1789, her social duties only increased, as ‘the leaders of official society.’ Their friend later told Alexander that Eliza had “as much merit as your treasurer as you have as treasurer of the United States.”
Eliza also continued to aid Alexander throughout his political career, serving as an intermediary between him and his publisher, copying out portions of his defence of the Bank of the United States, and sitting up with him so he could read Washington’s Farewell Address out loud to her as he wrote it. At the same time she had to raise her many children and run the household (an arduous task given their many moves). While in Philadelphia, around November 1794, Eliza suffered a miscarriage possibly triggered by the grave illness of her youngest child and the absence of her husband during his armed suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion. Consequently, Hamilton resigned from public office immediately afterwards and returned to his law practice in New York so that he could be closer to his wife’s side.
However, this bliss was shattered when in 1797, an affair came to light that had taken place several years earlier between Hamilton and Maria Reynolds. Eliza at first dismissed the rumours as slanderous gossip. However, after returning home to Eliza, in August 25, 1797, Hamilton published a pamphlet, later known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, admitting to his one-year adulterous affair. He did so in order to refute the charges that he had been involved in public misconduct with his lover’s husband. However, in saving his reputation, he humiliated his wife and destroyed her own.
At the time of this scandal, Eliza was pregnant with their sixth child. Nonetheless, she left her husband and returned to her parent’s house to give birth to her son. She only returned to her marital home to nurse her eldest son who had contracted typhus. Eventually, she reconciled with Alexander and bore him two more children. In 1801, their eldest son was killed in a duel, with his parents by his side. This marked the second child that Eliza had lost. It seems the rest of their marriage was a happy one, as letters between them attest. However, just two years after moving into a new home, her husband was killed in an infamous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Before the duel, he wrote to his wife:
“The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.”
Alexander Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, with Eliza and his surviving children by his side.
The newly widowed Eliza was left to pay Hamilton’s debts. She was forced to sell her own (although was later able to re-buy it for half the price as executors of the will decided that it was illegal to evict her). Eliza was also able to collect Alexander’s pension from his service in the army from congress in 1836 for money and land. In 1848, she left New York for Washington, D.C., where she lived with her widowed daughter Eliza until 1854.
Despite his earlier betrayal, Eliza defended Alexander against his critics in a variety of ways following his death. She supported his claim of authorship of George Washington’s Farewell Address and by requested that James Monroe formally apologise for his accusations of financial improprieties. She also petitioned Congress to publish her husband Alexander Hamilton’s writings (1846).
Knowing the importance of legacy to her husband, she dedicated her life to preserving it. She re-organized all of Alexander’s letters, papers, and writings (no mean feat!) with the help of her son and persevered through many setbacks in getting his biography published. This work formed the basis of her son’s biography of his father which became the foundation for numerous subsequent biographies of Alexander Hamilton. Her eternal devotion to her husband is clear from the fact that she wore a small package around her neck containing the pieces of a sonnet that Alexander wrote for her during the early days of their courtship. The writings that historians have today by Alexander Hamilton can be attributed to efforts from Eliza. As late as 1848 when Eliza was in her 90s, she petitioned Congress to buy and publish her late husband’s works. In August, her request was granted and Congress bought and published Alexander’s works, adding them to the Library of Congress.
In 1798, Eliza accepted her friend Isabella Graham’s invitation to join Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. In 1806, she founded the Orphan Asylum Society with several other women. Eliza was appointed vice-president. In 1821, she was named president, a role she held for 27 years until she left New York in 1848. In this role, she raised funds, collected needed goods, and oversaw the care and education of over 700 children. By the time she left she had been with the organization continuously since its founding, a total of 42 years. The New York Orphan Asylum Society still exists as a social service agency for children. She is now honoured as one of America’s earliest philanthropists in the National Museum of American History.
Until her death, she remained dedicated to charity work, and became an outspoken abolitionist. She also helped raise funds for the Washington Monument.
By 1846, Eliza was suffering from short-term memory loss but was still vividly recalling her husband. Eliza died aged 97, fifty years after the death of her husband, outliving all but one of her siblings. She was buried in a private vault near her husband.
It is impossible not to feel admiration and a little bit of sadness for Eliza who dedicated so much of her life to a husband who could not return her faithful devotion. However, it is clear that he cared deeply for his family, and her ability to forgive his public transgressions and remain the perfect wife to him until her death shows the strength of her character and her inspirational mercy and forgiveness. Without her efforts, it is likely that Hamilton would have been forgotten in the shadows of the founding fathers who outlived him. He certainly wouldn’t have become the star of one of the most successful theatre shows ever! Yet again, the old adage “behind every strong man is a strong woman” never seemed more apt – even if she does get little credit for it! I tried so hard to find quotes from Eliza that weren’t from the stage show but failed, which is really frustrating given what a prolific writer and activist she was. I have a sneaking suspicion that they have been wrongly attributed to her husband, but that’s not for me to say, so alas I only have quotes from the show hahaha.
However, her philanthropic efforts are admirable in their own right, and show that she had principles, dreams, and ambition beyond her marriage, and that her maternal passion and efficiency did not stop in her role as a biological mother. Alexander’s story is of course important and admirable, but it would not be half the story it is without the work and support of his loving wife, Eliza. If you ask me, she was anything but “Helpless”.