BY: ANGIE HADDOCK
Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.Goodreads
If you’re the type to find history hard to focus on, this read might not be for you. Even I found a few parts to be a bit dry, and I actually like history. But, for the most part, there are a lot of great stories in Eliza’s long life.
The Schuyler sisters grew up on the Hudson River, with family land in both Albany and Saratoga. Their father had long been involved in military and political machinations, and was even a liaison with the local tribal communities at times. (The book “Last of the Mohicans” was written by one of Eliza’s distant cousins.) Also of note was that most of the region was being settled by families connected to the Schuylers – they knew just about everybody in New York state during this era, it seemed. Eliza was described as “outdoorsy,” and loved to ride horses.
There is one story about Eliza’s mother, Kitty, that stands out from these early years. When Philip (Eliza’s father) learned that an opposing army was going to pass by one of their properties, Kitty drove there from the other with a team of horses and a few slaves. She loaded up all the good silver at that house, and then got word from her husband to burn all the crops in the field so that the army couldn’t eat their food. None of the slaves wanted to do it, so Kitty did it herself. Then she sent her horses to Philip, because she figured he’d need them on the front lines, and hitched her carriage to some oxen, instead, for the return trip. Apparently, the story of a lady in all her finery setting fire to her crops was a regional legend for years.
Eliza and her sisters also got an education, in New York City. They learned a little reading and writing, and how to manage a household. But they were mostly concerned with finding husbands.
While Eliza had a few crushes, we already know who she ends up marrying – a military man with no family or money, one Alexander Hamilton. Thankfully Hamilton had a good reputation in the military, and Philip Schuyler approved of this son-in-law. The newlyweds would have to rely on Eliza’s side of the family for support, as Alexander had no family.
There are a couple key points from their early years together. One is that Alexander was a prolific writer, and wrote an almost constant stream of letters home to Eliza during both their courtship and early married years. Eliza, on the other hand, did not have a lot of confidence in her spelling, and wrote back to Alexander less often than he would like. This was actually one of their ongoing disagreements.
Another idea that comes up in this part of the book is that of the “Roman wife,” who would sacrifice for the good of the Republic, and the idea of the “American wife,” who was more of a romantic, dedicated to her husband and also to being a socialite. Alexander, in the midst of trying to help establish the new country, wanted a “Roman wife,” and Eliza agreed to be one. The idea was that getting the nation founded was even more important than the two of them always being together.
A good portion of the middle of the book (around 20%) is dedicated to the Reynolds Affair. For those who don’t know the basics: Evidence of payments made from Alexander to a man name James Reynolds lead some to believe that Alexander was engaged in insider trading while he was heading up the national Treasury. Alexander claimed that the payments were made because he had slept with Reynolds’ wife, and Reynolds was blackmailing him.
The author here leans toward the belief that Alexander did not really sleep with Maria Reynolds. This was actually the belief most of his accusers still clung to at the time, to varying degrees. Many thought the love letters from Maria to Alexander were forged. Maria herself claimed this, and offered to give a writing sample for people to compare – yet, one never given. Later, some historians proposed that Eliza burned her own love letters to Alexander because the wording and spelling closely resembled that found in the Maria Reynolds letters – so perhaps Alexander modeled the letters after the real ones from his wife?
Whether or not Alexander was trading for his own benefit or that of others is also at question. He was still acting as the lawyer and executor of all his brother-in-law’s American holdings while (Eliza’s sister) Angelica and her husband were in Europe, and had business and familial ties throughout the widespread branches of the Schuyler clan. Would it make sense for Eliza to go along with a lie in order to be a good “Roman wife,” and protect her husband’s political appointment at the Treasury – even if it made their marriage seem crappy to those looking at it from the outside? Would it give her more incentive to also be protecting her father, sisters, and various other family members?
The Reynolds affair came and went, many times over. Alexander’s political enemies would continue to bring it up for years, even after his death. Alexander almost fought one duel over it in 1795, but that one was averted. The Hamiltons moved out of the inner city, and started building a farmstead north of town. They were mostly happy there, despite family health issues and their older teen children getting into trouble from time to time. Eliza didn’t know how far in debt they’d gone building this home until after Alexander’s death in 1804.
Eliza’s father, Philip, promised to help support her and her children financially after her husband’s death – but he died shortly after. All of her Schuyler siblings were in tight financial positions, and fought bitterly over their inheritances. Eliza was eventually able to keep her house, only because Alexander’s allies and admirers started a fund to help her.
Eliza had always had a soft spot for widows and orphans – this went back to the days of the Revolutionary War, when she had many friends who’d lost their husbands. But after being left to the charity of others in the wake of her own husband’s death, she took on a more formal role in helping others in these situations.
She joined a society of ladies who were trying to start an orphanage, and over the years took on more formal and public roles. (One such promotion took place because one of the founding ladies, Elizabeth Ann Seton, was ousted by the others for converting to Catholicism. Seton would later be canonized as a saint of the Catholic church, the first American to have this honor.) There were constantly more orphans than space, and Eliza used her fame and respect in the community to raise funds for more and more buildings. She served on the board of the society for several decades.
She had one last big adventure when, at the age of 80, she traveled “out West” to Illinois to see one of her sons. She had been in the city for most of her life, but still considered herself a daughter of the frontier. Much of the trip was by boat, and she didn’t love every port they visited – but she was happy to be out of the city for a few months.
Eliza did eventually give up her farm north of Manhattan to live with some of her children – at first in New York City, then in Washington, D.C. She was still mentally sharp, and presidents and other people of influence often sat with her to hear stories of the founding of the nation. One of her final projects was to help raise donations for a monument to be built to honor George Washington – she was in the audience as the first bricks were laid for the Washington Monument on July 4, 1848.
Eliza Hamilton lived to be 97 years old.
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