Note: This is Day Eight of Ten Days of Hamilton. Primer is here.
We’ve spoken ad nauseam about the various men in Alexander Hamilton’s life: political enemies, his mentor, and (coming tomorrow) the man who murdered him. Those men helped shape Alexander Hamilton into the person that he was politically, and Hamilton may have latched onto these men because he was abandoned by his father at a young age. But losing his mother at an early age may have also pushed him to strong women in his life, which is evidenced by his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler.
Elizabeth Schuyler was the second daughter of Philip Schuyler, a general in the Revolutionary War and one of the first senators from New York, and Catherine Van Rensselaer, who was from one of the richest and politically influential families of Colonial New York. This upbringing afforded Eliza and her siblings luxury, but she was much more than just a young women looking to marry well in an era where that was to be expected, and she was nearly an equal partner in her marriage with Alexander Hamilton, whom she met during a brief respite from the War.
Early in their marriage, while Alexander was busy serving as George Washington’s aide, Eliza busied herself with making a home and helping Alexander with some of his correspondence. She befriended Martha Washington and was often part of the group of war wives that held balls and other social events during lapses in battle. It was only when she became pregnant with their first child – a boy who would be named for her father, Philip – that Eliza left Alexander’s side at the front and returned to Albany. Until the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, her and Alexander were separated by some distance, though they corresponded frequently, with Alexander often sounding like a lovelorn teenager that truly missed his wife.
This loving marriage was not without its issues. As mentioned previously, Alexander was always busy, especially once he became Secretary of the Treasury. He worked hard to build an economic system from scratch, which led to a lot of late nights and meetings in New York. In 1791, while Eliza and the children had returned to Albany, Alexander remained in New York to work, trying to get “his debt plan” through Congress. He met a young woman named Maria Reynolds, and perhaps out of loneliness for his wife or for some other unknown reason, entered into an affair with her. This was probably the lowest point in Alexander Hamilton’s personal life.
During the entire course of the affair, Alexander was corresponding regularly with his wife, proclaiming that he missed her and the children immensely. But when Eliza indicated that she was ready to return to see him, Alexander told her to stay in Albany a while longer because he was still busy with work. What he was really busy with was trying to ensure that James Reynolds was satisfied with his blackmail payments and wouldn’t tell Eliza about the affair, and Alexander was able to keep the affair a secret for over five years.
This all changed in 1797. Hamilton had retired as Treasury Secretary in January 1795, not long after Eliza had suffered a miscarriage. He returned to New York to be with his wife and children and resume his law practice. However, a historian wrote a series of essays that accused the former Treasury Secretary of enriching himself while employed in the office through the speculation in public debts and embezzlement. Instead of dismissing the charges outright, Alexander instead published a nearly 100-page pamphlet of his own – that has since been known as the “Reynolds Pamphlet” – that established the strange payments to James Reynolds as coming from his own accounts in order to cover up his illicit affair with Maria Reynolds. This was the first time that Eliza had heard of the affair, so it was a terrible way to find out about it.
Eliza went to Albany with the children, but eventually returned to New York City and reconciled with Alexander. They were brought even closer by the death of their oldest child Philip, who died in a duel defending his father’s honor, in 1801. The Hamiltons generally retreated from public life after that, though Alexander still participated in politics intermittently, which led up to his own death in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Before leaving for his duel with Burr, and assuming that he was not returning, Alexander wrote a couple of letters to Eliza, one of which included the following line, which is included in the brief song “Best of Wives and Best of Women” in the musical Hamilton:
“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”
Eliza would have been forgiven if she simply continued on in her life, sad at the passing of her beloved husband. She did have seven children to raise, and that would have probably been enough to occupy any widow’s time. However, Eliza did more, and it helped to maintain a memory of Alexander Hamilton for the rest of her life. She was a vociferous defender of her husband in all things, even going as far as requesting an apology from James Monroe after he had accused Alexander of financial impropriety (his accusations led Alexander to write the Reynolds Pamphlet). She organized all of Alexander’s remaining papers so that her son could make an attempt at putting together a biography, which aided future historians when writing about Alexander. She fought for him to get credit for drafting Washington’s Farewell Address, which she had helped Alexander compose, and then helped to raise funds for the Washington Monument.
But perhaps the best remembrance she made in the name of her husband is the founding of an orphanage – the New York Orphan Asylum Society, which still exists in some form today – for the orphans of New York City. Alexander, an orphan from the age of 13, would have appreciated that small token. Eliza lived 50 years longer than her husband, and even in her old age would tell stories of “her Alexander,” often with a favorite marble bust of him nearby.
If not for Eliza, both during his life and after, Alexander Hamilton might not have the same reputation that he has to this day. He was very important to the creation of our country, and for a lot of my history-learning life, he was mentioned as a footnote based on his duel or his service to George Washington, both in the Army and as Treasury Secretary. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton recognizes the role that Eliza had in maintaining the legacy of Hamilton, and I don’t think that his story can be told without hers. She really was one of the “best of wives and best of women,” and I’m glad that she has been allowed to share the spotlight with him.
Until next time…
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