The Story of Eliza Hamilton: The Woman Behind a Great Man
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was an American socialite and philanthropist who lived between the 18th and 19th centuries. She is perhaps best-known for being the wife of Alexander Hamilton, one of the American founding fathers. The saying that “behind every great man is a great woman,” certainly holds water in the case of the Hamiltons. As a matter of fact, Eliza Hamilton outlived her husband by half a century. During this time, she created her own legacy, in addition to defending her late husband’s. Yet, whilst Alexander Hamilton is remembered even today, Elizabeth has been largely left out of the picture. This narrative, however, seems to have changed in recent times, with some suggesting that Alexander Hamilton is remembered today because of the work that Elizabeth did after his death.
Where Was Eliza Hamilton From?
Elizabeth Schuyler (known also as Eliza or Betsey) was born on the 9th of August, 1757 in Albany, a settlement in the province of New York, which was part of the original Thirteen British Colonies. She was the second daughter of Philip John Schuyler and his wife, Catherine Van Rensselaer, who belonged to Manor of Rensselaerswyck. The Schuylers and the Van Rensselaers were two of the wealthiest and most prominent families in New York at that time. As both families were of Dutch origin, it would be safe to assume that Dutch was probably the main language used in the everyday life of the Schuyler household.
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Apart from being a landowner, Philip was also a soldier and a politician. During the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763, Philip fought on the side of the British. Later on, when the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Philip was commissioned as one of the four major generals of the Continental Army. He was placed in command of the northern department, where he made preparations for the invasion of Canada. He fell ill, however, shortly after the expedition began, and so the actual command of the army was in the hands of General Richard Montgomery.
As a politician, Philip held various offices during his lifetime. Prior to the American Revolutionary War, for instance, he was elected a member of the General Assembly of New York, representing the district of Albany. Subsequently, Philip was elected as a delegate for New York at the Second Continental Congress, served in the New York State Senate, and represented New York in the Senate of the first United States Congress.
The Schuyler family home, where Elizabeth was married to Alexander Hamilton. Located at 32 Catherine Street in Albany, New York, it is now a National Historic Landmark. (Public domain)
Family Life in the Schuyler Household
Her parents, Philip and Catherine, had a total of fifteen children together, though only eight of them survived into adulthood. Two of Elizabeth’s sisters, Angelica and Margarita, are also quite well-known, thanks in part to their portrayal in the popular Broadway musical Hamilton. Angelica, Philip’s eldest child, eloped with John Barker Church in 1777 when she was just 21 years old. His third daughter, also eloped. Since the family of Margarita’s lover, a distant cousin by the name of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, felt that he was too young to get married (he was only 19 at that time), they opposed the marriage. Once the marriage took place, however, it was generally accepted, with some family members even agreeing to the marriage on the basis that the association with Philip would aid Stephen’s political career.
Unlike her two sisters, Elizabeth did not elope with Alexander Hamilton. Instead, a traditional, though brief, courtship was conducted. Elizabeth met her future husband in early 1780, when she visited an aunt in Morristown, New Jersey. At that time, Hamilton was serving as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington. Hamilton is said to have been smitten by Elizabeth. Within a few months, they were engaged. It was April 1780. The engagement received Philip’s blessing, which seems to have been a surprise, in part due to the fact that Hamilton was from an impoverished background. After all, Philip probably did not agree to Angelica’s marriage to John Barker Church, perhaps due to the latter’s dodgy wartime activities. Hence the elopement.
Portrait of her husband Alexander Hamilton around 1794. (Litererian1912 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
John André: The Hanging of a Spy
Incidentally, five years before meeting Hamilton, Elizabeth was drawn to a British officer by the name of John André, who had been a house guest at the Schuyler’s. André was a gifted artist, and sketched pictures for Elizabeth. Although a friendship was formed between the two of them, it seems that nothing more developed from that. In 1779, André became the head of the British Service in America, but was captured in the following year during Benedict Arnold’s failed plot to surrender the West Point to the British.
As a result, André was put on trial, and sentenced to be hanged as a spy, in accordance to the rules of war. André, however, appealed to Washington to be executed as a gentleman, i.e. by being shot. Elizabeth even asked Hamilton, to whom she was already engaged, to intervene on André’s behalf. In the end, this request was denied by Washington and André was hanged in October in Tappan, New York. This temporarily strained the couple’s relationship, as Elizabeth refused to reply to Hamilton’s letters for a few weeks after André’s execution.
Portrait of a young Elizabeth Schuyler, later Hamilton. (Public domain)
The Strains of Married Life
Soon, however, Elizabeth relented, marrying Hamilton on the 14 th of December 1780. The marriage ceremony took place at the Schuyler mansion in Albany. As Hamilton was in the army at that time, the newlyweds moved from one place to another rather frequently during their early days of their married life. Eventually, Elizabeth and Hamilton settled down in New York in late 1783. The Hamiltons participated actively in the city’s social life. In 1789, Hamilton was appointed as the Secretary of the Treasury, which increased Elizabeth’s social duties. At the same time, she continued to help Hamilton with his political writings, raised the children, and managed the household.
The couple’s marriage encountered a crisis in 1797. In that year, Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, which had occurred between 1791 and 1792, became public knowledge. Initially, the affair took the form of rumours and accusations, which Elizabeth refused to believe. In time, however, Hamilton himself confessed that he had an affair with Reynolds, in a piece of writing now known as the Reynolds Pamphlet. Elizabeth, who was pregnant with her sixth child at that time, left New York, and returned to her family home in Albany. In the meantime, Hamilton remained in New York. Indeed, the exposure of the affair threatened their marriage, but Elizabeth finally decided to forgive Hamilton. In the years following their reconciliation, Elizabeth and Hamilton had two more children together.
The 2004 ten dollar bill features Alexander Hamilton, whose legacy Eliza Hamilton worked so hard to preserve. (Public domain)
The Infamous Duel
1804 was a pivotal year in Elizabeth’s life. In that year, Hamilton was killed in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States at that time. Although the two men had been political rivals for a very long time, the duel was caused directly by some disparaging remark allegedly made by Hamilton about Burr at a dinner. When Burr heard the news, he demanded an explanation. Despite the correspondence between the two men, the issue could not be resolved peacefully, and ultimately, Hamilton reluctantly accepted Burr’s challenge to a duel. Hamilton was in fact opposed to duelling, especially considering that his eldest son, Philip, had died in a duel in 1801.
The men decided to hold their duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, the site where Philip had his fateful duel three years earlier. Although duelling was illegal in that state, as it was in New York, it was dealt with less severely in the former than in the latter. Still, it had to be done in secret. In any case, Hamilton was mortally wounded by Burr. He died the following day after he was brought back to Manhattan. Before his duel with Burr, Hamilton had written a farewell letter to Elizabeth, in the event that he did not survive the duel. The last lines of the letter are as follows:
“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.”
Following Hamilton’s death, Elizabeth faced at first financial hardships, as her husband had incurred much debt during his lifetime. As a consequence, she was forced to sell the family estate at a public auction in order to pay off Hamilton’s debts. The executors of her late husband’s will, however, were not willing to see Elizabeth removed from the home she had been living in for so long. Therefore, they decided to purchase the property, and sell it back to Elizabeth at a fraction of the price. Therefore, she continued living in the same home until 1833, after which she moved to a townhouse in New York City that she had purchased.
The husband of Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, famously died in a duel with Aaron Burr, a full 50 years before her death. (Public domain)
Life as a Widow: A Life Devoted to Orphans
The death of Hamilton and the financial hardships that followed did not break Elizabeth’s spirit. Instead, she continued to play an active role in society. In 1805, Elizabeth joined the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, and in the following year, became one of the co-founders of the Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in New York City.
Elizabeth’s choice to devote her life to this cause was due to her Christian upbringing and her late husband’s experience in life: Hamilton had been an orphan himself. From the founding of the society until 1821, Elizabeth served as its second directress (or vice president), after which she became its first directress. She held this post until 1848, when she left New York. Elizabeth contributed greatly to the society she co-founded. She helped raise funds, collected donated goods, and supervised the care and education of at least 765 orphans.
Apart from her social work, Elizabeth remained an influential figure in American politics, despite not wielding any actual political power. For instance, one of her daughters, Eliza, moved to Washington D.C. in 1842, following her husband’s death. Elizabeth would often visit her daughter at her new home, which was near the White House, and would receive many invitations from high ranking American officials, including Presidents.
In 1848, Elizabeth moved to Washington D.C. to live with here daughter for good. Once again, many came to pay their respects to this ‘grand old lady’. Whilst some sought Elizabeth’s approval for new legislature (such was the influence she wielded), others came to visit simply because she was the “last living link to the Revolutionary era.”
US Mint officials show off America’s first coins on July 13th 1792, to the Secretary of the Treasury and his wife Eliza Hamilton. (JBandJohnK / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Defending Her Husbands Legacy
Elizabeth was also a staunch defender of her husband’s legacy, which she protected with the influence she had. On one occasion, for instance, James Monroe, who had served as President of the United States from 1817 to 1825, sought Elizabeth’s forgiveness for leaking details of Hamilton’s affair with Reynolds. Elizabeth, however, refused to forgive Monroe, and even refused him a seat as he delivered his entreaty. In addition, Elizabeth insisted that Hamilton, rather than James Madison, was the principal author of the final version of George Washington’s Farewell Address.
One top of that, Elizabeth began collecting Hamilton’s papers for publication, so as to prop up the Federalist Party, which had dominated the national government under Hamilton. During the 19th century, however, the party and its policies had fallen out of favour. Apart from collecting her late husband’s papers, Elizabeth sent questionnaires to Hamilton’s former colleagues, so as to verify details in his letters. Unfortunately, Elizabeth did not find a suitable editor, so she edited the collection with her son, John Church Hamilton. The completed work was only published in 1861, seven years after Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth Hamilton died on the 9th of November, 1854, at the age of 97. Although Alexander Hamilton is still remembered today, Elizabeth is often left out of history books. Yet, as some have argued, it is precisely because of Elizabeth that her husband’s contributions to the United States have not been forgotten. In recent times, the popular Broadway musical Hamilton has shed light on Elizabeth’s life. Moreover, the film version of the musical, released in 2020, brought Elizabeth’s story to an international audience, thus bringing this forgotten woman back into the limelight where she belongs.
Top image: A portrait of Elizabeth Hamilton, known as Eliza Hamilton, in 1787. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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