Witty. Beguiling. Relentless. Compassionate. These are some of the words I would use to describe Eliza Hamilton. Although I think that the Hamilton musical is nothing short of theatrical brilliance, I have to say – it did not do Eliza justice.
Her main songs throughout the musical only highlight the aspects of her life as Hamilton’s wife. During the song Helpless, we see her fall in love with Hamilton, and during Burn, we witness the anger she felt after getting cheated on by him. Yes, those experiences are a vital part of her story – but so many other aspects of her life go untouched and untold.
It is only in the very last song, Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? that we get a mere glimpse of all the tremendous efforts Eliza had put in to defend Hamilton’s legacy.
Elizabeth Hamilton came from a powerful family in which her father, Philip Schuyler, was a war hero. Due to her father’s military status, Eliza grew up constantly being visited by military officers. One of these officers was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, who- like everyone else – found himself absolutely immersed in Eliza’s beauty and charm.
Fast forward a couple of years later, Hamilton was shaping the economic system of a new nation, while Eliza was tasked with raising eight children. Not only was Eliza a wonderful mother and wife, but she also supported Hamilton in his writing and many of his political affairs.
Eliza served as a negotiator between Alexander and his publishers when he was writing The Federalist Papers. She also copied out portions of Alexander’s defense of the Bank of the United States. Not to mention her crucial role in the drafting of Washington’s Farewell Address, staying up late with Alexander as he read her every word as he wrote it.
Eliza supported Hamilton in his writing and political affairs.
With the turn of the century, a pattern of tragedy disrupted Eliza’s life. On November 24, 1801, her son, Philip Hamilton, died. Upon the death of Eliza’s oldest son, her oldest daughter, Angelica, became overcome with grief and despair to an extent that it impaired her completely. She never recovered from this breakdown.
Eliza lost two children within less than two years. Her father also died soon after, in the November of 1804, leaving Eliza with the task of keeping her own family afloat, both financially and emotionally.
Three years after Philip’s death, on July 12th, 1804, Alexander died in a duel, using the exact same pistols as his son. Alexander had now left Eliza widowed with their seven children and crippling debt.
In his landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow states that he thinks “anyone else would have been broken” by the tragedies Elizabeth faced. Yet, “Not only did she live, she prevailed.”
Eliza, now heartbroken, devastated, and on the brink of poverty knew that she had to be resourceful. She set up a trust fund with the help of her friends, which provided her with a small sum of money. Unfortunately, this alone was not enough. Alexander and Eliza’s charming family country house, named The Grange, became repossessed by creditors in an effort to rid Eliza of debt.
Although Eliza Hamilton carried out a plethora of charitable projects in the fifty years after Alexander’s death, there is one that outshines the others. The orphanage.
She founded the first private orphanage in New York city, the Orphan Asylum Society, now known as the Graham Windham foundation. Serving as the First Directress of the orphanage, she raised funds, collected donated goods, and supervised the upbringing of 800 orphans.
Eliza took a particular liking to a young boy by the name of Henry McKavett, whose parents had died in a fire when he was barely old enough to talk. Eliza saw so much of her late husband in Henry – his ambition, his courage, his warmth – she personally paid for his schooling, and she made sure that he got a prime military position within the army. When Henry was killed in combat, he left his entire estate to the orphanage.
It was also during this time that Eliza fought to gain recognition for Alexander as the main author behind Washington’s Farewell Address, which James Madison had been wrongly credited with. She also petitioned Congress to publish many of Alexander’s writings, which covered topics like the Revolution, adoption of the Constitution, and the administration of George Washington, and succeeded.
Anyone else would have been broken by the tragedies Elizabeth faced. Not her.
Eliza tried her best to find a suitable editor for her husband’s biography, a project she hoped would immortalize him and his achievements. Eventually, her son, John Church Hamilton edited the collection. Sadly, the biography was not completed until seven years after Eliza’s death.
We have to acknowledge that without Eliza, we might have never known about Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography of Hamilton would have never been written, and therefore, the magnificent Broadway musical based on it would have never been created.
“Her efforts made it easier to research Alexander’s life because after his death, his enemies were in power,” Chernow says. “Elizabeth was working against the political system of the time, and time itself.”
Although she had many visitors towards the end of her life, one, in particular, stands out. Former president James Monroe – the man responsible for leaking the details of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair. He came with an offer of reconciliation and an apology. Eliza harshly declined his apology saying that “no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference”.
Eliza lived to be 97 years old. Even towards the very end of her life, she never lost her effortless charisma. Eliza was invited by President James K Polk to a dinner party, during which he was fascinated by her quick wit coupled with her soft nature.
He wrote in his diary, “Mrs. General Hamilton, is a very remarkable person. She retains her intellect and memory perfectly, and my conversation with her was highly interesting.”
Eliza is the forgotten founding mother of America. She upheld Hamilton’s legacy because she knew that his story had the potential to inspire, and ultimately change the world.
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