Eliza Hamilton: She Told Their Stories
By Tara Mae
Elizabeth “Eliza” Schuyler Hamilton is credited with preserving the legacy of her husband Alexander. However, until his death, she had little say in controlling her own narrative. With the betrayal of the Reynolds Pamphlet and the illicit details it contained, Alexander told the world his secrets and shared their story without her permission. Upon his death, it was Eliza who told his story and took control of his narrative. In doing so, she reclaimed her own.
Born on August 9, 1757, to a wealthy, socially and politically connected family, Eliza was described as pious and loyal. She and Alexander had a whirlwind courtship, marrying on December 14, 1790, mere months after meeting. Hers was not the most dizzying of Schuyler sisters romances: two of them eloped. Eliza and Alexander eventually had eight children and raised a ninth, a foster child named Frances “Fanny” Antill, for 10 years. They reportedly also took in other orphaned or neglected children at various points; Eliza called them “little Alexanders.”
In 1797, when Eliza was pregnant with their sixth child, Alexander’s affair with Maria Reynolds was first exposed. Initially she did not believe the gossip. Any such doubts were refuted with his publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet that August. The document cleared his name of any political wrongdoing but deeply humiliated and wounded Eliza. Not only did the papers ruin any chance Hamilton had for winning higher political office, it also opened Eliza to scrutiny and ridicule. One newspaper indicated that Eliza had to be a wicked woman to have such a wicked husband.
Eliza, eight months pregnant, went to stay with her parents in Albany, where son William Stephen was born. She returned to New York City in early September because her eldest child, Philip, had contracted typhus and the local upstate doctor was unable to treat him. Eliza and Alexander would eventually reconcile and have two more children, including one born following Philip’s death from his duel with George Eacker, and named in his honor.
Philip’s death had triggered an emotional breakdown in Alexander and Eliza’s eldest daughter Angelica. Different accounts from the time indicate that the seventeen year old retreated into a childlike state, and that her parents were unable to draw her out of it. With Alexander’s death, Eliza became Angelica’s primary caregiver for many years; she was eventually placed in the guardianship of a doctor who was a close family friend.
Alexander died from injuries sustained in the duel with Aaron Burr on July 12, 1804, and Eliza, while grieving, fought to keep what remained of her family intact. She sustained many losses in the years surrounding Philip and Alexander’s deaths, including that of her father, mother, and two of her siblings. Eliza did not have the luxury of falling apart; her family’s future was at stake and her loved ones were suffering.
Her investment in her husband’s legacy was personal and pragmatic. Alexander left behind substantial debts, and Eliza did not have the means to pay them. The Grange, the Hamilton family home, was repossessed by creditors and sold at public auction, it was purchased by a group of Alexander’s rich friends who then sold it back to Eliza for half the price.
Described as impulsive by male acquaintances in her youth, she was known for her strong will and tenacity. As a widow, she channelled her determination into protecting Alexander’s name, advocating to preserve his documents and other writings, caring for her family, and pursuing philanthropic projects. A woman of faith and conviction, she was steadfast in pursuing these goals.
During Alexander’s life, she helped him shape his story. Early in their marriage, he wrote a 31 page letter to financier and Founding Father Robert Morris, Jr., describing much of what would develop into his financial plan for the United States. Parts of this missive are in Eliza’s handwriting. While he was composing The Federalist Papers, Eliza was the emissary between him and his publisher. She also copied parts of his defense of the Bank of the United States, and acted as advisor and audience as Alexander drafted Washington’s Farewell Address. Years later she would vehemently defend his authorship of that speech.
Guardian of both their narratives, at some point Eliza burned most of the love letters from Alexander. While the timeframe for this action is unknown and no one can attest to her exact motivation, doing this enabled her to control each of their legacies. A prolific letter writer, Alexander is of course best known for his political writings. Eliza, to the best of her ability, did not leave behind any correspondence that she did not want to share. She was able to take some secrets with her.
A champion for different causes, including those related to Alexander’s own struggle as an orphan, Eliza was more than just the keeper of the flame. Her philanthropy began before her husband’s death and was measured yet momentous. Eliza fully devoted herself to these endeavors. Some of her most impassioned work was on behalf of women and orphans.
In 1798, she accepted her friend Isabella Graham’s invitation to join the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. This work would expand into co-founding, in 1806, the Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in New York City. First serving as its second directress (vice president) and then as its directress (president) in 1821, a role she held for the next 27 years, she remained a tireless advocate well into her 90s, advocating for the orphans, raising awareness and money, collecting supplies, and supervising the care and education of more than 700 children. She was affiliated with it for 42 years. The organization, today known as Graham Windham, is still in existence, offering support and outreach to youth and families. It is the oldest non-sectarian and nonprofit children’s welfare organization in the United States.
The Hamilton Free School was established by Eliza in 1818; it was the first school in Washington Heights, which was then sparsely populated. The school charged no tuition because she believed that all children, including poor children, deserved education even if it was only so that they would be able to read the Bible. Largely impoverished after Alexander’s death, Eliza struggled to provide for their children’s education. Phillip II grew up in a much different socio-economic class than his eldest siblings had enjoyed.
Known to be fiercely loyal, Eliza defended Alexander against his detractors. She never forgave James Monroe for his part in exposing the Reynolds affair, and wanted a formal apology for his conduct. Deeply protective of Alexander’s name, love was presumably not her only motivation: his reputation was his primary bequeathal to his children. As they grew older, she enlisted some of them to help her sort through his papers. With the assistance of their son John Church Hamilton, Eliza reorganized Alexander’s letters, documents, and compositions for publication. Thanks to her initial assistance and insistence, he published two biographies and an anthology of his father’s work.
Charitable and generous towards those less fortunate than she, Eliza continued to endure money struggles. Once Jefferson was no longer president, she petitioned Congress to reinstate the pension to which Alexander’s dependents were entitled. In 1782, he was a member of the Continental Congress that granted army pensions to former soldiers. Alexander had been a Lieutenant Colonel but due to the conflict of interest, he refused any such compensation.<