Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
|Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton|
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton by Ralph Earl, 1787
August 9, 1757
Albany, Province of New York
|Died||November 9, 1854
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Children||Philip, Angelica, Alexander, Jr., James, John, William, Eliza Hamilton Holly, and Phil|
Elizabeth Hamilton (née Schuyler; August 9, 1757 – November 9, 1854), sometimes called "Eliza" or "Betsey," was the co-founder and deputy director of the first private orphanage in New York City, and the wife of Alexander Hamilton.
Childhood and family
Elizabeth was born in Albany, New York, the second daughter of Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. The Van Rensselaers of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck were one of the richest and most politically influential families in the state of New York. She had seven siblings who lived to adulthood, including Angelica Schuyler Church and Margarita "Peggy" Schuyler Van Rensselaer, and 14 siblings in total.
Her family was among the wealthy Dutch landowners who had settled around Albany in the mid-1600s, and both her mother and father came from wealthy and well-regarded families. Like many landowners of the time, Philip Schuyler owned slaves, and Eliza would have grown up around slavery. Despite the unrest of the French and Indian War, which her father served in and which was fought in part very near her childhood home, Eliza's childhood was spent comfortably, learning to read and sew from her mother. Like most Dutch families of the area, she would have attended the Reformed Dutch Church of Albany, which still survives today, though the actual church Elizabeth would have attended was torn down in 1806. This instilled in her a strong and unwavering faith she would retain throughout her life.
When she was a girl, Elizabeth accompanied her father to a meeting of the Six Nations, and met Benjamin Franklin when he stayed briefly with the Schuyler family while traveling. She was said to have been something of a tomboy when she was young; throughout her life she retained a strong will and even an impulsiveness that her acquaintances noted. James McHenry, one of Washington's aides alongside her future husband, would say that "Hers was a strong character with its depth and warmth, whether of feeling or temper controlled, but glowing underneath, bursting through at times in some emphatic expression." Much later, the son of Joanna Bethune, one of the women she worked alongside to found an orphanage later in her life, remembered that "Both [Elizabeth and Joanna] were of determined disposition...Mrs. Bethune the more cautious, Mrs. Hamilton the more impulsive."
In early 1780, Elizabeth went to stay with her aunt, Gertrude Schuyler Cochran, in Morristown, New Jersey. There she met Alexander Hamilton, one of General George Washington's aides-de-camp, who was stationed along with the General and his men in Morristown for the winter. (In fact, they had met previously, if briefly, two years before, when Hamilton dined with the Schuylers on his way back from a negotiation on Washington's behalf.) Also while in Morristown, Eliza met and became friends with Martha Washington, a friendship they would maintain throughout their husbands' political careers. Eliza later said of Mrs. Washington, "She was always my ideal of a true woman."
The relationship between Eliza and Alexander quickly grew, even after he left Morristown, only a month after Eliza had arrived. By early April they were officially engaged, with her father's blessing (something of an anomaly for the Schuyler girls—both Angelica and Peggy would end up eloping). Later that year, Eliza had learned that Major John André, head of the British Secret Service, had been captured in a foiled plot concocted by General Benedict Arnold to surrender the fort of West Point to the British. André had once been a houseguest in the Schuyler Mansion in Albany as a prisoner of war on route to Pennsylvania in 1775; Eliza had been smitten with the young British officer who had once sketched for her. Hamilton, while jealous of André for his "accomplishments," promised Eliza he would do what he could to treat the British intelligence chief accordingly; he even begged Washington to grant André's last wish of execution by firing squad, but to no avail. Eliza did not respond to Hamilton's letters for weeks after André's hanging. Then, on December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler were married at the Schuyler Mansion.
After a short honeymoon at the Pastures, Eliza's childhood home, Hamilton returned to military service in early January 1781. Eliza soon joined him at New Windsor, where Washington's army was now stationed, and she rekindled her friendship with Martha Washington as they entertained their husbands' fellow officers. Soon, however, Washington and Hamilton had a falling-out, and the newlywed couple relocated first back to Eliza's father's house in Albany, then to a new home across the river from the New Windsor headquarters. There Eliza busied herself in creating a home for them and in aiding Alexander with his political writings—parts of his thirty-one-page letter to Robert Morris, laying out much of the financial knowledge that was to aid him later in his career, are written in her handwriting.
Soon, however, Eliza would relocate again, this time back to her parents' house in Albany. This possibly coincided with the discovery that she was pregnant with her first child, who would be born the next January and named Philip, for her father. While apart, Alexander wrote her numerous letters telling her not to worry for his safety; in addition, he wrote her concerning confidential military secrets, including the lead-up to the Battle of Yorktown that autumn. Meanwhile, the war would come much too close to home, after British soldiers attempted to raid the Pastures, where Eliza along with Angelica and the rest of her family were living. They were however spared from any harm, thanks to her sister Peggy's quick thinking.
After Yorktown, Alexander was able to rejoin Eliza in Albany, where they would remain for almost another two years, before moving to New York City in late 1783. Earlier that year, Angelica and her husband had left for Europe on business, where they would remain for many years, though with relatively frequent visits home. The following year, on September 25, 1784, Eliza gave birth to her second child, named Angelica after her beloved older sister.
In 1787 Eliza sat for a portrait, executed by the painter Ralph Earl while he was being held in debtors' prison. Alexander had heard of Earl's predicament and asked if Eliza might be willing to sit for him, to allow him to make some money and eventually buy his way out of prison, which he subsequently did. Her portrait shows a strong-featured, bright-eyed woman, her expression restrained but not without the humor and strong will she was noted for. She has great poise and looks elegant, a particularly notable feature as she now had three young children (her third, Alexander, was born in May of 1786) and may have been pregnant at the time with her fourth, James Alexander, who would be born the following April. In addition, in the meantime she would adopt Fanny Antill, a two-year-old child whose mother had died. After her father died as well, the young girl stayed with the Hamiltons for another eight years, until she was twelve and able to go live with her married sister. Later James Alexander would write that "She was educated and treated in all respects as [their] own daughter."
The Hamiltons had an active social life, often attending the theater and as well as various balls and parties. "I had little of private life in those days," she would remember. At the first Inaugural Ball, Eliza danced with George Washington; when Thomas Jefferson returned from Paris in 1790, she and Alexander hosted a dinner for him. After Alexander became Treasury Secretary in 1789, her social duties only increased: "Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. [Sarah] Jay and Mrs. [Lucy] Knox were the leaders of official society," an early historian writes. In addition, she managed their household, and James McHenry once noted to Alexander that Eliza had "as much merit as your treasurer as you have as treasurer of the United States."
Eliza also continued to aid Alexander throughout his political career, serving as an intermediary between him and his publisher when he was writing The Federalist Papers, copying out portions of his defense of the Bank of the United States, and sitting up with him so he could read Washington's Farewell Address out loud to her as he wrote it. Meanwhile, she continued to raise her children (a fifth, John Church Hamilton, had been born in 1792) and maintain their household throughout multiple moves between New York, Philadelphia, and Albany. In addition, late 1794 Eliza suffered a miscarriage, in the wake of her youngest child falling extremely ill.
In 1797, an affair between Hamilton and Maria Reynolds, a young woman who had first approached him for monetary aid in 1791, came to light. Eliza evidently didn't believe the charges when they were first leveled against her husband: John Church, her brother-in-law, wrote that "it makes not the least Impression on her, only that she considers the whole Knot of those opposed to you to be [Scoundrels]." Eliza was at the time pregnant with her sixth child, who was born on August 4 and christened William Stephen. Later that month, Hamilton published a pamphlet admitting to the affair.
Despite this, Eliza and Alexander remained married, and had two more children together. The first, Elizabeth, named for Eliza, was born on November 20, 1799. Before their eighth child was born, however, they lost their oldest son, Philip, who died in a duel on November 23, 1801. After being shot on the dueling field, Philip was brought to Angelica and John Church's house, where he died, both of his parents next to him. Their last child, born the next June, was named Philip in his honor.
Only two years later, Alexander became involved in a similar "affair of honor," which led to his infamous duel with Aaron Burr and untimely death. Before the duel, he wrote Eliza two letters, telling her, "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." Alexander Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, Eliza beside him.
The year before the duel, Eliza's mother Catherine had died suddenly, and only a few months after Alexander's death Eliza's father died also. By this time two of her siblings, Peggy and John, had both died as well. Ultimately Eliza would outlive all her siblings but one, her sister Catherine, the youngest of the Schuyler children and twenty-four years her junior.
After her husband's death, Eliza was left to pay Alexander's debts and lost their house in a public auction, though she was later able to re-purchase it. Eliza defended Alexander against his critics in a variety of ways following his death, including by supporting his claim of authorship of George Washington's Farewell Address and by requesting an apology from James Monroe over his accusations of financial improprieties.
In 1805, the year after Alexander's death, Eliza joined the descriptively-named Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. The next year, she along with several other women, including Joanna Bethune, founded the Orphan Asylum Society, and Eliza was appointed second directress, or vice-president. In 1821, she was named first directress, and served for twenty-seven years in this role, until she left New York in 1848 to live with her recently widowed daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton Holly, in Washington, D.C. By the time she left she had been with the organization continuously since its founding, a total of forty-two years. The New York Orphan Asylum Society continues to exist as a social service agency for children, today called Graham Windham.
Eliza remained dedicated to preserving her husband's legacy. She re-organized all of Alexander's letters, papers, and writings with the help of her son, John Church Hamilton, and persevered through many setbacks in getting his biography published. She was so devoted to Alexander's writings that she wore a small package around her neck containing the pieces of a sonnet which Alexander wrote for her during the early days of their marriage. Even in her nineties, she remained dedicated to charity work, and after moving to Washington, DC, she helped Dolley Madison raise money to build the Washington Monument.
Eliza passed away in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1854, at age ninety-seven. She had outlived her husband by fifty years. She was buried near her husband and sister in the graveyard of Trinity Church in New York City.
Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton had eight children, though there is often confusion because two sons were named Philip:
- Philip (January 22, 1782 – November 23, 1801), died in a duel, just as his father would three years later.
- Angelica (September 25, 1784 – February 6, 1857)
- Alexander, Jr. (May 16, 1786 – August 2, 1875)
- James Alexander (April 14, 1788 – September 24, 1878)
- John Church (August 22, 1792 – July 25, 1882)
- William Stephen (August 4, 1797 – October 9, 1850)
- Elizabeth Holly (November 20, 1799 – October 17, 1859)
- Philip, also called Little Phil, (June 1, 1802 – July 9, 1884)
In popular culture
Eliza is portrayed in the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton, which was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and depicts the life of Alexander Hamilton. The role was originated by Phillipa Soo, who received a 2016 Tony Award nomination for her work in the show. Eliza's depiction in the musical has attracted praise from critics and commentators for emphasizing both her importance in Alexander's life and her work in propagating his legacy, an approach it shares with its source material, Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Alexander.
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