I love history and was really looking forward to seeing the Stage production of Hamilton. History taught his story, or most of it. But his wife was left out, except in her ability to brood to their 8 children, the eldest dying in a duel at age 19, two years before Hamilton himself would die during a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr. This is about the “after-story,” after Alexander was killed, the parts history leaves out.
Long-suffering, intensely loyal, Elizabeth buried her sister, her eldest son, her husband and her father in the space of three turbulent years. She did not spend her days in sorrow or self-pity. Instead she immersed herself in charitable work. Eliza also was a defender of his works and was co-founder and deputy director of Graham Windham, the first private orphanage in New York City, still in existence today as a social service agency for children. She is recognized as an early American philanthropist for her work in the Orphan Asylum Society. Eliza worked with them continuously for 42 years, overseeing the care and education of some 700 children.
After her home and 35-acre estate, the Grange, was sold at public auction, she was able to repurchase it from Hamilton’s executors who sold it back to her for half the price. In 1833, at the age of 76, Eliza resold the Grange for $25,000, which funded the purchase of a New York townhouse, now called the Hamilton-Holly House where she lived for nine years with two of her grown children and their spouses. Elizabeth was also able to collect her husband’s pension for his service in the army from Congress in 1836 for money and land. She also petitioned Congress to publish her husband’s writings (1846). Eliza organized all of Alexander’s letters, papers, and writings along with her son John’s help, who went on to publish “History of the Republic of the United States America, as Traced in the Writings of Alexander Hamilton and his Contemporaries.” This set the bar for future biographies that would grow as time went on.
While in her 90’s, she made an effort for Congress to buy and publish her late husband’s works, which they did, adding them to the Library of Congress. After relocating to Washington DC, she helped Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams raise money to build the Washington Monument. She was buried near her husband and her eldest son Phillip at Trinity Church.
Since the release of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus on July 3, the musical has prompted considerable debate: over its “racebent” casting, over its treatment of slavery and over its historical accuracy. In addition, the play’s ambiguous ending has launched discussion about the role of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in both the play and in her husband’s legacy. “Who tells your story?” asks the play’s final refrain. The answer, in this case, is clear: Eliza. As Alexander Hamilton describes her, in both his private letters and in the musical, Eliza was the “best of wives and best of women.”
But in highlighting Eliza’s role as Alexander’s caretaker, curator and champion, “Hamilton” praises her for performing the kind of work that women — and especially wives — have carried out for millennia. In fact, women’s labor was integral in creating the legacies of Socrates, Machiavelli, John Locke and many other “great men” who have been remembered for their political and intellectual endeavors. Our political and intellectual heritage, in other words, is largely the product of women’s unsung labors.
Women have, throughout history, supported and preserved their husbands’ legacies. But in addition to curating their husband’s legacies, wives have also directly shaped the ideas and institutions for which their husbands are famous. What makes all these women extraordinary is not that there are so few of them, but that there are so many. Therefore, I write this blog to give voice to their stories. Standing on the shoulders of women, no matter your station in life. The best leaders know this and recognize this in their partners. As the saying goes,” good men are only as good as the women around them,” as was Eliza.