Like most of the world, I am some degree of obsessed with the musical Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton’s tale of rags to riches and later pride before a fall has all the elements of a great drama and I am surprised that it is not better known and there were not more fictional adaptations prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent rap musical catapulted A. Ham. into a pop culture icon. But the character who fascinated me the most was Alex’s better half, Eliza Schuyler.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, known as Eliza or Betsey, was born in 1757 to wealthy and politically influential New York Dutch family. Her father, Philip Schuyler, was one of the richest men in the colony of New York and later a general in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Throughout her life, Eliza would meet many of the greats of the Revolutionary era, including Benjamin Franklin, and George and Martha Washington, whom she and husband Alexander Hamilton were very close friends with. What struck me the most when I looked her up was that she seems like the quintessential period romance heroine: the beautiful and spirited girl from a wealthy family with whom a penniless but gift falls in love. Hamilton described in a letter to Eliza’s sister, Angelica Schuyler Church, that “She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty…She has good nature, affability and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousness which is justly deemed one of the principal accomplishments of a belle. In short she is so strange a creature, that she possesses all the beauties, virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman.” Eliza married the dashing Alexander in 1780 after a whirlwind wartime romance and they went on to have eight children and remained happily married for twenty-four years until his untimely death in 1804. She survived her husband by fifty years and died in 1854 at the age of 97.
Among Eliza’s accomplishments during her lifetime included helping her husband with his thousands of pages of writings, she is believed to have helped him write George Washington’s farewell address, and helping preserve those writings, raising money for the Washington Monument, and helping found the Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in New York City.
A large part of the plot of Hamilton focuses on Hamilton’s complicate relationships with women: his romance and marriage with Eliza, his intellectual flirtation with her older feisty older sister, Angelica, and his disastrous and humiliating affair with the vampish Maria Reynolds. Hamilton and Angelica have an unresolved mutual attraction throughout the story but Angelica selflessly steps aside to let her beloved baby sister, Eliza, have him, which backfires years later when he cheats on Eliza with Maria, resulting in an embarrassing sex scandal. Eliza and Hamilton are eventually reconciled after their eldest son dies defending his father’s honor. If Angelica’s most noble moment is when she puts the happiness of her sister over her own, Eliza’s is when she forgives her husband when when she would be perfectly justified in kicking his philandering ass to the curve and later preserving his legacy after his famously fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
The demure and proper Eliza, and not the more outspoken and seemingly more interesting Angelica , emerges as the story’s heroine and a possible interpretation of Hamilton is that though Alexander is the central character, it is Eliza’s story, her being the one kept all of her husband’s writings and made sure he was remembered after his death, and that the title Hamilton, could also refer to her as well as him.