Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)


For Eliza Hamilton, the collapse of her world was total, overwhelming, and remorseless. Within three years, she had had to cope with four close deaths: her eldest son, her sister Peggy, her mother, and her husband, not to mention the mental breakdown of her eldest daughter. Because the news of Hamilton’s death further weakened the already precarious health of Philip Schuyler, Eliza stayed in Albany to nurse him. As his gout flared up anew, he hobbled about in tremendous pain and became bedridden. “I trust that the Supreme Being will prolong my life that I may discharge the duties of a father to my dear child and her dear children,” Philip Schuyler told Angelica Church. Eliza “knows how tenderly I loved my dear Hamilton, how tenderly I love her and her children.”1 The Supreme Being, alas, had other plans for the ailing general. On November 18, 1804, four months after his son-in-law slumped to the ground in Weehawken, Philip Schuyler died and was buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

How did Eliza soldier on after these dreadful events that came thick and fast upon her? A month after the duel, she answered a sympathy note from Colonel William S. Smith, who had written to inform her that the Society of the Cincinnati would erect a monument to Hamilton in Trinity Church. In her letter, Eliza alluded to the forces that would sustain her. Suffering from “the irreparable loss of a most amiable and affectionate husband,” she prayed for “the mercies of the divine being in whose dispensations” all Christians should acquiesce. Beyond religious solace, she drew strength from sympathetic friends and family members and the veneration paid to her husband. She wrote, “The wounded heart derives a degree of consolation from the tenderness with which its loss is bewailed by the virtuous, the wise, and humane” and “that high honor and respect with which the memory of the dear deceased has been commemorated.”2

Eliza’s fierce, unending loyalty to Hamilton certifies that their marriage had been deeply rewarding, albeit marred by Maria Reynolds and other misadventures. Blessed with a forgiving heart, Eliza made ample allowance for her husband’s flaws. Two months after the duel, she described Hamilton to Nathaniel Pendleton as “my beloved, sainted husband and my guardian angel.” She thought that God, in snatching Hamilton away, had balanced the ledgers of her life, inflicting exquisite pain equal to her matchless joy in marriage: “I have remarked to you that I have had a double share of blessings and I must now look forward to grief…. For such a husband, his spirit is in heaven and his form in the earth and I am nowhere any part of him is.”3 She pored so frequently over his letters to her that they began to crack and crumble into dust. Around her neck, she wore a tiny bag containing brittle yellow scraps of the love sonnet that Hamilton had given to her during their courtship in Morristown—the scraps were sewn together as the paper decomposed—and the intimate farewell letter he had prepared for her on the eve of the duel.

Eliza retained boundless affection for “her Hamilton,” even though he had left her stranded in a terrible financial predicament. Hamilton died illiquid, if not insolvent. This mocked the hardy Republican fairy tale that he had enriched himself as treasury secretary and colluded with British paymasters. The secret London bank account that legend said awaited him when the monarchy returned to America—a staple of Jeffersonian lore—had never existed. America’s financial wizard earned comparatively little in his lifetime, and his executors feared that any distress sale of his assets—chiefly the Grange and some land in western New York and the Ohio River valley—would slash their value. Gouverneur Morris was appalled by the magnitude of Hamilton’s debts and confided to Rufus King,

Our friend Hamilton has been suddenly cut off in the midst of embarrassments which would have required years of professional industry to set straight—a debt of between fifty thousand and sixty thousand dollars hanging over him, a property which in time may sell for seventy or eighty thousand, but which, if brought to the hammer, would not, in all probability, fetch forty.4

Philip Schuyler had already disposed of a considerable portion of his wealth among his eight children and their descendants—his entire estate of thirty-five thousand dollars could not have covered Hamilton’s debts—so Eliza’s inheritance fell dreadfully short of Hamilton’s more sanguine expectations. She inherited farmland around Albany and Saratoga that yielded a paltry $750 in annual income and did not begin to defray her expenses. Heavily indebted from abortive business ventures, Philip Schuyler died land rich but cash poor. The aura of Schuyler-family wealth had outdistanced reality.

To keep the family afloat, Gouverneur Morris organized a secret subscription fund among Hamilton’s friends. He had to conquer an automatic assumption that the Hamilton children, with their rich grandfather, would never know want. Morris and more than one hundred other subscribers poured in about eighty thousand dollars, while New England Federalists donated Pennsylvania land as well. This fund was such a closely guarded secret that Hamilton’s children did not know of it for a generation, and the Bank of New York managed to keep its existence confidential until 1937.

The executors did not dare to dispossess Eliza from the Grange, so they bought it for thirty thousand dollars and sold it back to her at half price, ensuring that she could stay there indefinitely. If such generosity preserved Eliza from indigence, it did not spare her incessant anxiety about money and the humiliating need to cadge small loans. Three years after the duel, she appealed to Nathaniel Pendleton for an emergency handout, telling him that “as I am nearly out of cash, I take the liberty to ask you to negotiate a loan of three hundred dollars.”5 Eliza, though never prodigal, had grown up in comfort and now learned to cultivate thrift. Notwithstanding her financial plight, she heeded one sacred injunction in Hamilton’s farewell letter: to take care of his now blind, poor cousin, Ann Mitchell. Eliza invited her to stay at the Grange for extended periods and bailed her out with a $630 gift in 1810.

Eliza never wavered in her belief that the government owed substantial debts, financial and intangible, to her husband. At the end of the Revolution, Hamilton had waived the pension to which he was entitled as an army officer. From “scruples of delicacy” as a member of Congress, he had sought to eliminate any personal conflict of interest as he pondered the vexed question of veterans’ compensation.6 In a similarly high-minded spirit, he had waived his right to the “bounty” lands awarded to other officers. No amateur when it came to political timing, Eliza bided her time until Jefferson left the White House in 1809 and then immediately lobbied the apparently more forgiving President Madison for relief. By the time Madison left office, the persistent Eliza Hamilton had prevailed upon Congress to award her the cash equivalent of 450 acres in bounty lands plus five years’ worth of full army pay—about ten thousand dollars.

It was a huge struggle for Eliza to educate her children on a modest, fluctuating income. She bemoaned having to raise them in a world of “disastrous events” and “evil passions,” but she did a creditable job.7 Her five surviving sons gravitated to careers in the Hamiltonian mold: law, government, and the military. The second son, Alexander, graduated from Columbia weeks after his father’s duel. Eliza said that it was the wish “of my beloved, departed husband that his son Alexander should be placed in a countinghouse to be bred a merchant.”8 But when Stephen Higginson invited Alexander to apprentice in his Boston firm, Eliza could not bear losing her eldest surviving son to another city. “Unnerved by affliction and broken down by distress,” she told Higginson, “what can be my wishes but to have the children of the best, the tenderest husband always with me.”9 Alexander became a lawyer, fought abroad in the duke of Wellington’s army, returned to America as an infantry captain during the War of 1812, and wound up as a U.S. district attorney in New York. With fine irony, he represented Eliza Jumel when she divorced the unfaithful Aaron Burr.

The third son, James Alexander Hamilton, graduated from Columbia, served as an officer in the War of 1812, was an acting secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson (and as such favored the abolition of the Second Bank of the United States), and became a U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York. An easygoing, fast-talking man, he published a newspaper and developed a close friendship with Martin Van Buren, sometimes regarded as a “natural child” of Aaron Burr. At first, James A. Hamilton defended slavery as constitutional, then during the Civil War proved an early supporter of emancipation. In homage to his father’s birthplace, he created a home called “Nevis” on the Hudson.

The fourth son, John Church Hamilton, was a lawyer, also fought in the War of 1812, and devoted decades to writing a many-volumed life of his father and sorting through his labyrinthine papers. The fifth son, William Stephen, was charming, handsome, and eccentric. After studying at West Point, he fought in the Black Hawk War, surveyed public lands in Illinois, and enjoyed a bachelor’s free-spirited life on the western frontier. In 1849, he flocked to the California gold rush and opened a store in Sacramento to sell supplies to miners. He died there of cholera in 1850, the only child other than the elder Philip to predecease Eliza. The sixth son, “Little Phil,” was a kindhearted, sensitive man. He married the daughter of Louis McLane, secretary of the treasury and secretary of state under Andrew Jackson. Phil served as an assistant U.S. attorney under his brother James but leaned toward altruistic pursuits and developed a reputation as “the lawyer of the poor.”10 The eldest daughter, Angelica, lingered on under a physician’s care and remained “the sad charge” of Eliza’s “bleeding heart,” according to a friend.11 She died in 1857. The younger daughter, Eliza Hamilton Holly, assumed the burden of caring for her mother in her later years.

For ten years after the duel, Eliza clung to the indispensable support of her sister Angelica, her strongest bond to the past and to her fallen husband. A fixture of New York society, Angelica kept busy attending balls and parties until the end. In 1806, her son, Philip, took a large tract of land that he had inherited in upstate New York and established the town of Angelica in her honor. In March 1814, Angelica Church died at fifty-seven and was buried in the same Trinity Churchyard that held the brother-in-law who had so lastingly captivated her. John Barker Church returned to England and died in London in April 1818.

In her first decades of widowhood, Eliza had to endure an endless parade of presidents—Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams—who had crossed swords with her husband and had no desire to gild his memory. As “Federalism” became a term of abuse, she embarked on a single-minded crusade to do justice to her husband’s achievements. After the Reverend John M. Mason, Timothy Pickering, and others failed to produce the major biography that she craved, she turned to her son, John Church Hamilton, to edit Hamilton’s papers and produce a massive history that would duly glorify the patriarch. Eliza buttonholed elderly politicians and peppered them with detailed questionnaires, soliciting their recollections of her husband. She traveled to Mount Vernon and borrowed letters that Hamilton had written to Washington. She knew that she was racing against the clock, against mortality, against the vanishing trove of mementos of the revolutionary years. “I have my fears I shall not obtain my object,” she wrote to her daughter Eliza of the seemingly jinxed project in 1832. “Most of the contemporaries of your father have also passed away.”12 The immense biographical project was not completed until seven years after Eliza’s death.

The decades that she devoted to conserving her husband’s legacy made Eliza only more militantly loyal to his memory, and there was one injury she could never forget: the exposure of the Maria Reynolds affair, for which she squarely blamed James Monroe. In the 1820s, after Monroe had completed two terms as president, he called upon Eliza in Washington, D.C., hoping to thaw the frost between them. Eliza was then about seventy and staying at her daughter’s home. She was sitting in the backyard with her fifteen-year-old nephew when a maid emerged and presented the ex-president’s card. Far from being flattered by this distinguished visitor, Eliza was taken aback. “She read the name and stood holding the card, much perturbed,” said her nephew. “Her voice sank and she spoke very low, as she always did when she was angry. ‘What has that man come to see me for?’” The nephew said that Monroe must have stopped by to pay his respects. She wavered. “I will see him,” she finally agreed.13

So the small woman with the upright carriage and the sturdy, determined step marched stiffly into the house. When she entered the parlor, Monroe rose to greet her. Eliza then did something out of character and socially unthinkable: she stood facing the ex-president but did not invite him to sit down. With a bow, Monroe began what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech, stating “that it was many years since they had met, that the lapse of time brought its softening influences, that they both were nearing the grave, when past differences could be forgiven and forgotten.”14

Eliza saw that Monroe was trying to draw a moral equation between them and apportion blame equally for the long rupture in their relationship. Even at this late date, thirty years after the fact, she was not in a forgiving mood. “Mr. Monroe,” she told him, “if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”15 Monroe took in this rebuke without comment. Stunned by the fiery words delivered by the elderly little woman in widow’s weeds, the ex-president picked up his hat, bid Eliza good day, and left the house, never to return.

Because Eliza Hamilton tried to erase herself from her husband’s story, she has languished in virtually complete historical obscurity. To the extent that she has drawn attention, she has been depicted as a broken, weeping, neurasthenic creature, clinging to her Bible and lacking any identity other than that of Hamilton’s widow. In fact, she was a woman of towering strength and integrity who consecrated much of her extended widowhood to serving widows, orphans, and poor children. On March 16, 1806, less than two years after the duel, Eliza and other evangelical women cofounded the New York Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in New York. Perhaps nothing expressed her affection for Hamilton more tenderly than her efforts on behalf of orphans. If Eliza did not draft the society’s constitution, she endorsed its credo that “crime has not been the cause” of the orphan’s misery and “future usefulness may yet be the result of [his or her] protection. God himself has marked the fatherless as the peculiar subjects of His divine compassion.”16 Surely some extra dimension of religious fervor had entered into Eliza’s feelings toward her husband because of his boyhood. She possessed “her own pitying, loving nature, blended with a rare sense of justice,” said her friend Jessie Benton Frémont. “All these she dedicated to the care of orphan children.”17

For many years, Eliza was a mainstay of the orphanage board and held the position of second directress, or deputy director. She was present in 1807 when the cornerstone was laid for its two-story wooden headquarters in Greenwich Village. In 1821, Eliza was elevated to first directress with the chief responsibility for the 158 children then housed and educated in the asylum. For the next twenty-seven years, with a tenacity that Hamilton would have savored, she oversaw every aspect of the orphanage work. She raised money, leased properties, visited almshouses, investigated complaints, and solicited donations of coal, shoes, and Bibles. She often gave the older orphans jobs in her home and helped one gain admittance to West Point. With a finesse reminiscent of her husband’s, she handled the society’s funds on the finance committee. After obtaining a state charter for the society, she lobbied the state legislature for annual grants. “Mamma, you are a sturdy beggar,” her son once teased her. “My dear son,” she retorted, “I cannot spare myself or others. My Maker has pointed out this duty to me and has given me the ability and inclination to perform it.”18 She was still first directress in 1836 when the cornerstone was laid for an imposing new orphanage at Seventy-third Street and Riverside Drive. Eliza led the organization cheerfully, willingly, aided by her dear friend Joanna Bethune. “My mother’s regard and esteem for this venerable lady continually increased,” George Bethune said of his mother’s warm friendship with Eliza. “Both were of determined disposition…. Mrs. Bethune was the more cautious, Mrs. Hamilton the more impulsive, so that occasions of dispute did occur. But it was charming to see how affectionately these temporary altercations soon terminated in mutual embraces.”19

Like her evangelical colleagues, Eliza believed passionately that all children should be literate in order to study the Bible. In 1818, she returned to the state legislature and won a charter for the Hamilton Free School, which was the first educational institution in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. It stood on land Eliza donated on Broadway between 187th and 188th Streets in upper Manhattan and was established in honor of her husband’s memory.

A painting of Eliza from later years shows a woman with a strong but kindly face and a firm, determined mouth. Her silver hair was parted down the middle under her widow’s cap, and her dark eyes were still large and girlishly bright. “Her face is delicate but full of nerve and spirit. The eyes are very dark and hold the life and energy of the restraining face,” said Jessie Benton Frémont, who marveled at Eliza’s unabated vigor.20 “When I first lived on the Hudson River, quite near her son’s home, it was still remembered how the old lady, past eighty, would leave the train at a way station and climb two fences in her shortcut across meadows, rather than go on to the town where the carriage could meet her.”21 Her willpower and spunk surprised people. At one anniversary celebration of the Orphan Asylum Society, Eliza, then in her nineties, materialized, to everyone’s amazement—“a very small, upright little figure in deep black, never altered from the time her dark hair was first framed by the widow’s cap, until now the hair was white as the cap.”22 Frémont noted how she “retains in an astonishing degree her faculties and converses with much of that ease and brilliancy which lent so peculiar a charm to her younger days.”23

In 1848, the ninety-one-year-old Eliza moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her younger daughter, Eliza, who was now widowed after the death of her husband, Sidney Augustus Holly. At their H Street residence near the White House, Eliza Hamilton cherished her status as a relic of the American Revolution. Like her husband, she was a committed abolitionist who delighted in entertaining slave children from the neighborhood, and she referred derisively to the slaveholding states as the “African States.” Always busy knitting or making mats, she was an irresistible curiosity to visitors and a coveted ornament at White House dinners. “Mrs. General Hamilton, upon whom I waited at table, is a very remarkable person,” President James K. Polk reported in his diary after one such dinner in February 1846. “She retains her intellect and memory perfectly, and my conversation with her was highly interesting.”24 Eliza aided her friend Dolley Madison in raising money to construct the Washington Monument and remained sharp and alert until the end. When historian Benson J. Lossing interviewed her when she was ninety-one, he found her anything but tearful or morose: “The sunny cheerfulness of her temper and quiet humor…still made her deportment genial and attractive.”25

During the winter of 1852–1853, Eliza and her daughter enjoyed the company of a young relative named Elizabeth Hawley, who was startled by the constant stream of visitors who showed up at their doorstep. On the morning of New Year’s Day 1853, the young woman was disheartened by the gray skies and the apparent paucity of gentleman callers. But before noon, “the sky cleared and the tide of visitors flowed in,” she wrote to her aunt. “The rooms were crowded all day and we received several hundred call[er]s…. Gentlemen brought their children to see Mrs. Hamilton, many called who went to no other place, and as you are fond of hearing all, I wish I had room to tell you the names of the most distinguished senators, members, etc.” General Winfield Scott showed up, looking dashing in his uniform, followed by New York senator William H. Seward. Then the dense throng parted, and, to the young woman’s amazement, President Millard Fillmore advanced across the room toward Eliza. “I had heard he was thinner than when I saw him, but I never saw him looking stouter or handsomer. He sat with Mrs. Hamilton some time and asked her to appoint some time to dine with him.”26 When the ninety-five-year-old Eliza dined at the White House a month later, she made a grand entrance with her daughter. President Fillmore fussed over her, and the first lady gave up her chair to her. Everybody was eager to touch a living piece of American history.

A devout woman, Eliza never lost her faith that she and Hamilton would be gloriously reunited in the afterlife. She prized a small envelope that Hamilton had once sent her, with a romantic inscription emblazoned across the back: “I heal all wounds but those which love hath made.”27 For Eliza, those wounds had never healed. On November 9, 1854—a turbulent year in which the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted and the union that Hamilton had done so much to forge stood gravely threatened—Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton died at age ninety-seven. Her widowhood had lasted fifty years, or slightly longer than her life before the duel. She was buried where she had always longed to be: right beside her Hamilton in the Trinity Churchyard.