Eliza Schuyler Hamilton was left in debt with seven children when her husband was suddenly killed. Nevertheless, she became a champion for child welfare.
Eliza Hamilton had already been disgraced by her husband, founding father Alexander Hamilton, when he was killed in a duel against a bitter rival in 1804. After his fatal shooting, Alexander Hamilton’s wife found herself in tremendous debt with seven children to care for on her own.
Eliza Hamilton, though, was not the average 19th-century housewife. When her husband died, she became an active force in her community for child welfare. She even used her influence to rehabilitate her husband’s moral standing — despite how he had humiliated her in a very public extramarital affair years earlier.
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s Wealthy Beginnings
Elizabeth Schuyler was born on Aug. 7, 1757, to a powerful American family. She was the second daughter of Continental General Phillip Schuyler who served in the Revolutionary War. Her mother was a Van Rensselaer, which was one of the richest and most influential families in the state of New York at the time.
Naturally, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in upstate New York.
Few of her personal letters have survived and so much of what is known about Eliza Hamilton was learned from the letters of others. She was described as outdoorsy, whip-smart, and a devout Christian, which would later influence how she raised her own children.
Growing up, Hamilton and her sisters spent much of their time dancing at social balls where they mingled with eligible soldiers. Among the Continental soldiers with whom Eliza Schuyler flirted was a young officer named Alexander Hamilton.
Becoming The Wife Of Alexander Hamilton
As the story goes, Eliza Hamilton first met her future husband at an officer’s ball during the American Revolution. Schuyler Hamilton had been living with her aunt in Morristown, New Jersey when she befriended none other than Martha Washington. Both George Washington and his aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, had been stationed in the New Jersey town for the winter.
Schuyler Hamilton and the young officer were immediately smitten. One aide described Hamilton as “a gone man.”
In one of his many love letters to his future wife, the young officer wrote “I meet you in every dream” and “when I wake I cannot close my eyes for ruminating on your sweetness.”
However, when writing to a fellow aide, Hamilton said that his future wife was “not a genius, she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes, is rather handsome, and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy.”
Hamilton’s contradictory letters seemed to predict the couples’ impending marital troubles.
After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married at the Schuyler estate in December 1780. They had eight children together and even raised the orphaned daughter of a friend.
Though she had her hands full with motherhood and supporting her husband’s political career, Hamilton declared that she was “the happiest of women. My dear Hamilton is fonder of me every day.”
Scandal, Disgrace, And Murder
In 1802, Eliza Hamilton and her expanding family moved to a property located on 32 acres of farmland in upper Manhattan. Her husband had purchased the estate and named it The Grange in honor of his father’s Scottish roots.
In spite of her husband’s earlier indictments of her intellect, Eliza Hamilton proved to be quite the asset to his career. She helped him to write a number of important speeches, including George Washington’s farewell address.
Yet, their marriage remained troubled. Both suffered tremendous losses in their family, including the death of their firstborn, Phillip, who was killed in a duel while defending his father’s name in 1801. Ironically, Hamilton himself would die in the same fashion at the same location just three years later.
Then there was the matter of her husband’s philandering.
Alexander Hamilton was caught in the nation’s first political sex scandal when, in 1797, he was forced to publish the Reynolds Pamphlet, a 100-page account of his affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds.
Reynolds had conspired with her husband, James, to blackmail Hamilton throughout the affair for money. Embarrassed, Hamilton published the account in a bid to thwart the Reynolds’ plan, but it ended up humiliating Eliza Hamilton who consequently became a major target for sexist attacks from the press.
“Art thou a wife?” Wrote one newspaper. “See him, whom thou hast chosen for the partner of this life, lolling in the lap of a harlot!”
The press even launched rumors that Hamilton also had an affair with Schuyler Hamilton’s sister, Angelica Schuyler. In one letter to Eliza Hamilton, Angelica casually wrote that she loved him “very much and, if you were as generous as the old Romans, you would lend him to me for a little while.”
Then, in 1804, Hamilton was killed when Vice President Aaron Burr challenged him to a duel. The two men had long endured a bitter rivalry, but it came to a head that year when Burr heard Hamilton had insulted him at a dinner. When Hamilton refused to apologize, and instead printed all his insults in a newspaper, Burr challenged him to an old fashioned shootout.
On July 11, Burr shot Hamilton in the abdomen. He was brought back to his home where his wife and children could say goodbye. He died the following afternoon.
Elizabeth Hamilton’s Enduring Influence
Eliza Hamilton was left in a challenging position. Her husband had not been a wealthy man and his purchase of The Grange years before had left the family in deep debt.
Luckily, Hamilton’s father had left her a small inheritance that helped the mother of seven to keep the family afloat. Supporters and friends of her husband also raised money so the Hamilton brood could continue to live on the estate. One of her children remembered her at this time to be “a skillful house-wife, expert at making sweetmeats and pastry; she made the undergarments for her children, was a great economist and most excellent manager.”
Yet, Eliza Hamilton did not wallow in the hardships. She joined the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and petitioned Congress to allow her to take over her husband’s pension.
In 1806, along with several other local activists, she founded the New York Orphan Asylum Society, the first private orphanage in the city. She became its director in 1821 and remained involved until her old age. She would take in orphaned children herself, despite her constant economic struggles.
Alexander Hamilton’s wife also embarked on a campaign to preserve his legacy, recruiting biographers and assistants to archive and document his work. She did, for whatever reason, burn her husband’s love letters sometime before her death. She died at the age of 97 in 1854.
Meanwhile, the orphanage she founded continues to operate under the name Graham Windham and is the oldest non-sectarian child welfare organization in America.
Eliza Hamilton’s role as an unwavering supporter of her husband’s work and an advocate for child welfare was brought center-stage in the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton. She was portrayed by actress Phillipa Soo.
The musical received criticism from historians who argued that Hamilton’s reputation was whitewashed.
But the show did include, albeit with some dramatizations, Eliza Hamilton’s marital struggles with her husband. The musical hinted at a possible love affair between Hamilton’s sister and her husband as well as her burning of all his love letters. The musical also highlighted Eliza Hamilton’s philanthropic ventures following her husband’s death.
Actress Soo learned that a foundation Eliza Hamilton had started for child welfare in her lifetime was still around, and so the cast and crew of Hamilton fundraised for the organization in her honor. The cast also established The Eliza Project, a program that will bring the arts to children in Graham Windham’s care.
Now that you’ve learned about Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, read about how Edith Wilson, the wife of President Woodrow Wilson, took over his presidential duties after he suffered a stroke. Then, dive into the tragic story of Mary Todd Lincoln, history’s most misunderstood First Lady.