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True Story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s Life and Death
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton may focus on its namesake founding father, but the hit musical also tells story of his wife, Eliza, played by Phillipa Soo in the original Broadway production now streaming on Disney Plus. Or part of her story, at least—after her husband’s death in 1804, Eliza lived another 50 years. During her decades as a widow, she founded New York’s first private orphanage, socialized with some of the most famous figures in American history, and worked to ensure that her husband and his contributions would never be forgotten. Here’s what you need to know about the real-life founding mother.
Elizabeth Hamilton was born into one of colonial New York’s leading families.
Elizabeth Schuyler was born in Albany in 1757, to a wealthy family that had social ties to prominent early Americans. She met Alexander Hamilton in 1780, when both were in their early 20s. (As the musical shows, Hamilton also got pretty flirty with Eliza’s vivacious older sister, Angelica. Her lines in the play, “I’m just sayin’, if you really loved me, you would share him,” are drawn from a letter the real Angelica wrote to Eliza, in which she joked, “I love him very much and if you were as generous as the Old Romans you would lend him to me for a while.”)
In 1780, Hamilton wrote Angelica a letter describing his infatuation with Eliza:
I have already confessed the influence your sister has gained over me; yet notwithstanding this, I have some things of a very serious and heinous nature to lay to her charge. She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty. Her good sense is destitute of that happy mixture of vanity and ostentation which would make it conspicuous to the whole tribe of fools and foplings as well as to men of understanding so that as the matter now stands it is ⟨very⟩ little known beyond the circle of these. She has good nature affability and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousiness 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.
Hamilton and Eliza married in 1870. The pair had eight children, and also took in Fanny Antill, the orphaned toddler daughter of a Revolutionary War colonel.
Schuyler sisters Peggy, Eliza, and Angelica in Hamilton.
Her family life was marred by scandal and tragedy.
Hamilton depicts the Reynolds Affair, one of the country’s earliest sex scandals. Hamilton met Maria Reynolds in Philadelphia in 1791, when she visited the then-Secretary of the Treasury to request financial support for her struggling family. When he visited the boarding house where she was staying to deliver the funds, Maria invited him to her room, where, as Hamilton would later write in his pamphlet about the affair, it became “apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would not be unacceptable.”
Maria’s husband, James Reynolds, caught wind of the affair, and began shaking Hamilton down for money. A pension scheme later landed him in prison for forgery, and when he sought Hamilton’s help, he was turned down. So James decided to take his story to Hamilton’s political rivals, and was paid a jail cell visit by none other than future president James Monroe. Reynolds spilled the beans about the affair, but also said that Hamilton had been involved in his pension scheme.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.
Hamilton insisted upon his innocence, and the matter was kept private for years. But Monroe had made copies of Hamilton’s letters to Maria, and sent them to his arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson. In 1796, Hamilton took aim at Jefferson in an essay that hinted at the sexual relationship Jefferson had with his slave, Sally Hemmings. The following year, Jefferson supporter James Callender published a pamphlet accusing Hamilton of having skeletons in his own closet.
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To clear his name in the more serious financial allegations, Hamilton released the Reynolds Pamphlet, in which he admitted to the affair but denied any criminal misdeeds. The scandal cost Hamilton any chance at the presidency, and the humiliating news became public when Eliza was pregnant with their sixth child.
In 1801, their eldest child, Phillip, died in a duel at at just 19-years-old. Hamilton followed three years later.
Eliza Hamilton was a socialite and philanthropist during her long widowhood.
In 1806, Eliza co-founded the Orphan Asylum Society, to aid children who were orphaned as her husband had been. The organization still exists today, as the children and families-supporting New York City non-profit Graham Windham.
The Schuyler sisters in Hamilton.
She also worked to support her husband’s legacy, disputing the claim that James Madison, not Hamilton, was the author of George Washington’s final Farewell Address, and by having his papers collected and edited. Ron Chernow said that her efforts to preserve Hamilton’s memory were important to his 2005 biography of the founder, especially as, with Hamilton’s Republican foes in power after his death, there wasn’t much in the way of public efforts to record his life.
Elizabeth spent her final years in New York and Washington D.C., where she socialized with leaders including Presidents Tyler, Polk, Pierce, and Fillmore. But she held onto her grudge against Monroe. When he paid her a visit decades after the Reynolds scandal, she refused to speak with him. She died in 1854, at the age of 97, one of the nation’s last remaining links to its founders. And yes, she really did burn her letters to her husband—but no one knows when or why.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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