By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Kindle edition, 2018
Alexander Hamilton is having a moment. A very long one, if the success of the musical of the same name is anything to go by. And Hamilton gets by far the biggest billing as one of the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia’s new, magnificent Museum of the American Revolution.
But what of the woman who married him?
In this engrossing novel, Dray and Kamoie bring Elizabeth Schuyler to life as a first person narrator. I relished the wonderfully detailed descriptions of everyday life in the New Netherlandish home of General Schuyler and his family, and then, in the home that Eliza (also known as Betsy) and Alexander make for themselves after their 1780 marriage. Despite being raised in wealth and comfort Elizabeth is no brainless belle. She knows the war and its stakes intimately from her childhood and is fully committed to the cause.
The Revolutionary War drags on and on. It is almost lost, time and again. Even after the bloodshed is over, the union is fragile. The authors bring this point home vividly. The relationships between the Washingtons and the Hamiltons, and between them and other figures such as Lafayette, Jefferson, and Madison are complicated and convincingly told.
This is a long book, covering Elizabeth’s life from her coming of age until her eighties. She lived until she was ninety-seven. She was married to Alexander Hamilton for twenty-four years until his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. These tumultuous years included Hamilton’s involvement in factions and feuds between the Founding Fathers, with the new Republic threatening to break apart several times, and his passionate, even desperate, work to create the foundational
infrastructure to make it viable. Hamilton was involved in so much that the authors have to compress many details, as they tell us in the afterword. His brilliance is palpable, however, in the telling of the story. As is his egotism and occasional recklessness.
For Betsy, these twenty-four years included the birth of eight children and one miscarriage. The story of their marriage is the heart of the book. Elizabeth’s reaction as the humiliated wife of a politician whose extra-marital affair was made public is poignantly told. Yet for Hamilton, raised as an orphan, family was as important as it was to Elizabeth. In an age when childhood deaths were commonplace, the fact that the Hamilton kids all survived to adulthood is a testament to the capability of their mother. But she was also more than a wife and mother. We see Betsy reflecting uncomfortably on the fact that slavery was endemic in her society, and her horror at the conditions under which the Revolutionary War’s ordinary soldiers suffered and the brutal treatment of deserters and mutineers. Her charity work on behalf of widows and orphans was prodigious.
The evidence shows that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her husband’s equal partner as much as it was possible to be, even helping him draft some of his writings. She knew from her earliest years the most famous men of the age, and evidence also shows they regarded her with respect. Hamilton’s complicated and ultimately unknowable emotional life as discovered by his wife after his death deals her a blow as great as the death itself. How she lived her long life after being widowed at forty -six demonstrates her strength of character.
The afterword of this book explains the depth of research undertaken by the authors, and their access to the trove of correspondence that survives, much of it due to the efforts of Elizabeth Hamilton herself, who searched for years to obtain it. The effort she put into this (much of the correspondence was hidden for political and personal reasons) shows, the authors surmise, not only that his widow wanted to make the world understand her husband’s greatness, but also that she herself wanted truly to know and understand him.