Giving Eliza Hamilton the Chill Legacy the Musical Denied Her
Where "Hamilton" tossed Eliza's story aside in favor of her sister, "I, Eliza Hamilton" offers a rare glimpse of Eliza's impact on her husband and in turn, American history.
Photo by Walter McBride via Getty Images
I’ve listened to the soundtrack to Hamilton pretty much everywhere at this point: on subways, on planes, in the car, and even while I was (legally, medically) blasted on ketamine (fun story—I thought I’d traveled in time and was stuck in the 1700s). I rarely listen to the album straight through, but recently, I was able to hear the entire thing. When I reached "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story," the last song of the show that describes some of what Eliza Hamilton did following her husband Alexander's death, I found myself choked up and felt tears forming in my eyes. It's not only the pitch-perfect melody or actress Philippa Soo's beautiful voice that brought me to tears—it's also the fact that Eliza was an extraordinary person with great accomplishments, especially for a woman of her time.
As the song accurately tells us, she helped found the first private orphanage in New York, organized Hamilton’s papers and preserved his prolific legacy, and helped raise funds for the Washington Monument when she was in her 90s. I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott (released September 26 by Kensington Books) takes readers through the same period of time as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical: from shortly before Eliza and Alexander meet, and up to Alexander's death. But instead of seeing this time from Alexander’s point of view as we do in the musical, Eliza’s narrative is privileged, offering a rare glimpse into her mind and showing us the impact she had on her husband as a partner and helpmate.
One of the moments in the book that stood out most was a conversation that Eliza has with her aunt Gertrude about Alexander’s "whoring" in the military camp. Both women accept Alexander’s sleeping around without question, only discussing that Eliza must be different than the other women he’s pursued. "The era surrounding the American Revolution was far from prim and proper about sex," Susan Holloway Scott told Broadly. "War—specifically a lengthy, violent civil war—made life unpredictable, and tempted people to grab pleasure while they could. Traditional Christian morality regarding sex outside of marriage may have been preached, but it wasn’t necessarily practiced."
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She clarified that Alexander’s "whoring" was not likely connected to sex workers because George Washington believed them to be distracting and subject to disease, but rather with women who lived and worked in the camp, like laundresses, nurses, and soldiers’ wives. "Some were women of good families like Eliza, who hoped to find a husband, but others were simply there to enjoy themselves: more women who liked to party," Scott explained. This is just one example of how Scott, who also co-authors Two Nerdy History Girls, does historical fiction well: she doesn’t render her characters with anachronistic viewpoints, but also doesn’t dumb them down. She also brings us inside small moments of possibility that no historian could ever prove, while teaching us more about the American Revolution.
Of course, there’s a lot in the novel that’s fictional, based on speculation and imagination more than fact. "Just to put this up front," Scott reminded me, "all fictionalized history—whether in a musical like Hamilton or a novel like mine—uses historical fact as a framework, but the characters and the story always come first." Indeed, much of Eliza’s history is still unknown because her papers were apparently destroyed at some point during her life. This is one of places where Hamilton and I, Eliza Hamilton diverge.
Miranda imagines Eliza burning all of her own letters in the song "Burn," which is, in its way, a kind of sick burn to historians, and now a mass general audience, who are curious about her. Scott, on the other hand, doesn’t include this in her book, and said, "I don’t believe she destroyed her letters after the revelations of the Reynolds pamphlet; I suspect instead that her letters were destroyed much later by her son, John Church Hamilton, as being too intimate, too revealing, to fit his own idea of his by-then long-widowed mother. In the process of editing his father’s papers and writing the ‘official’ biography, John Church was guilty of over-editing and bowdlerizing, and my guess is that he chose to wipe the slate clean where his mother was concerned—probably with her blessing, too."
Scott also spends much more time examining Eliza as a wife and partner to Alexander Hamilton. In the musical, Eliza is present only as a person who falls for Alexander and worries about him working too hard—she’s never seen as a helpmate or part of his life in a productive way.
But Scott explores the ways Eliza listened to her husband and learned from him. When Alexander recommended books to her, Eliza read them, despite not being naturally inclined towards intellectual pursuits like her sister Angelica. Alexander talked to his wife and wrote to her constantly so that she was aware of his financial and political plans and ideas, and supported him both intellectually and emotionally. Eliza helped him revise and write the very letters and essays she later organized for perpetuity, took dictation from him, and even took over his correspondence entirely when necessary.
Additionally, Scott explained, the pair "seemed to have blurred some...traditional lines within their marriage," with Alexander taking an active role in "women’s spheres" likes child care. "He took an unusually active, hands-on role in childrearing," Scott said, "including nursing children when they were ill, and was equally adept at running the house and overseeing the children’s routine while Eliza was called away to her parents in Albany." In contrast, Alexander's devotion to his children is contained in the songs "Dear Theodosia" and "Stay Alive (Reprise)," leaving his family largely in the background.
This isn’t to say that Eliza Hamilton was a modern or feminist woman in the ways that we define these terms today, and Scott doesn’t fall into the trap of modernizing her. "Avoiding anachronisms is one of the greatest challenges of writing historical fiction," she explained. "We’re all unavoidably products of our own times—but I tried to write Eliza as the 18th century woman, wife, and mother that she was, rather than making her fit modern expectations."
Indeed, the novel benefits from honest depictions of misogyny, when Scott trusts readers to have an appropriately complex reaction to a complex history. The musical Hamilton, on the other hand, is full of anachronisms and untruths—Angelica did not introduce Eliza to Alexander, nor did she have a secret romance with Alexander. It’s blurring all sorts of fiction and truth, past and present, but it doesn't go far enough with Eliza Hamilton nee Schuyler, instead giving the more dominant and modern position to her sister Angelica, who wants Thomas Jefferson to "include women in the sequel" of the Declaration of Independence.
I, Eliza Hamilton, is a corrective to Eliza’s story in the musical, setting the record straight and reminding audiences that it wasn’t Angelica who helped create the Washington Monument; it wasn’t Angelica who created and helped take care of hundreds of orphaned children; and it wasn’t Angelica who worked hard to preserve her husband’s legacy. It was Eliza Hamilton who did all these things, and Scott’s book gives a compelling, nuanced, and beautiful look at her untold story.