Hamilton the musical is the smash hit Broadway show you can’t get tickets to (or like mine, they’re for a year away). While seemingly about America’s Founding Fathers (complete with rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and ballads sung by George Washington about stepping down from office), the true hero is revealed in the final song. Surprisingly, it’s not the titular character or any of the legendary politicians; it’s Alexander’s wife, Eliza Hamilton, who’s the character we come away admiring the most.
The musical expounds on how young Eliza Schuyler met Alexander at a ball in 1780 and was immediately taken with him. With a little wingwomanship from her equally smitten sister, Angelica, Eliza and Alexander get married during the Revolutionary War. But as Angelica warns again and again, Hamilton will never be “satisfied,” and Eliza endures years of Hamilton leaving her for war, for George Washington, and for other political pursuits. After Alexander has America’s first political sex scandal—an affair that ends Hamilton’s political career—Eliza learns of it and banishes him to his office during one of the most memorable songs from the musical, “Burn.” Of course, divorce is not really an option during the era, but the song empowers Eliza’s historical silence, letting us believe that Eliza burned her letters to remove herself from this very public humiliation. The lyric that resonates throughout the song, “I thought you were mine,” shifts Eliza to the position of power in their relationship. She decides they’re done, and she decides to take him back after the death of their son, Phillip. Hamilton dies only few years later.
Both the musical written by (and starring) Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Hamilton biography that inspired it by Ron Chernow treat Eliza Hamilton with reverence (as does Phillipa Soo, who originated the role Off-Broadway). What do we know about the women who lived alongside the Founding Fathers? Not much. We know Martha Washington existed, Betsy Ross sewed the American Flag, and … well, that’s about all I remember from history class. With Hamilton, Miranda and Chernow both exemplify not only the misunderstood Founding Father, but show us that the women in our history are worthy of our admiration and honor.
Since Eliza got rid of her letters, we know little about her life during her marriage to Alexander, but her life after his death is why Chernow began and ended Hamilton’s bio with her. Her charitable deeds and her commitment to saving Alexander’s legacy, despite everything they went through, are what made Lin-Manuel Miranda end the musical with Eliza glowing in the spotlight.
Eliza preserved Alexander Hamilton’s memory after his political enemies spent years blasting him, including presenting proof after proof that Alexander penned George Washington’s Farewell Address.
She raised six children with the meager money and property Alexander left her.
She guilted James Madison enough that not only did he eventually give her land and 5 years’ worth of army pay, but he once came to her home and attempted a half-hearted apology. She rebuffed him.
Eliza started the New York Orphan Asylum Society to care for orphans like Hamilton. It still stands today as Graham Windham.
She began the Hamilton Free School, the first school in Washington Heights. Coincidentally, the same neighborhood that Lin-Manuel Miranda is from.
She and Dolley Madison raised money for the Washington Monument.
Like Hamilton, Eliza was a staunch abolitionist. She died only a decade before the beginnings of the Civil War.
She lived to see the first 13 presidents take office, the last of which, Millard Fillmore, visited her at her home before she died. She returned the favor at the White House a few months later, and when she did, “The first lady gave up her chair to her.” (Chernow)
While the men in Hamilton are prime examples of the seven deadly sins (Hamilton’s pride, Burr’s envy, I could go on), Eliza in particular is a showcase of the heavenly virtues. She was charitable, forgiving, and kind. The self-destruction of her letters represents a kind of humility, which is why historians struggle to know her. Yet, her diligence is why we know so much about Alexander Hamilton in the first place. It took Eliza and her children more time to sort through Alexander Hamilton’s thousands of pages of writing than the 49 years it took him to write them. Eliza’s legacy is one of selflessness—of her dedication to the survival and legacy of others.
While listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on eternal repeat, I realized that Eliza Hamilton is like the women in my own family. Women who took their husbands back after infidelity. Women who suffered tremendous losses in a short amount of time, just like Eliza. (Eliza’s sister Peggy, her son Philip, Alexander, and her father Philip Schuyler all died between 1801 and 1804. Angelica died 10 years later in 1814.) Women who lived decades in widowhood, taking care of children and grandchildren and building better lives for the future of their families. I’ve lived with an Eliza in my life, which makes me see why telling her story is so important.
Hamilton is about the men who built our nation, but it acknowledges the ways in which women were neglected by history and empowers them, too. It brings their stories and good deeds to the forefront. There are many ways in which women are heroes throughout history, from saving hundreds of orphaned children to simply being there for a sister when her husband cheats on her. Eliza Hamilton makes it clear that without women, even some of history’s smartest, most powerful, most talented men would be resting in obscurity. Without her, this amazing piece of art, this life-changing phenomenon couldn’t exist. And for that, she is the true hero of Hamilton.
Constance Gibbs has written for Hello Giggles, Black Girl Nerds, the Nerds of Color, and Girls in Capes. She loves TV, diversity, nerd things, and the internet. She probably has 27 tabs open right now, which is probably what it’s like to be in her brain. You can find her on Twitter, her blog (constarwrites.tv), or down in Hufflepuff house.
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