Friday, October 4, 2013

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854), wife of Alexander Hamilton

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854), wife of Alexander Hamilton, was born in Albany, N.Y., the 2nd daughter & 2nd of some 14 children of Philip John Schuyler & Catherine van Rensselaer. Her father, a member of the 4th generation of the Schuyler family in America, was a well-to-do landowner & entrepreneur who was prominent in New York state politics & served as a major general during the American Revolution. 

Schuyler Mansion in Albany, NY  The Schuyler Mansion is a historic house, right in the heart of Albany, NY, and was once the home of General Philip Schuyler. Philip Schuyler was from a very influential Dutch family. He became the father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was married in the Mansion (it was called “The Pasture” by General Schuyler) and spent a few years there, while he served in the New York legislature.  The Georgian style structure, constructed 1761-1765, was built on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, and was originally situated on an 80-acre tract of land that included an orchard, formal garden, and a large working farm. Throughout the Schuyler family occupancy from 1763 to 1804, the mansion was the site of military strategizing, political hobnobbing, elegant social affairs, and active family life. The wedding of daughter Elizabeth Schuyler to Alexander Hamilton took place in the house in 1780.

Elizabeth’s formative years were spent in Albany, still a frontier town. Her upbringing was typical of that of most young girls of wealthy and socially prominent families at that time. Tutored informally at home, she had only rudimentary schooling. A close friend descried her at about the age of 16 as a “Brunette with…dark lovely eyes” & “the finest tempered girl in the world.”

Detail of Schuyler's property in 1794. Detail of Schuyler's property in 1794. The orchards, fences, and formal garden depicted here were developed during Elizabeth Schuyler's childhood. Detail taken from Simeon DeWitt's "Plan of the City of Albany," 1794.

While visiting an aunt, Mrs. John Cochran, in Morristown, N.J., during the winter of 1779-80, Elizabeth Schuyler met Alexander Hamilton, then an aide-de-camp to General Washington, & after a brief courtship the couple were engaged.

The Schuyler-Hamilton House, 5 Olyphant Place, Morristown, NJ The Schuyler-Hamilton House was the colonial home of Dr Jabez Campfield, Revolutionary War doctor who, with his wife Sarah Ward, moved from his native Newark to Morristown in 1765, when he purchased this house.  It had been enlarged by 1779, when he lent the property to General Washington's personal physician, Dr John Cochran.  Mrs Cochran was the sister of Mrs Elizabeth Schuyler, wife of General Philip Schuyler of Albany, New York, all of whom, with children & servants, were billeted in this house at periods during 1779-1780.  It was here that Alexander Hamilton, General Washington's Aide de Camp, paid court to Betsy Schulyer during that winter.  They later married in Albany.

Although Hamilton, indigent & illegitimate & a recent immigrant from the West Indies, may have appeared an unlikely match for the daughter of one of New York’s most distinguished families, General Schuyler (who later that winter came to Morristown as military adviser to General Washington) respected the young man’s brilliance & energy & heartily approved the marriage, which took place in Albany at the Schuyler mansion on Dec. 14, 1780. Over the next 22 years the Hamiltons had 8 children: Philip (1782), Angelica (1784), Alexander (1786), James Alexander (1788), John Church (1792), William Stephen (1797), Eliza (1799), & Philip (1802).

1787 Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Mrs. Alexander Hamilton. Elizabeth Schuyler 1757-1854

In 1782, Hamilton resigned from the army, qualified for the bar, & for the next 7 years he & his wife lived in either Albany or New York City. With his appointment in 1789 as the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, Mrs. Hamilton became a prominent member of the small but select social circle which centered around the important officials of the new government, located first in New York then in Philadelphia. Hamilton resigned from President Washington’s cabinet in 1795, and resumed the practice of law in New York City. There the couple lived until 1802, when they moved to a country house in northern Manhattan called The Grange after Hamilton’s ancestral home in Scotland.

Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757-1804) by John Trumbull 1806

On July 12, 1804, less than 3 years after Elizabeth Hamilton’s oldest son had been killed in a duel, her husband was mortally wounded in his famous duel with Aaron Burr. Although he was at the time of his death the most prominent lawyer in New York, Hamilton’s years in public service on a slender salary had depleted his means, & he left his large family virtually impoverished. Hamilton also had secretly paid monies to the husband of the woman he was having an affair with during the 1790s.   Mrs. Hamilton received urgently needed support from property willed to her by her father, who died on Nov. 18, 1804; from Pennsylvania lands given to her by Timothy Pickering, a close friend & admirer of Hamilton’s; & from a select number of friends who provided her with funds with which to repurchase The Grange, which had been sold at public auction.

Despite her meager resources, she managed with the aid of friends, to provide an education for her sons, 3 of whom graduated from Columbia College & were admitted to the bar. But her consuming interest was her husband’s reputation, which she defended & sought to embellish for the remaining 50 hears of her life.  She carefully preserved every available scrap of his writing, but not a single letter which she wrote to him has survived. Perhaps her husband's very public infidelity had a part in her destroying the letters between them.

With the help of her son James, she worked tirelessly to collect Hamilton’s papers for publication. Particularly intent on demonstrating his major contribution to George Washington’s Farwell Address, she successfully instituted legal proceedings against the federal government to recover Hamilton’s drafts of that famous state paper. To edit his writings she solicited candidate after candidate, some of whom declined & some of whom were unable to share her commitment to Hamilton’s towering greatness. In John Church Hamilton, her 5th child, she finally found an author.  Over a period of 30 years John Church published a shelf-full of books on his father’s life, including a 7-volume biography & a 7-volume edition of Hamilton’s works.

In the years of her widowhood, Elizabeth Hamilton also took active part in the charitable work of Joana Graham Bethune & other New York women. When the New York Orphan Asylum Society was organized in 1806, Mrs. Hamilton became “Second Directress” (vice-president). In 1821, she became First Directress, or president, a post she retained until 1849, when she moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her widowed daughter Eliza Hamilton Holly. Living on to the age of 97, she died in Washington in 1854. She was buried next to her husband at Trinity churchyard in New York City.

This posting based in part on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971