Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Featured Manuscript: Eliza Hamilton’s Correspondence

Alexander Hamilton has been blowing up lately. The nation’s first Treasury Secretary and founder of the National Bank has been making headlines as debate continues over ​proposed changes to the ten dollar billand a hit musical based on his life debuts on Broadway.In keeping with the demands of popular culture, we’ve got a document written by his most trusted confidant and companion. Today’s featured manuscript is a letter written by Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, to their third son James.

A little background about Eliza Hamilton: She was born in Albany, New York in 1757, the second daughter of the affluent and well­to­do General Philip Schuyler. The fiercely independent Schuyler sisters were renowned for their intelligence, beauty, and charm throughout New York. Eliza (nicknamed Betsey) met the dashing young Alexander in 1777 while he served as aide­de­camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War and they were married in December of 1780 (fun fact: Eliza was the only one of her five sisters who did not elope). Together, the couple had 8 children and adopted one. Their marriage survived venomous party politics, the nation’s first sex scandal, and the death of their oldest child, but it was brought to a violent end when Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Left widowed and nearly destitute, Eliza raised 8 children and served on the boards of multiple charitable organizations, raised money with Dolly Madison to build the Washington Monument, and founded the first private orphanage in New York City. She died on November 9, 1854 at age 97, five months after the passage of the Kansas­Nebraska Act sparked separatism and violence in the country her husband had helped to build from the ground up.

Some of the grammatical errors in this letter made it a bit difficult to decode. Like most women of her time, Betsey Schuyler did not have access to formal education. Because of her aristocratic background she received private tutoring, but that luxury was not available to women of less wealthy families. (It’s worth noting that this woman was married to the economic mastermind of the early republic without a formal acquaintance with mathematics.) Betsey never let that hold her back from involvement in politics and society, however, because she attended private dinners at the White House until very late in her life as presidents continued to court the favor of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton.

Here are some photos of the letter and the envelope in which it was sent. Some parts are pretty tricky to read, so I’ve transcribed what I could below (and fixed some of the mechanics along the way):

New York October 24 1836

My beloved son,

How devotedly I, in my minds eye, followed the movements of the ships that contained the favorite son of my beloved departed Husband. how often must your mind [have] been roused to that great disposer of the Universe that was guarding you on your perilous voyage, could my wishes have wafted you [more] swiftly and smoothly than a Bird your passage would soon have terminated. I have greatly feared your delicate lungs would suffer from sea sickness. Let me hear particularly from you and all about my daughter and her children.

Should the weather be favourable, I wish to go(?) to Nevis, your road to the River will always remain the same and as your farmer may find time to put the side of the road next the fence in order so as to have early planting to ornament it, this Hobby of yours I feel desirous of cherishing more than (?), my Alexander must make drawings of every thing that may qualify (?) the House and ground.

I hope you will have time to examine the police of London, something may be observed beneficial to that of this city. My grand Daughters frequently visit me, the Mother of their departed father claims a closer Union. They are both in good Health, Fanny has become a teacher in Mr (?)’s Sunday school, very gratifying to Mrs Sullivan. A great talk to get General Harrison the Presidency, these garing elections, I fear will cause a tottering to our Constitution, have in seen the [unique] labour of your father In it, perhaps I feel more than any one [else]. Your Brothers are all well, Eliza requests (document is damaged)

wishes In you and all with you, may the Almighty son (?) guard and keep you prays your affectionate Mother

Elizabeth Hamilton

The above is my beloved mother’s

and a letter in her hand writing    

James A Hamilton

April 12 1869

Below her signature we can see she attached a lock of hair and a wax seal to the letter. There’s something written below it, which my grandma promptly deciphered (thanks grandma):

We also have a picture of the envelope the letter came in:

The "envelope" is the back page of the folded pages.

Just from looking at the envelope, we can tell Eliza had some trouble sending this letter. Part of the recipient’s address is crossed out, and it looks like the correspondence was originally sent to Paris, only to be redirected to Marseilles, as evidenced by the French writing below the original address (“aux soins de” means “care of”). There are also three postal marks instead of one, so this letter probably made a pretty rocky journey to reach James Hamilton. The stamp at the very top is also dated December 21st, 1836, and is marked “London”, meaning this letter took almost two months to cross the ocean­ and still had a ways to go.

The content of the letter at first does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary. Eliza writes as an aged matriarch concerned for the health of her “departed Husband[‘s]...favorite son”. She’s worried about James’ “delicate lungs” which, knowing her late husband, doesn’t come as a surprise. Throughout his life, Alexander Hamilton was prone to disease and took great precautions to avoid testing his weak immune system. It appears that James Hamilton, much like his father, was highly susceptible to illness and injury. She also writes about her grandchildren, James’ son Alexander and daughters Eliza and Fanny. We can tell that Alexander is an artist and a keen observer and Fanny has recently become a schoolteacher. Sadly, some damage to the otherwise well­preserved document prevents us from knowing what “Eliza request[ed]”, but it’s a safe bet that she asks either for a souvenir or her father’s safe return home.

What makes this letter so unusual is that it provides an incredibly unique perspective into the psychology of the pre­Civil War era. Eliza briefly mentions “a great talk to get General Harrison the Presidency”, hinting at her involvement in politics which continued thirty years after her husband’s death, and shows that her interest in current affairs did not arise out of necessity. As a staunch abolitionist, it’s no surprise that Eliza would have opposed the Democratic candidate (Harrison would have actually lost the election by the time this letter reached James. It’s okay though, he was elected in 1840, holding office for all of 32 days before dying of pneumonia). She also conveys fear for the future if acidulous party politics continue to undermine national unity; in this way, Betsey Hamilton’s views mirror those of her late husband. Hamilton, like Washington, valued the union above all else and believed it was the job of the executive branch to preserve it at all cost. It would be six years after her death until Abraham Lincoln would take the same approach to executive responsibility. With sectionalism quickly taking hold of Congress, it is easy to imagine Betsey’s mounting anxiety that the country would fall to pieces less than 50 years after its inception.

In spite of the hardships of life as a single mother of eight and fear for the future of her country, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was an incredibly strong woman who loved her family more than anything. If this letter shows anything, it’s that Alexander is not the only Hamilton who lived a life of enduring relevance.

This blog post by rising
West Morris Mendham senior, 
Sami Heyman, 17. 

1 comment:

  1. In the midst of my Hamilton kick and Internet quest for letters by Eliza, I'm overjoyed to have stumbled on this amazing post. I wonder which of her children had multiple daughters, one named Fanny, who frequently visited her. I guess it would have to be a girl, thus Eliza the Younger, because "the mother of their departed father" is apparently someone other than the writer? Someone kind of unpleasant, if I'm understanding "claims a closer union" correctly.