Thanks to the wildly successful Broadway musical “Hamilton,” more Americans have come to appreciate Alexander Hamilton and his crucial roles in the Revolution, in the adoption of our Constitution, and in the formation of a strong, financially viable early republic.
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda drew on Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography to present the remarkable, indeed almost unbelievable, story of the life of an out-of-wedlock child who moved from the Caribbean to New York just in time for the Revolution. Except for her role as the betrayed wife in Hamilton’s notorious affair with Maria Reynolds, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton gets relatively little attention in either the biography or the musical.
In “MY DEAR HAMILTON,” authors STEPHANIE DRAY and LAURA KAMOIE draw on what is known about the nearly centurylong life (1757-1854) of “Mrs. General Hamilton,” as she was known in her time, to present an engaging, plausible version of what might have been her side of the story.
I’d go so far as to say this book is everything a good historical novel should be. It’s consistent with the historical record, but the authors make skillful use of their literary licenses to fill gaps in that record. They also allow the lead character to tell her story using the values and assumptions shared by women of her time, status and political loyalties but in language quite accessible to today’s readers.
The character first introduced as Betsy — who later prefers the name Eliza — was born into a wealthy New York family of Dutch descent. In such families, women tended to be better educated and more involved in household finances than most in colonial America. But like most American women at the time, they bore many children. Both Betsy and her mother married around the age of 20 and continued having children into their mid-40s. Living in what was then a frontier region near Albany, Betsy would sometimes accompany her father to meetings with members of the nearby Iroquois Confederation. She was even adopted as an honorary member of the Oneida nation. Friends of Alexander and Eliza included Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution; the hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold; future presidents James Madison and James Monroe; Dolley Todd Madison; and even, for a time, the notorious Aaron Burr and his wife, Theodosia.
Much of the novel’s plot involves stories of why not all these friendships endured. Even Abraham Lincoln makes a cameo appearance at an event that we know both attended. We also learn how Eliza, who grew up in a slave-owning family, came to join Alexander in successfully working for the abolition of slavery in New York.
Even after his death, the real Eliza remained a strong anti-slavery advocate. She also worked tirelessly to promote free education for African Americans.
Along the way, the fictional Eliza contributes to the monumental collaboration between Hamilton and Madison on the Federalist Papers and even to George Washington’s famous Farewell Address, actually written by Alexander Hamilton. Again, in this work of fiction, Eliza’s role in these matters is purely speculative but certainly not implausible. As the authors explain in an afterword, some of Alexander’s important works are in her handwriting.
Most of the novel focuses on Elizabeth’s marriage to Alexander: “My husband. My hero. My betrayer.” We learn how she comes to terms with the memory of a loving, patriotic but also ambitious, arrogant, self-promoting man whose betrayals of her included not only the amply documented affair with Maria Reynolds but also fictional scandals based on hints in the historical record. Let’s just say that these hints help make the 620-page novel a surprisingly fast read.
I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about America’s formative years as experienced by women as well as men.
Paul Teverow, a retired Missouri Southern State University history professor, lives in Joplin.