McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Women Who Should Be Pretty Pissed Off: Eliza Hamilton Was Not Helpless.
Elizabeth (“Eliza”) Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854) was not like most of us. She’s not pissed about things that would upset regular people. For example, she’s not mad that there is an entire hit musical, no, phenomenon, no, something so big there isn’t even a word for it yet, about her husband.
Hamilton: An American Musical does not piss Eliza Hamilton off, though others have complained that Eliza does not get the attention in the show that she deserves. In fact, I think Eliza would be thrilled with the way that Lin-Manuel Miranda has finally brought Alexander Hamilton the acclaim that Eliza always felt her husband deserved. Whether the show makes you think that Hamilton was a genius or a pain in the ass (both are true), once you’ve seen it or listened to the music you at least know who he was and some of what he did.
And a lot of the credit for that, by the way, goes to Eliza. She lived fifty years longer than Alexander, but she never remarried, and spent most of her time preserving his legacy. If Alexander was a bit manic, Eliza was a steady force, pushing past people who tried to dismiss or ignore Alexander’s accomplishments.
My favorite is the story of former president James Monroe visiting Eliza to make amends for his role in revealing Alexander’s sex scandal, and she had no time for it. She asked him to leave. A former president and his intimidating security detail came to her home with a peace offering and she told him off, you guys. Eliza Hamilton would not be intimidated or appeased. (See Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, for details of this juicy story.)
Some call Eliza weak for defending her husband even after his death when, of all people in the world, she had greatest cause to be angry beyond repair. But defending Alexander and being deeply angry with or hurt by him were not mutually exclusive for Eliza.
In my mind, her grudge against Monroe highlights her strength. Of course she was shattered by Alexander’s infidelity. Of course it damaged their marriage. But she made a decision to stick with him and whatever you think of that, you have to admire the fact that her support for Alexander didn’t waver. In fact, it seemed to grow. (You thought I was going to say “burn,” didn’t you?)
Eliza was too busy to deal with former presidents, anyway. She raised funds to build the Washington Monument, she interviewed soldiers who’d fought with her husband, she collected Alexander’s writings for a biography she never got to see published, she sent necessities to refugee families, she fought for the army pay that Alexander had himself refused, and she opened and helped run an orphanage.
Oh, and let’s not forget those eight kids she was raising. Her youngest was only two years old when Alexander died.
All of this leads me to a question that I’ve heard people ask. Was Eliza too good?
For religious and societal reasons, it was important to Eliza to be good, but she was not content to be ignored. She could insert herself into situations because she sought recognition not for herself, but for her late husband. That is bad ass, people. You want to ignore me? Okay. You want to require women to be labeled either sluts or angels? That’s fine. My papers are orderly. Now watch me raise a man from attempted obscurity and basically run the world at the same time.
You heard me. Eliza’s soundtrack includes Beyoncé, and that should not surprise anyone. Miranda gave Eliza an entire song called “Helpless,” perhaps to illustrate that in most ways she was far from it. Nicely played, Irony.
A better question than “Was Eliza too good?” is, “Does the same thing happen to men?” Women are often dismissed for being “too good,” which usually means chaste, submissive, and largely silent. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t interrupt. Don’t assert your presence or authority. While these adages are finally (and ever so slowly) changing, they are still more true for women than they are for men.
But it’s a paradox, isn’t it? Women are expected to be good, shamed for being anything less, but also disregarded for it because being good is simply the expectation. I think Eliza would be pissed about that. But again, she was probably too busy and eventually, too heartbroken, to worry about it.
Eliza was pregnant nine times between 1781 and 1802, and lost one child to miscarriage. She was 3 months pregnant as she laid next to her nineteen-year-old firstborn son, Philip, and watched him die of a gunshot wound.
Try to take that in and imagine what it would be like.
You know she was pissed off about that.
Eliza weathered Alexander’s infidelity and the shockingly public scandal surrounding it. She survived a miscarriage, her daughter’s mental health issues, and, within four years, the deaths of her son, husband, sister, mother, and father. Two of those deaths could have been quite easily avoided if the male culture had been less prone to duels.
“Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?”
“Sure. But your man has to answer for his words.”
Alexander Hamilton was in general against revenge and bad blood, and yet he not only counseled his nineteen-year-old son before Philip died in a duel, but was of course himself killed in one of the most famous duels in American history, just two years after (and in the same place) his son died.
See how that happens? This piece took a quick turn and began to focus on Alexander. It’s a trick of history, focusing on white men as though they’re the only ones in the room where it happens. Eliza played that trick against itself, making sure that history had its eyes on her husband, but at the same time establishing herself as the core of that history.
Who, after all, would Alexander Hamilton have been, how would he be remembered, without Eliza?