“For Eliza Hamilton, the collapse of her world was total, overwhelming, and remorseless. Within three years, she had had to cope with four close deaths: her eldest son, her sister Peggy, her mother, and her husband, not to mention the mental breakdown of her eldest daughter.”
So begins the epilogue to Ron Chernow’s sweeping and masterful biography of Alexander Hamilton. The first five years of the 19th century were hard for the wife of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary. But her life was far from over, and the strength she displayed after the sudden death of Alexander more than matched that of her first forty-seven years.
She worked hard to preserve her husband’s legacy, particularly as the Federalist party faded from prominence and then disappeared altogether in the 1820s. She gathered his notes and questioned his contemporaries extensively in an effort to keep his achievements alive. When no one stepped forward to write a biography, she tapped her son John Church Hamilton to perform the arduous task.
She possessed a deep well of forgiveness for her husband’s disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds, but much less so for James Monroe, whom she blamed for leaking the story. Thirty years after the fact, the former President paid her a visit, hoping that time had taken away the sting of her hurts. Her cool response was, “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”
But this devoutly religious widow did more than protect Alexander’s legacy. She spent much time serving orphans and widows herself, cofounding (in 1806) the first private orphanage in New York, where for many years she was one of its directors. She worked tirelessly to keep the orphanage funded and keep the financial records straight (a talent she may have learned from Alexander?).
Much of this good work was done while she had little means of support herself. Alexander had died with a sizeable debt, which flew in the face of Anti-federalist accusations that he “stole from the government coffers” and had secret British-funded bank accounts. In fact, as a veteran of the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton had refused not only the pension to which he was entitled as an officer, but also the parcels of land promised to officers. He did this because, as a member of Congress, he wanted no one to accuse him of bias when he addressed the issue of veterans’ compensation. Following his death, Eliza had received these allocations from President Madison as back payments.
She finally left the Grange and settled with her now-widowed daughter in Washington, D.C. At 91, she still remained lucid and full of life. She worked with Dolley Madison to raise money for construction of the Washington Monument, and enjoyed the company of many who stopped at her parlor to marvel at one of the last remaining witnesses to the American Revolution.
She kept her wits until the end, along with her strong faith and her love and devotion to Alexander. And on November 9, 1854, this 97-year old wonder entered her eternal rest, as the nation her husband worked so hard to bring together catapulted itself toward fracture and destruction.
Eliza was laid to rest next to Alexander, who had departed more than a half century before.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton