Note: these answers have been transcribed from a 2018 podcast interview with Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow and edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full interview here:
Q: Can you introduce us to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton?
A: At the time that I published my biography of Hamilton in 2004, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was a complete blank in the American imagination. Americans knew a lot about Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife), a lot about Dolly Madison (James Madison’s widow), and a lot about Abigail Adams (John Adams’ wife). But they knew nothing, and I mean literally nothing, about Eliza Hamilton. One of the things that most pleased me about both the book and the show is that we really put her on the map. Now she is like everyone’s founding mother, which is really great.
Until Chernow’s biography, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was “a complete blank in the American imagination”. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
The reason that we didn’t know about Eliza is because she was an extremely humble, self-effacing and devout woman, who always felt that her husband’s career was the important one. I discovered that she lived for 50 years after her husband died. That’s reflected in a beautiful rhymed couplet in the show; she comes out in the final scene and says: “I stop wasting time and tears, I live another 50 years.” During these years (she lived almost up until the Civil War era), she established the first private orphanage in New York City, partly because her husband had been an orphan. She brought up hundreds of orphans and turned out to be this remarkably wonderful selfless, strong-willed woman.
She undoubtedly had to put up with a lot, what with her husband’s involvement in a notorious sex scandal. But she was very loving and forgiving, and in all the letters she wrote after he died, she referred to him as her “sainted husband”. So, she was willing to forgive his excesses.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. “She was very loving and forgiving,” says Chernow. (Image: Disney+)
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Q: What can you tell us about Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with Eliza’s elder sister, Angelica Schuyler?
A: Now, [Alexander, Angelica and Eliza] had a sort of ménage à trois – which would not be quite the right expression for it – but everyone noticed that Hamilton was no less fascinated by his sister-in-law Angelica, than by Eliza. In the show, when Hamilton meets Angelica, she’s still single, which makes it more interesting. In reality when they met, Angelica was already married, so almost by default Hamilton was going to end up with Eliza.
But everyone noticed that there was an unusual mutual fascination between Alexander and Angelica. Eliza was not jealous; in fact, she was very proud of this. She and Hamilton would write letters together to Angelica. Angelica had married a man named John Barker Church who was both very fat and very rich, and Eliza felt very proud that she had married ‘Prince Charming’.
A portrait of Angelica Barker Church with her son and a servant. (Image by Alamy)
Eliza did have some strong political feelings, but Angelica was someone who loved the company of powerful men and loved to discuss politics and books; she was much more emancipated in that way. And so she was very involved in Hamilton’s career, advising him and kind of vicariously living through him. I think that if Angelica had been single at the time that Hamilton met the Schuyler sisters, there’s a good chance he would have married her instead. Angelica was more intellectual and, from the pictures, probably more alluring than Eliza was.
I do think that Hamilton adored his wife. But as Angelica sings in the musical, she knew right away that Hamilton was the kind of guy with a roving eye who would never be satisfied, and boy, she was right about that.
Q: Aside from these two very significant relationships with the Schuyler sisters, Hamilton was obviously a very amorous figure. What happened in what you call America’s first great sex scandal, and how did Hamilton react to it?
A: Yes, Hamilton was called ‘the amorous Treasury Secretary’. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] didn’t include that in the final show, though at one point it did appear. I’m sure he’s the only treasury secretary in American history to be known as that!
This episode happened in 1790, at the height of Hamilton’s powers as treasury secretary. Hamilton was not only the most powerful person in the government, he was also the most controversial, which meant that there were a lot of political enemies who were waiting to pounce on him if he did something wrong.
He was home alone when there was a knock on the door, where there was a very beautiful young woman named Maria Reynolds. She spelled out a lovelorn tale about how she had been abandoned by her husband, James Reynolds, and asked Hamilton for financial help. Amazingly enough, Hamilton asked where she was living, and she told him a boarding house two or three blocks away. That night he slipped out and went to the boarding house. He said that when he got there, Mrs Reynolds was standing at the top of the stairway, that when he went up the stairs, Mrs Reynolds made it clear that “other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable”. Then they went into the bedroom and this affair started.
Jasmine Cephas Jones as Maria Reynolds in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’. (Image by Disney+)
The affair went on for a year. But maybe a month after it started, who appeared but Mr James Reynolds, who confronted Hamilton. Reynolds didn’t want to stop the affair; all he wanted was to blackmail Hamilton, which he did, and Hamilton began paying him money.
Now, this was completely crazy on Hamilton’s part. Again, he was the most powerful man in the government; he had all these enemies who were looking for something to pounce on; and he was paying money to this lowlife. He was very lucky; there was a moment where three of his Jeffersonian opponents had heard that he was paying money to Mr James Reynolds. But what they’d heard, which was incorrect, was that he was paying the money because they were illegally speculating on Treasury securities together. The three Jeffersonians in the show are Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Aaron Burr. In reality, it was a different three men who confronted him. Hamilton said, “Oh no, you’ve completely misunderstood, I was paying him the money for the favour of his wife’s company.” So, they said “oh we’re so sorry to bother you”. That was considered a good enough explanation.
DID YOU KNOW The long feud between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began in the 1790s, when the former was President George Washington’s secretary of state, and the latter his treasury secretary.
Read more about the Jefferson-Hamilton feud
It was not until about five or six years later that a pamphlet was published by a man named James T Callender, who was close to the Jeffersonians. He repeated the error that Hamilton was paying James Reynolds because of illicit treasury speculation. Hamilton then made this bizarre decision that he was going to not only refute this, but refute it at excruciating length. He published a 95-page pamphlet [commonly known as the ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’] in which he not only retold the whole story in great detail, but reproduced his correspondence with Mrs Reynolds, including all sorts of crazy love letters.
Hamilton published a 95-page pamphlet in which he detailed his affair with Maria Reynolds. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Why did he do that? Hamilton felt that in order to clear his public name, he had to sully his private name. But even Hamilton’s closest friends and greatest admirers thought that a delicately-worded paragraph or two would have done the trick. They couldn’t figure out why he needed to publish a 95-page pamphlet.
Of course, there was nothing that could have been more humiliating for his wife or his family. It was almost like a short novel. Writing projects with Hamilton tended to take on a life of their own; once he started writing he couldn’t stop. And so, I think as much as the scandal itself, his response to it – this kind of excessive verbiage that he devoted to it – really called his judgement into question. Why on earth would he have done this? Like a lot of brilliant people, Hamilton had some real blind spots because he thought he was writing a great pamphlet that would clear him forever. But when it came out it had exactly the opposite effect that he had intended, and pretty much guaranteed that Hamilton would never be president.
Ron Chernow was speaking to Elinor Evans on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. Listen to the full interview here. Hamilton (2004) by Ron Chernow is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.