philanthropist

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (also known as “Eliza” or “Betsey”.) has been called one of the ‘Founding Philanthropists’ for being the co-founder and deputy director of the first orphanage in New York City. She was the wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton was born in 1757 in Albany, New York to Philip Schuyler, an American Revolutionary War general, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. The Schuyler family were one of the richest and most political families in the state of New York, and as was common at the time, Hamilton was educated at the family’s grand mansion in Albany. The Schuyler family split their time between their Albany mansion and their summer home at Old Saratoga.

In February 1780, the then Elizabeth Schuyler was introduced to Alexander Hamilton at George Washington’s headquarters. The pair had met a year before, but in being reintroduced Alexander Hamilton became besotted with her, writing her poetic letters that included phrases like “I meet you in every dream and when I wake I cannot close my eyes for ruminating on your sweetness.” He also wrote about her to a friend, stating that “Though not a genius, she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes, is rather handsome, and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy.” In December that year, the pair were married at the Schuyler Mansion, to the delight of Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents who believed that Alexander Hamilton was a young political genius and would go far. Elizabeth Hamilton wrote that the marriage made her “the happiest of women. My dear Hamilton is fonder of me every day.”

In 1782, the Hamilton’s welcomed their first child, Philip and after the end of the Revolutionary War, her husband left the army to study law before opening his own law practice in New York. A year later, he founded the Bank of New York, which is now the oldest ongoing banking organisation in the United States. Over the next two decades, the Hamiltons had seven more children and also raised the orphaned daughter of a friend. Elizabeth Hamilton was a firm but affectionate mother, and ensured their children had a religious upbringing. She ran the household so efficiently that an associate told her husband that has as much merit as your treasurer as you have as treasurer of the wealth of the United States.“ The Hamilton’s were incredibly close, and Alexander asked his wife for advice on political matters throughout their relationship.

Due to Hamilton’s busy lifestyle, the couple spent many months apart, during which Alexander Hamilton committed adultery. In 1791, he began an affair with Maria Reynolds whose husband, James then blackmailed Hamilton for almost $1,000 in exchange for his silence. The affair was exposed after James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, hoping to use his knowledge of the affair in exchange for his freedom, he contacted several prominent members of Hamilton’s opposition party, the Democratic-Republican Party, including James Monroe and Aaron Burr stating that he could expose a top level official for corruption. Hamilton was forced to admit to the affair and in 1797, a journalist published the story in what may have been the first sex scandal of the country. Hamilton responded by printing his own 95-page pamphlet called Observations on Certain Documents, denying corruption but admitting to and apologising for his infidelity. The scandal humiliated Elizabeth Hamilton, who was forced to learn all of the lurid details once they were exposed. She forgave him, hoping to do damage control. He was forced to resign his position as Secretary of the Treasury and his law practice in New York. It is thought that without this scandal, he would have ended up in the White House.

Elizabeth Hamilton was with her husband at many historic events, such as when he began to write The Federalist Papers, which he read her excerpts that she advised him on, and in composing his defense of a national bank. Elizabeth Hamilton fiercely defended her husband against those who opposed him, she supported his claim of authorship of George Washington’s “Farewell Address” , as she had listened to his early drafts of the letter and offered her own suggestions for its improvement. She also refused to accept his part of the Hamilton-Burr duel and ignored the sex scandals of his life. Elizabeth Hamilton suffered many tragedies, including the death of her sister Peggy in 1801 followed by the death of her eldest son Philip in a duel with an associate of Aaron Burr in November that year and her daughter, Angelica went insane following Philip’s death. Three years later, Hamilton himself was lost to her after being fatally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr on the same site as their son had died. In 1804, Elizabeth Hamilton witnessed her father’s death, easing the financial straits her husband had left her in. Elizabeth Hamilton was also assisted financially by her late husband’s friends.

In 1806, Elizabeth Hamilton, who had immersed herself in charitable work and taken in homeless children, co-founded New York’s first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. She then went on to found further orphanages in New York and Washington D.C. Elizabeth Hamilton also embarked on a campaign to ensure her husband’s legacy, recruiting biographers to work on documenting his life, hiring assistants to organise his papers and collecting and preserving his papers and letters. She wanted to ensure that he was known only for  The Federalist Papers, the establishment of a national bank, and writing Washington’s Farewell Address. Although she worked hard to preserve her husband’s correspondence, none of her letters survived. In 1848, Elizabeth Hamilton moved to Washington, D.C. to live with her daughter and helped Dolley Madison fundraise for the Washington Monument. Elizabeth Hamilton also became a celebrated guest at the White House. She died just a few months after her 97th birthday in 1854 and was buried with her husband in the graveyard of Trinity Church in New York City.

Sources here, here, here, here, here and here.

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