Presenting the Enduring Contributions of Eliza Hamilton
by Nancy Spannaus
May 17, 2018—Nicole Scholet de Villavicencio, co-founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (AHA Society) brought Eliza Hamilton, wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, to life, in a lecture at George Washington University last night. Scholet’s emphasis was on Eliza’s final years, spent in Washington, D.C. (1847-1854), but she appropriately gave an overview of the important life-long work of this long-overlooked Founding Mother.
By the time she died at 97 years of age, Eliza was widely acclaimed as a gracious, still-intelligent “last relict of the Revolution.” More than that, however, she had made lasting contributions to the republic which deserve equally broad recognition.
Elizabeth Schuyler was born into a revolutionary family in the Albany area of New York State, and found herself in the midst of the conflict with England long before she met Alexander Hamilton. After marrying Hamilton in 1780, she became his collaborator as well as the mother to his children and keeper of the household. She is well-known to have stayed up nights copying Alexander’s documents for delivery the next day, most notably including the decisive Opinion on the Constitutionality of the National Bank.
Ensuring Her Husband’s Legacy
After Hamilton’s death, Eliza’s steadfast commitment was to ensure her husband’s legacy as the pre-eminent Founding Father which he was. This she symbolized by continuing to wear black in public for the rest of her life. Her consuming passion was to assemble every document by her husband which she could find, including, most especially, the evidence of his role in drafting Washington’s Farewell Address. By 1847, she had assembled enough material to ask Congress to allocate funding for publication of Alexander Hamilton’s collected works, which were to go into the Library of Congress. Congress appropriated money in early 1848, and the first edition of the works was published in 1850-1 in seven volumes.
Another major contribution of Eliza’s was her role, with Dolley Madison and Louisa Adams, in raising the funds for the construction of the Washington Monument. This effort began in 1833, and sufficient funds were raised to begin construction on July 4, 1848, when a ceremony laying the cornerstone was held.
Charity and More
Throughout her entire adult life, Eliza Hamilton also put extraordinary effort into charitable activities. Scholet highlighted three: 1) the establishment of the first public orphanage in New York, of which she was a leading figure into her 80s; 2) the donation of land and obtaining a charter for the Hamilton Free School, the first public school (for poor children) in Washington Heights, New York; and 3) the founding of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in uptown Manhattan.
Scholet covered much more in her 45-minute presentation, including Eliza’s relationships with all the Presidents of her era, and the anomalous close relationship between her son James Alexander and President Andrew Jackson, the destroyer of the Second National Bank. When asked about how Eliza could have tolerated friendship with Jackson, given his attack on her husband’s signature project, the National Bank (unlike Eliza’s refusal to forgive President Monroe, who had abetted the revelation of the Reynolds Affair), Scholet could only hypothesize. One contributing factor may have been Jackson’s own stupidity (or lying), as, Scholet reported, he is said to have told Eliza’s son that his father, Alexander, was against the bank!
This fascinating lecture, which drew about 40 people and was sponsored by the AHA Society, ended far too soon, due to time constraints by the location. One can only hope it will be followed up soon, in writing and/or other locations.