May 2017Volume 22Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Thoughts on Hamilton and the women of his life

In December I finally saw Hamilton in Chicago, which is a very moving show that makes you reflect on history and life. As the last song asks “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” As female lawyers, it is important to reflect on how far our country has come. One way is to highlight the plight of the women of the real Alexander Hamilton’s life. The stage show puts them into the narrative, but Rachel Faucette, Eliza Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler Church and Maria Reynolds each have a story to tell about sexism in the colonies and early republic.

Alexander Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, felt the tragic impact of the sexism of her time. She inherited from her father but was married off by her mother. Her husband used her money, and they had a child. Then, he accused her of adultery and had her jailed. He finally allowed her to divorce him, but the divorce decree did not allow her to marry again although he could marry again. Thus, any other children she had were deemed illegitimate and could not inherit from her estate. This is what forced Alexander and his brother to rely on a cousin when their mother died and then on the goodness of a family friend. The law prevented Alexander Hamilton from inheriting what should have been his, which no longer happens as illegitimacy laws have been eliminated. But the impact of death and estate laws followed Hamilton’s life.

Eliza Hamilton sings that she wants to “be a part of the narrative,” and she was in her life. The reason Alexander could “write like you’re running out of time” was because his wife was often helping him to write out his reports and editorials. She outlived him by 50 years, but the first few years after his death were a struggle. When he died, he had a will and named his friends as the executors. However, he vastly overestimated his wealth and her inheritance from her father and underestimated his debts. The executors had to get Hamilton friends to buy his house and sell it back to Eliza, thus satisfying his estate’s debts and keeping his wife in her house. At a time when women ceased to be legal persons when they married and could not own property, Eliza had everything stacked against her, but she used her time well.

Eliza was a child of privilege but used her life to help those in need. She established a private orphanage in New York, which still exists today as the Graham Wyndham organization. She moved to D.C. with one of her children and raised funds for the Washington monument. She also became a Founding Mother of sorts as Presidents would make a special stop at her house to maintain the link to the Founding generation. She overcame the sexism of her time, which was highlighted in her sister’s life.

Her sister, Angelica Schuyler Church, sings that her “father has no sons so I’m the one who has to social climb for one,” which is not historically accurate because Philip Schuyler had many sons. However, the musical’s point is a historically accurate one as any reader of Pride and Prejudice knows. Fathers often used their daughters as a way to secure alliances and improve their prospects. The real Angelica Schuyler eloped with a British businessman, eventually moving to London where her husband became a member of Parliament. She held parties and knew the most important men of the age. Thomas Jefferson corresponded with her as well as Alexander Hamilton. She was instrumental in getting the Marquis de Lafayette out of prison in Austria. She exercised power in that peculiar way that 18th century women exercised power.

The villain of the story, Maria Reynolds, should be looked at with a sympathetic eye. She wears a red dress in the musical, labeling her as the harlot, but in the real story, she was probably used by her husband in a revenge scheme. James Reynolds was turned down for a job in the Treasury Department ran by Alexander Hamilton. He left his wife in Philadelphia, where she ran into Hamilton and started their affair. Mr. Reynolds was arrested on another matter and spilled the beans on Hamilton, claiming he was embezzling from the Treasury. Hamilton confessed that he wasn’t embezzling but was paying Reynolds off because Reynolds was blackmailing him for having an affair with Maria. So the question is how much agency Maria had in this affair and how much was she pushed into it by her husband in order to get back at Hamilton. It seems likely that her husband pushed her into the affair so he could get some revenge on the man who would not hire him.

Hamilton: An American Musical forces audience members and listeners to think about American history and how the story has been told. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics reclaimed Alexander Hamilton’s biography and inserted women into the narrative when they are often left out. The historical women of Hamilton’s life faced 18th century sexism and show us how far our nation has come.

__________

Tracy Douglas is the Chair of the Administrative Law Section Council and a member of the Women and the Law committee. She works in the Community Preservation Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Law. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and not those of the University of Illinois.

Member Comments (1)

Great article Tracy. Thanks.

Login to post comments