Eliza Hamilton smoothed the skirt of her new ball gown. The latest fashion was for high waists and a straight, column like silhouette. Gone were the tight corsets and immense panniers of her girlhood. All of the fashionable ladies in London and Paris were now dressing like figures from Ancient Greek vases.
Her sister Angelica had sent her the pattern, along with a bolt of finest muslin in Eliza’s favorite shade of pale blue. The pattern and the fabric had come with a rather feisty letter in which Angelica used the full vehemence of her pen to denounce Eliza’s husband, Alexander. The contrast to Angelica’s letters of previous years could not have been greater. No one had had a higher opinion of Alexander than Angelica before his fall from grace.
“…and if that harlot, Reynolds, ever has the misfortune to run into me,” Angelica had concluded the letter, “I will claw her face up so badly that no man will ever look at her again.”
Eliza’s latest quarrel with Alexander had been over an invitation to a ball. In her opinion, enough time had passed for them to be able to go out into society again. Alexander had said that it was still too soon for them to show their faces in public and insisted that they decline the invitation. When business had suddenly called him to Washington, Eliza wrote back to the hosts saying “General Hamilton will not be able to attend but Mrs. Hamilton, Master Hamilton, and Miss Hamilton will be delighted to come.”
To go with her new dress, Eliza’s hair was arranged à la gréque and adorned with a white ribbon diadem.
Suddenly knocking was heard on the bedroom door.
“Come in,” Eliza said.
The door opened, and her daughter, Angie, named for her beloved aunt, stepped in, dressed in the diaphanous white appropriate for a young lady just come into society. She was seventeen and every bit as lovely as the aunt she had been named for.
“Are you almost ready, Mamma?” Angie asked.
“Just about,” Eliza answered.
They went downstairs to the parlor. A warm, cheerful fire burned in the hearth. Alexander’s faithful hound, Tyson, lay snoring on the hearth rug. Angie’s white cat, Bramble, stretched contentedly in the window sill, and licked her dainty paws.
“The carriage is waiting outside,” Philip informed them.
Nineteen year old Philip was a younger version of his famously handsome father. The same wavy auburn hair and violet blue eyes. The same rosy complexion with a bridge of freckles crossing a striking Roman nose.
Angie bent down to pet Tyson.
“Poor Tyson looks quite dejected,” she said.
“He’s always like this when Father is away,” Philip responded.
The ball was held in a new building of assembly rooms which had recently opened up. Fine crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings; the light from their expensive white tapers glittered off of the glass mirrors and their gilt frames. When the Hamiltons arrived, the band was playing Epsom Spring. Angie was quickly engaged for the opening grand march and Philip went to go join a group of his school friends.
Eliza sat in one of the chairs which lined the walls of the ballroom and watched her children enjoy themselves.
“There’s the Hamilton woman,” she heard a lady whisper.
“Didn’t you notice that her husband isn’t here with her tonight?” another female voice added.
“I wonder who he’s out with this time.”
“Can’t keep him at home, can she?”
Eliza did her best to pretend she had not heard any of this. The conventional wisdom, though it was rarely ever proved true, was that if you ignored something, it would eventually go away.
After the La Boulangére, the guests went downstairs for refreshments such as claret punch and ices. The hot atmosphere of the ballroom had made Eliza terribly thirsty so she went straight to the table where the punch bowl was and poured herself a glass.
“Ah, Mrs. Hamilton,” standing next to her was Thomas Jefferson, Angelica’s old admirer and Alexander’s adversary in Washington. Eliza had met him a few times before things between him and Alexander had soured and found him perfectly charming, but once the split had been made, Eliza steadfastly decided that her husband’s enemies were her own.
Jefferson gave a slight bow.
“Mr. Vice-President,” Eliza curtsied to him.
He took her hand and kissed it.
“General Hamilton is not here with you tonight?”
“He was called to Washington on government business and wasn’t able to attend.”
” It’s been far too long since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you, madam, or the charming Mrs. Church. Is she here this evening?”
“No, she and Mr. Church are still in London.”
“Then come take a turn with me in the garden and you can give me that latest news about the enchanting Angelica.”
“It would be a pleasure.”
“Miss Schuyler, may I present my husband’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Hamilton…”
Lady Washington presented a shapely brunette girl with strong, striking features. A pair of lively dark eyes being her most arresting feature.
“Colonel Hamilton, may I present the Belle of Morristown.”
The girl blushed at being so praised, demurely lowered her eyes and curtsied. Alexander then gave a gallant bow.
The arrival of General Schuyler’s daughter, Elizabeth, in Morristown had been the talk of the officers’ mess. The Schuyler Sisters were widely reputed to be the pride of Albany and an ambitious soldier looking for a well-heeled beauty to wed and bed could hardly do much better.
“Are you enjoying your stay here in Morristown?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she responded, “I’ve been helping my Aunt Cochran and her husband, the Doctor, tend to the sick and wounded.”
Doctor Cochran was surgeon general to the Continental Army, best known for completing the monumental feat of inoculating the troops against smallpox when they were stationed in Morristown three years earlier.
The official reason given for Elizabeth Schuyler’s visit was to help out her aunt and uncle but the true reason was finding her a husband, which had become of greater importance after her older sister, Angelica, had eloped with an Englishman.
“How was your journey from Albany?”
“Long and, thankfully, uneventful.”
“I was told that your father arranged for you to have a military escort.”
As the daughter of an important general, she would have made a valuable hostage for the British. The romantic image of a helpless damsel at mercy of the red coats had concerned all that was gallant and chivalrous in Alexander.
“Miss Schuyler, would you do you me the honor of joining me for the minuet?”
“The pleasure would be all mine, Colonel Hamilton.”
The minuet involved each couple taking turns in the center. As Alexander went through the slow, stately steps with Miss Schuyler, he was aware that everyone’s eyes were on them. The dashing young colonel and the general’s lovely daughter; they made quite the pair.
“I do believe we are the spectacle of the evening, Colonel,” she whispered to him, “They must all be thinking ‘what could possibly interest him about plain little Betsey Schuyler besides her money’.”
“More like, ‘how could that insolent upstart possibly think he could ever be worthy to stand in the presence of such an angel’.”
“I’ve heard talk of you, Colonel Hamilton. It is said that you are the most ambitious man in America.”
“I do not deny it, Miss Schuyler, nor am I ashamed of it.”
“Lady Washington said to me, when I told her that I was anxious to meet her august husband, “I will see that you make the acquaintance of Hamilton, my husband’s aid. He should be of much more interest to you. ” She then told me about her cat.”
Alexander blushed. It was a well known story that Lady Washington had named her rather high spirited tom cat after him, in reference to his reputation of chasing after every pretty petticoat in sight.
He danced with Miss Schuyler once more that evening during the Scottish Reel. She had told him that she disliked the minuet and much preferred the less formal reels and jigs. After the Scottish Reel, Mrs. Cochran began complaining of a headache and told her niece that they would be leaving early. Miss Schuyler went to bid Alexander goodnight before they left.
“Goodnight, Miss Schuyler,” he responded.
“Most people call me Eliza but my family calls me Betsey.”
“I like Betsey best.”
After that night, Alexander’s friends used to say that he was a gone man. One evening after paying a call on his Betsey, he had returned to camp and found that he had forgotten the password. Luckily, the sentry on duty had taken pity on him and let him in anyways.
Every visit and every letter made him more sure that Elizabeth Schuyler was the woman for him. He had only known her for three weeks, perhaps a month, when he heard rumors that she was going to leave for Philadelphia.
The house where the Cochrans were staying was in the center of Morristown. Alexander rode there when he was able to get leave.
Betsey must have seen him coming from the window because she quickly threw on her cloak and rushed outside. She must have been helping nurse her uncle’s patients because her dress was simple and she wore a stained apron over it. Her hair was tucked behind a mobcap.
“I’ve heard you were planning on leaving for Philadelphia,” he told her as he dismounted his horse.
“I was considering it,” she responded.
“Well, I’ve come to remind you that your true friends are here. I’m determined to convince you to stay.” “Is that a proposal, Colonel Hamilton?”
“Elizabeth Schuyler, I know I don’t have much to offer you now but when this war is over, I will rise above my station, higher than either of us can imagine.”
“My parents are furious with me. They say that you’re nameless, penniless, good-for-nothing and your intentions are not honorable. That’s what this whole business of Philadelphia is about; they want me to leave here to get away from you.”
“General Washington can vouchsafe for my good conduct and the purity of my intentions and I know I can win them over and convince them to give me your hand.”
She took his face in her hands and kissed him.
“I have every faith in you, my Alexander.”
He took her into his arms.
“You’ll be Mrs. Hamilton before the year is out if I have anything to do with it.”
His prediction had turned out to be correct. They were married that December at her family home in Albany with the full blessing of her parents.
The first person to greet Alexander Hamilton when he arrived home was Tyson, whose bark shook the house and whose whip-like tail smacked against Alexander’s leg.
Alexander bent down to pet the animal and was reminded of how in The Odyssey , the first people to recognize Odysseus upon his return home were his loyal hounds.
Now where is Penelope?
“Sir, we weren’t expecting you back so early,” said Dolley, the maid.
“We finished up sooner than expected,” Alexander responded, “Where is Mrs. Hamilton?”
“You just missed her, Sir. She went out to a ball with Master Philip and Miss Angelica.”
“Thank you, Dolley.”
“Is there anything else you need, Sir?”
“No thank you, I’m going back out again soon.”
Alexander went up to his room, where he freshened up and put on something appropriate for a ball. Martha, the nanny, brought down the children to see him before they went to bed. He bid goodnight to eight year old Johnny, three year old Billy, and one year old Little Eliza ( twelve year old Jamie and fourteen year old Alex were away at boarding school) prior to leaving.
When he entered the assembly rooms, he found that Angie was off dancing The Young Widow and Philip was sitting in the corner, chatting with a young beauty.
“Phil,” he said to the boy.
“Father,” Philip responded.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your fair companion?”
“Father, this is Miss Theodosia Burr.”
“My father has told me a lot about you, General Hamilton,” the girl said.
“Whatever he’s told you, it’s all true.”
“Philip, where is your mother?”
“I think she went out into the garden.”
Eliza gave Mr. Jefferson the latest news about Angelica as they walked through the garden. Angelica had taken London society by storm. Everyone who was anyone, from playwrights, to politicians, to princes, passed through her salon. Eliza herself was unsuited to such a glittering life and had never desired it but she enjoyed living vicariously through her sister’s letters.
Jefferson took Eliza’s hand and kissed it.
“Thank you for such a pleasant stroll, Mrs. Hamilton,” he said.
“Eliza!” another voice called.
“Alexander!” she responded in disbelief.
“I was able to leave Washington early, my love, and I rushed home so I could bring you to this ball, since you wished to go so badly, but apparently I arrived too late” he then turned to Jefferson, “Mr. Vice-President, thank you for entertaining my wife.”
Jefferson politely bowed
“Good evening General, Madam,” he replied.
“Say you have a headache or something,” Alexander whispered gruffly to Eliza, “We’re leaving.”
“Please, Eliza, don’t make a scene.”
“You’re the one making a scene.”
“Eliza, we’re going home!”
“How could you do this?” he asked her in the carriage ride home, “Be seen out alone, publicly flirting with a man who is my sworn enemy.”
“Good lord, he was only asking after Angelica. This jealousy is rich coming from you.”
“I never meant to hurt you, Eliza. What I did was out of a moment of weakness. Lord knows I should have gone with you to Albany that summer and I will never forgive myself for what I did but you set out to deliberately wound me.”
“A moment of weakness! You continued to see that woman for a year.”
“That scoundrel Reynolds had me in a bind. Who knows what he would have done to us if I didn’t give him what wanted.”
“So you thought you might as well get your money’s worth.”
“That pettiness is beneath you, Eliza, you’re a better person than that.”
“Why should I have to be the better person? Why couldn’t you have been the better person when Maria Reynolds threw herself at you.”
“We’re all human, none of us is perfect.”
“I never thought you were perfect, Alexander, I just didn’t think you were a fool.”
When they arrived home, Eliza retired to her room and got ready for bed. Alexander went out for a third time a little while later to bring Philip and Angie home from the ball. When she knew he was gone, Eliza walked down the hall with a lit candle to his office. Using the light from the candle, she searched for a little porcelain box on his desktop which contained the key to a special drawer.
Inside was a pile of papers tied up with a ribbon. Eliza examined the papers by holding the candle to them. It was a collection of letters that she had written him during their courtship and engagement. If Eliza did not hate her husband as much as she did, she might have been tempted to feel touched that he had kept her letters.
A blazing fire waited for her when she returned to her room. She pulled up an arm chair and began to read over her old letters.
She had poured out her heart to him like a naive girl and never suspected that he would hurt her the way he did. If The Almighty was placed on one pedestal, she had placed Alexander Hamilton on one three inches taller, which gave him farther to fall. Alexander’s infidelity was not anything more than most men (even the best of husbands) were guilty of from time to time. But Alexander had never been most men.
The most painful fact was that she was stuck with him. Divorces were difficult to obtain and even if she could free herself from him, it would come at too great a cost. She would lose her standing in society and, most importantly, custody of her children.
Alexander tried to be more attentive to her of late but whenever he had extended the hand of reconciliation, she pushed it away.
Eliza then got up and went over to her desk and grabbed a pamphlet entitled “In Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully Refuted.”
“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation,” it read, “My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.”
It then proceeded to reveal every sordid detail about her husband’s affair with young Mrs. Reynolds.
“This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardour of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.”
Eliza scoffed at this half hearted attempt to justify his treatment of her. She had been understanding when he was constantly busy and away from home for weeks at a time; she took it all as being part of marriage to a great man, the architect of a new country. For twenty years, she had tried her best to be a loving and supportive wife and he did all this to her. Not only had he betrayed her trust but also told the whole world about it, with only the slightest consideration as to how she might feel.
Perhaps Alexander’s greatest crime was taking advantage of a scared, vulnerable young woman who was too stupid to know any better. He had dismissed Maria Reynolds as a “treacherous little slut” who was not worth ruining their marriage over.
“She was worth it then!” Eliza had responded.
She found that she could only pity the poor girl, who had been just as much a victim in this whole affair as herself.
One by one, Eliza watched each of the letters burn in the fireplace and crumble into ash. She then added the pamphlet, which caught fire and crackled as it disintegrated.
Alexander woke up early the next morning, as was his habit, and went into his office. He had pasted a long and sleepless night thinking about how he had made an ass of himself playing Othello. Perhaps it was because, after everything, he feared that Eliza would seek solace with another man. If she did, it would be nothing more than he deserved.
He had long taken her for granted, believing that she would stand by him through anything and whatever he did, she would understand and forgive. Now she had, quite rightly, had enough
and he did not know he was to go on without her by his side.
It had taken losing her love to truly realize how much she meant to him.
Alexander had put his work ahead of her the entire time they had been married, now his work was all he had left. Sitting down at his writing desk, he noticed that the key to the special drawer was outside of the little porcelain box in which he kept it.
Maybe I forgot to put it away the last time I was in here, he thought.
To make sure nothing had been taken, he opened up the drawer to find that all the letters were missing.
I must have put them somewhere else.
He went through each of the drawers and compartments, looking for the letters. Each of them were stuffed with papers but none of them were the tender epistles his wife had written to him during the first days of their love.
No, No, it can’t be!