Elizabeth Cobb, author of The Hamilton Affair, on resurrecting a real-life historical romance .
When I told friends five years ago that I was starting a novel about the sexiest man in the American Revolution—Alexander Hamilton—they looked blank. Then their eyes filled with pity. Who would publish such a misbegotten book?
When Lin Manuel Miranda announced a similar project at the White House, his deadpan expression and comic timing brought howls from Barack and Michelle Obama and their guests. Miranda said he was composing a “concept album” about the man who embodied hip-hop, “Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” Each time Miranda repeated the phrase, listeners laughed harder at the absurdity. “Snap along, if you like,” he said before launching into the tune which now opens the billion-dollar musical that won eleven Tony Awards in the New York last June.
Why has Alexander Hamilton become man of the hour? A penniless orphan who served as George Washington’s chief aide, Hamilton led the final charge of the Revolution, wrote the chief defense of the U.S. Constitution, and engineered the construction of the American government. He was the most controversial of the Founders—extravagantly adored by supporters and vehemently despised by detractors. For two hundred years, his reputation suffered from the fact that opponents like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams outlived him by decades and never stopped carping. Hamilton died young, killed by the U.S. vice-president.
Miranda’s musical is largely responsible for America’s infatuation with the political genius whom French aristocrat Talleyrand ranked first among the three most brilliant men he had known: Alexander Hamilton, William Pitt, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The Broadway spectacle is cathartic for audiences who wonder if politics have ever been as crazy as they seem right now. Hamilton’s tragic end is strangely comforting. It shows that the volatile 2016 election is tame compared with some earlier ones. It chastens audiences to respect the humanity of rivals—lest, like Aaron Burr, we become the “damn fool” who destroys something precious and rare.
But enough high-mindedness. Hamilton’s star has also risen because, as the musical makes plain, he was the sexiest man in the American Revolution! Handsome, charismatic, and flirtatious, Hamilton wooed the beautiful daughter of a prominent family. The princess and pauper, Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton married for love despite extraordinary differences in station and wealth. When courting, he wrote “I meet you in every dream,” and until the day he died penned letters of exquisite passion and tenderness. Then, sixteen years into their marriage, Eliza learned through hateful opposition newspapers that he had betrayed her with another woman.
Elizabeth Schuyler flits like a deer through the thicket of facts surrounding Hamilton. He wrote hundreds of pages for each of hers. She never discussed the wounds that his infidelity, political quarrels, and duel with Aaron Burr inflicted. Observers described her as bright, spirited, adventurous, impulsive, generous, and compassionate. The Iroquois named her “One-of-Us” when she was only thirteen, though history does not record what she did to earn their admiration.
Yet we do know that this gutsy, determined woman—who established and ran New York’s first private orphanage for thirty years after her husband’s death—found a way to reclaim her dignity, forgive her husband, restore their relationship, and triumph over the vengeful men who brought him down. Theirs is one of the great love stories of all time. And that’s why Hodder & Stoughton is publishing it.