The Love Affair, and Mystery at the heart of Hamilton: An American Musical
The dashing hero of Hamilton, An American Musical, betrays his wife twice. First in an infamous affair with another woman, second in an affair of honour – a duel – that leaves her as the sole support of seven children. How can this be a story of faithful, undying love? Yet it is.
The first billion-dollar musical in US history, whose tickets are so hot they sell for $1,000 apiece in New York and which opens in the West End in November this year, reminds audiences that the Georgian Era was not the Victorian. Eighteenth century flirtation is spicy, naughty, funny, and explicit. Pianos have legs, not limbs, and male and female physiques are deliciously revealed in glove-like breeches and tight-fitting bodices. Yet Hamilton’s larger themes transcend time. The Age of Revolution provides the backdrop, but an unquenchable thirst for love and honour motivates the protagonist as surely as any character of Shakespeare’s.
Alexander Hamilton was perhaps the most extraordinary man of the century. Monsieur de Talleyrand, the famous French diplomat, thought so. ‘I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of the epoch and, if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton.’
At age eleven, Hamilton was a pauper of illegitimate birth in the West Indies. Ten years later, he rode alongside George Washington as his chief aide in the War of the American Revolution. When the Declaration of Independence was penned in 1776, Hamilton was an anonymous scholarship student. A decade later, he was the principal organiser of the US Constitution.
He was also the husband of Eliza Schuyler, the second-eldest daughter of an elite New York family whose boundless estates along the fertile Hudson River would have made a feudal lord beam with pride. Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays Eliza as the sweet but mousey foil to her intriguing (and intrigue-loving) older sister Angelica. Heightened by the strategic manipulation of a few ‘alternate facts’, this contrast makes for inspired, fast-paced theatre. But it obscures the more profound mystery of how Alexander and Eliza continued to love, nay, adore one another despite everything life threw at them, including seduction, blackmail, and murder.
The Hamilton Affair: A Novel, plumbs this story, and especially the crucial character of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Eliza flits like a deer through the thicket of recorded facts surrounding Alexander Hamilton. He wrote a dozen letters for each she wrote him, and hers have vanished. At no point did she document the psychic wounds that his infidelity, political quarrels, and fatal duel with the American vice-president surely inflicted. From Alexander’s letters and those of other family members, we know Eliza was bright, spirited, adventurous, impulsive, and kind. We know that the Iroquois (a historically powerful northeast Native American people) named her ‘One-of-Us’ when she was only thirteen, but not what she did to win their admiration.
We also know she had eight living children and a miscarriage, but nothing in the record explains why the longest lapse in her childbearing occurred during the exact period that her husband plunged into an illicit affair. Eliza’s own mother bore fifteen children, half of whom died in infancy. Was Eliza trying to space her pregnancies? Was the ardent, 34-year-old Alexander tempted partly because Eliza didn’t want Kitty Schuyler’s sad experience?
Historians are further baffled as to why, when Alexander told the whole world in graphic detail how he betrayed his wife, she stood by him and even bore him two more children. How could she look him in the face? How did a female revolutionary of the eighteenth century recover her dignity? Is it mere coincidence that Eliza plunged courageously into a career as a defender of women and children after the affair was exposed in the nation’s first sex scandal, and built a public identity outside her marriage? The Hamilton Affair recaptures this full-blooded, passionate woman who was far more than an appendage of her illustrious husband – or pale reflection of her dazzling sister.
The musical that has schoolchildren begging for more history lessons in the United States, and adults ransacking their shelves for long-forgotten textbooks, will undoubtedly prompt Brits as well to go in search of this ‘bastard brat of a Scotch peddler’, as the jealous John Adams once described Alexander Hamilton. The boy genius of the West Indies – and it’s no exaggeration to call him one – helped create the modern world. The love affair between him and Eliza Schuyler reveals the joys, complexities and heartbreaks that this world introduced into an extraordinary marriage.
Listen to Elizabeth Cobbs talk more about the true story behind The Hamilton Affair in this podcast for the Commonwealth Club.