“…upon the subject of wife”

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“…upon the subject of wife”1

By Mariana S. Oller
December 14, 2012 

 

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton Elizabeth Schuyler HamiltonElizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

 

December 14th marks the wedding anniversary of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler. On that day in 1780, the brilliant and dashing aide-de-camp to General George Washington married the second daughter of General Philip Schuyler and Catherine van Rensselaer Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany.

Schuyler Mansion. Photo Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic PreservationSchuyler Mansion. Photo Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic PreservationThe parents of Elizabeth (who was also known as Eliza or Betsey) represented two of the most influential and powerful families in New York State. The match proved advantageous to both sides. Hamilton associated himself with one of the most prominent and well-connected families; the Schuyler Family welcomed a son-in-law of exceptional talent and achievement, who had risen from hardship and adversity on his own merit to become the closest aide and advisor to George Washington and was later to become the new nation’s first treasury secretary, a leader of a major political party, and a truly indispensable founding father of the United States of America.

Hamilton had been contemplating the idea of marriage for some time before courting Elizabeth Schuyler, as becomes evident from a letter of April 1779 to his close friend and fellow aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens. Writing to Laurens, who was on a mission in his native South Carolina, Hamilton muses in a light-hearted way over the qualities that he desires in a wife and asks his friend to help him in his quest: “She must be young, handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) sensible (a little learning will do) … of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagent and an oeconomist)…as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better. …as I have not much of my own and as I am very little calculated to get more either by my address or industry; it must needs be, that my wife, if I get one, bring at least a sufficiency to administer to her own extravagancies.”2

It was not long before Hamilton fell in love and chose his own bride. During the harsh and snowy winter of 1779-80, the Continental Army established camp at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, New Jersey. General Washington and his military “family,” to which his aides-de-camp belonged, set up Headquarters at the large and beautiful Ford Mansion in the east part of Morristown.

Dr. Jabez Campfield House, today known as the Schuyler-Hamilton houseDr. Jabez Campfield House, today known as the Schuyler-Hamilton houseAt the same time, Elizabeth Schuyler had come down from Albany to Morristown to stay for the winter with her aunt Gertrude, sister of Philip Schuyler. Gertrude was the wife of Dr. John Cochran, who had taken up quarters at the house of Dr. Jabez Campfield, Washington’s personal physician. The house, now known as the Schuyler-Hamilton House, was just a short walking distance from Washington’s Headquarters. The proximity of these two houses afforded Hamilton the opportunity to visit frequently in the cold winter months and court Elizabeth. She was a sweet, amiable, and vivacious girl, with brown hair and beautiful dark eyes. Hamilton later called her his “nut brown maid.”3

It is not known where exactly he and Elizabeth Schuyler were introduced for the first time. It is clear, however, that by the time Hamilton wrote a letter to Elizabeth's younger sister Margarita Schuyler in February of 1780, he was already in love with Betsey. He explains to Margarita that Elizabeth “possesses all the beauties virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects, which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman….She has had the address to overset all the wise resolutions I had been framing for more than four years past, and…trice metamorphosed me into the veriest inamorato you perhaps ever saw.”4

Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, Elizabeth's motherCatherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, Elizabeth's motherBy March 1780, Alexander and Elizabeth had expressed their wish to unite their lives in marriage. Hamilton’s inquiry to her parents on that subject was favorably answered, and the wedding day was set for December 14th of the same year. Grateful for the kind acceptance of the marriage proposal, Hamilton wrote on April 14th to his future mother-in-law, Catherine Schuyler, whom he had not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person: “I leave it to my conduct rather than expressions to testify the sincerity of my affection for her [Elizabeth], the respect I have for her parents, the desire I shall always feel to justify their confidence and merit their friendship.”5 Elizabeth’s parents were anxious to see their second daughter married after their eldest daughter Angelica had eloped with John Barker Church three years earlier.

While most of Hamilton’s letters written to Elizabeth throughout their courtship and married life are still exisiting, none of her letters to him have survived. In the true spirit of self-effacing love, dedication, modesty, and desire for proper recognition of her beloved Hamilton, Elizabeth had destroyed all her letters to him before any publication of his correspondence was attempted later in the 19th century. In the months leading up to their wedding, Hamilton wrote some of the most beautiful and inspiring love letters ever composed. Through Hamilton’s words, expressions, and references to Elizabeth’s letters, we could sense the strong love, mutual affection, respect, and admiration that had formed between him and his future wife.

In a letter to Elizabeth from early July, 1780, Hamilton writes: “I love you more and more every hour. The sweet softness and delicacy of your mind and manners, the elevation of your sentiments, the real goodness of your heart, its tenderness to me, the beauties of your face and person, your unpretending good sense and that innocent simplicity and frankness which pervade your actions; all these appear to me with increasing amiableness and place you in my estimation above all the rest of your sex.”6 While urging Betsey to employ all her leisure time in reading, Hamilton further remarks: “You excel most of your sex in all the amiable qualities; endeavor to excel them equally in the splendid ones. You can do it if you please and I shall take pride in it.”7

The demands of the military campaign of the summer of 1780 were great, and although Hamilton deeply desired to be near his beloved Betsey, his sense of duty and honor kept him away at camp. In a letter to her of August 31st, he offers an explanation: “…I am obliged to sacrifice my inclination to my public character. Even though my presence should not be essential here, yet my love I could not with decency or honor leave the army during the campaign. This is a military prejudice which while I am in a military station I must comply with. No person has been more severe than I have been in condemning other officers for deviating from it. I have admitted no excuse as sufficient, and I must not now evince to the army, that the moment my circumstances have changed, my maxims have changed also.”8

Alexander Hamilton's love letter (quoted at left), found in the Columbia University Archives.Alexander Hamilton's love letter (quoted at left), found in the Columbia University Archives.Hamilton used every free moment to stay in touch with his beloved Betsey: “My heart overflows with everything for you, that admiration, esteem and love can inspire. I would this moment give the world to be near you only to kiss your sweet hand.”9 Hamilton’s letters to her represent much more than a forum for his affection and love. He confides with her on topics of military and political importance. On the day the treason of General Benedict Arnold was discovered (September 25th), Hamilton gives Betsey a thorough account of the affair, calling it a “treason of the deepest dye.”10 Several days later, on October 2nd, he apprises her of the execution of British Major John André in connection with Arnold’s treason.

Parlor of Schuyler Mansion, where the wedding ceremony was held for Alexander and ElizabethParlor of Schuyler Mansion, where the wedding ceremony was held for Alexander and ElizabethAt long last, Alexander and Elizabeth’s wedding day arrived. Hamilton had left all wedding preparations to the desires and arrangements of his future bride and her family. He travelled from Headquarters to Albany, accompanied by his close friend and fellow aide-de-camp Major James McHenry. The wedding ceremony was held at the Schuyler Mansion, in the beautiful parlor to the left of the entrance. It was a small family gathering, which included Dr. and Mrs. Cochran, who witnessed in Morristown the birth of sincere affection and love between their niece Elizabeth Schuyler and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton's wedding handkerchiefAlexander Hamilton's wedding handkerchief

The marriage was noted in the Registry of the Reformed Church of Albany as: “Colonel Hamilton & Elisabeth Schuyler.”11 The wish of the young couple “to be soon united, never more to be separated”12 had finally come true. Inspired by the lovely ceremony and infinite happiness of the young beloved, James McHenry composed a poem for his friend on the day after the ceremony. George Washington sent his greetings from New Windsor soon after the event: “…Mrs. Washington most cordially joins me, in compliments of congratulations to Mrs. Hamilton & yourself, on the late happy event of your marriage & in wishes to see you both at head Quarters.”13

Elizabeth Hamilton's wedding ring, which she wore for almost 75 years.Elizabeth Hamilton's wedding ring, which she wore for almost 75 years.

Hamilton’s devotion to and love for Elizabeth remained true and constant throughout the rest of his life. His letter to her, penned on July 4th 1804—a week before the duel with Aaron Burr, reads: “…With my last idea; I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me. Ever yours A H”14 Elizabeth outlived her husband by fifty years. The deepest wish of her heart remained that she would be reunited with her Hamilton in the life beyond.

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Footnotes

  1. Syrett, Harold, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York, 1961-87), v. 2, p. 37
  2. p. 37
  3.  p. 455
  4. p. 270
  5. p. 309
  6. p. 351
  7. p. 351
  8. p. 388
  9. p. 399
  10. p. 441
  11. p. 521
  12. p. 399
  13. p. 526
  14. Syrett, v. 26, p. 293
2011 “…upon the subject of wife”. (c) 2016 The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society
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