Minds at Work: The Secret Lives of the Schuyler Sisters

Lin-Manuel Miranda was first introduced to the Schuyler sisters while on vacation. The creator of the Broadway sensation ­Hamilton had brought along an unlikely beach read: Ron Chernow’s extensive biography Alexander Hamilton. Miranda quickly devoured the book’s stories of the founder’s private life, especially his relationships with women, including the Schuylers. He immediately sensed the makings of a musical lurking within Chernow’s dramatic tale. The intimate details of Alexander’s liaisons are fraught and fascinating to be sure. They are also largely lost to history. Struggling to resurrect these women, Chernow had created his own characterizations, filling in the blanks left by time and a history written by men. When Miranda picked up the book, Chernow’s characterizations became the blueprints for this season’s most notable female Broadway roles.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda relaxes on vacation with Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. (Twitter)

It is impossible to read Chernow’s fluid storytelling without being taken in by the women he has unearthed from the archives. The book and subsequent adaptation have made national heroines of Elizabeth and Angelica Schuyler, exceptional individuals who have endured relative obscurity in comparison to the men they lived and worked alongside. Their stories of survival are affecting, if not unusual, because they are so rarely covered by history books. Unlike other biographers, Chernow gives them significant space in his study, and their importance is reflected on stage.

Despite the exposure, however, Chernow’s characterizations of these fascinating women often stray from historical analysis into stereotype. As women, their words were rarely preserved with the care afforded to their husbands’ papers. When they did survive, these narratives are difficult to divorce from the gendered reality in which they were written. Chernow’s solution is often to fill in the blanks with female archetypes, some of which would certainly have been familiar to Miranda from his study of the American musical. The result is often simplistic and misleading. In reality, the women surrounding the first Treasurer were more complex, flawed and essential to the new nation than the written record teaches us to believe.

Chernow begins with Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, living on the island of Nevis. As with all the women in Alexander Hamilton, the details of her story are murky, but it seems clear that she was a victim of gendered colonial laws concerning divorce and marriage. Jailed by her first husband for supposed adultery, Faucette escaped and met someone new: James Hamilton of Scotland. Alexander Hamilton was born into their common-law marriage, illegitimate. Their happiness was not to be, and Rachel becomes the first female victim in Chernow’s tale. With Rachel unable to obtain a divorce, James left the family. In a few years, Alexander’s mother was dead.

Thus, the opening lines of Miranda’s musical are technically true. Alexander was, “A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.” But the tenor of these words owe a lot to Chernow’s assumptions. The author ties Hamilton’s future infidelities to his “sympathy for his mother” and his “checkered childhood,” a strategy that seems decidedly unfair considering the unconfirmed nature of Rachel’s actions, her circumstances, and the privilege that Alexander eventually enjoyed. But a desperate, whorish mother in the style of Fantine is instantly recognizable to a Broadway audience, so Rachel remains two-dimensional onstage.

Much of Alexander’s privilege was a direct result of his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. Schuyler’s inheritance and family connections allowed Hamilton to rise into the colonial elite. Her father, General Schuyler, was a mentor to Alexander throughout his life. Eliza’s adept management of the family’s expenses and eight children, in addition to her political support throughout Hamilton’s difficult professional life, allowed her husband to thrive. The limited historical record reveals a uniquely compelling personality to accompany these accomplishments. Described by acquaintances as an “impulsive” beauty with a “strong character” and a hidden temper, Eliza was likely quite the match for Hamilton. But it is difficult to be certain: Eliza’s letters to her husband were destroyed. (Chernow insists she burned them herself.)

Without her voice, it is easy to paint Eliza as a virginal angel, something Chernow does without hesitation throughout his book. “The sweet, retiring Schuyler would rescue [Hamilton] from the self-destructive fantasies that had long held sway over his imagination,” he claims at one point. Chernow’s Eliza is “self-effacing,” “utterly devoid of conceit,” “unassuming,” and blessed with a “delicate femininity” that made her an excellent housewife. Apparently, “she never complained about family demands,” though without letters, this seems more like authorial wish fulfillment than reality. Chernow consistently characterizes Eliza as apolitical, despite clear evidence that she assisted her husband with some of the most important writings of his career, not to mention maintained his social capital. Many of “his” speeches are written in her handwriting. Chernow’s sources are Alexander’s own love letters, which, along with a formal portrait,

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A portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton by Ralph Earl. (The Athenaeum)

make clear that Eliza fulfilled the period ideal of a wealthy wife. But they, like most romantic missives, hardly tell the whole story. After all, Hamilton’s ideas about women were less than realistic. Chernow’s descriptions become even more problematic when one learns that he equates Eliza with his own wife, who died of cancer in 2006. The author even engraved a phrase from Hamilton to Eliza on her gravestone: “Best of wives and best of women.” When one reads Chernow’s claim that, “Eliza Hamilton never expressed anything less than a worshipful attitude toward her husband,” it becomes difficult to believe the woman being described is Eliza at all.

 

With Eliza cast as a paragon of virtue, her sister Angelica must then be the villain. Chernow immediately sets these two women up as opposites: “Angelica had a more mysterious femininity than her sister, the kind that often exerts a powerful hold on the male imagination,” he claims. (What “mysterious femininity” actually is, I have no idea.)

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The Schuyler Sisters: Eliza (Phillipa Soo), Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones). (Joan Marcus)

The surviving letters make clear that the three had a remarkably close bond. And although the question of an affair between Angelica and Alexander remains possible, almost all of the written evidence suggests that the three adults considered themselves a trio. Chernow sees the women as stereotypical opposites, sisters who were being blindly played, neither enough: “Hamilton seemed to need two distinct types of love: Love of the faithful, domestic kind and love of the more forbidden, exotic variety.” Perhaps there was an affair. But Chernow, and as a result, Miranda, fail to consider the women’s choice in the matter. The trope of the wronged wife is appealing and easy, especially since Hamilton was apt to break his wedding vows. But to assume the women were at odds is to once again write female bonds and agency out of history, and therefore, off the stage.

Chernow frames his biography by visiting the elderly Eliza, still laboring at age 97 to rehabilitate her husband’s tarnished reputation. But isn’t it also possible that her efforts to preserve the history of the Revolution came out of a pride in her own story, rather than a dutiful need to continue her husband’s work? After all, Hamilton was Eliza’s name as well, and her contribution to the Revolution, as guerilla enemy to the British, historian and social activist, is also part of America’s story. Chernow and Miranda have unearthed Eliza’s narrative, but she has yet to escape her role as a woman. Onstage, she is a founding wife, rather than a founder. We must not forget Miranda’s own question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In Eliza’s case, the answer continues to be a man, despite the five extra decades she spent on Earth trying desperately to lay claim to her story within the acceptable parameters of her day. Now many of those limitations are gone, and so too should be the language that puts Eliza squarely in a box. Loyal, generous and beautiful she may have been. But she was also likely intelligent, ambitious and a survivor. Miranda frequently dwells on Hamilton’s incredible escape, his brushes with death. But it is Eliza who refused to give in to her circumstances, who embraced the fuzzy ambiguity that is a full life.

When we undertake the task of telling a woman’s story, what we write becomes the historic record. The details of female lives are often erased, sanded down until only an outline remains. But as we resurrect their stories, we must be careful how we fill in the blanks. Reading Ron Chernow’s book, it is easy to picture a time in which women were simple, loyal and beautiful. After all, the historical record often tells us exactly that. Lost are the complications, the flaws and the anxieties that escaped documentation. The stories we tell about our past become relevant as we struggle to realize that these are not new qualities: women like Eliza have been fighting to voice them for centuries.


Carrington OBrion can typically be found standing in the rain waiting for student rush 041tickets. She’s passionate about the way that history and the arts can help us see our lives differently. Particularly interested in the ways that public performances can showcase and effect change, she has written about race, gender and art throughout America’s history. When not writing, you might find her sitting on a museum floor or tweeting @ACarrintheWorld

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