In Alexander Hamilton's farewell letter to his wife Eliza, he famously praised her as "the best of wives and the best of women," but she was also a pretty spectacular mother. She raised eight children (six sons, two daughters) under often-difficult circumstances. Despite this houseful, Eliza also welcomed other children in need, whether two-year-old Fanny Antill, the motherless daughter of one of Alexander’s old friends who lived with the Hamiltons until adulthood, or the son of another old friend, Georges Washington de La Fayette, who as a teenager briefly found asylum with the Hamiltons in America while his parents were imprisoned by the French Revolution.
When Alexander died, the oldest surviving Hamilton son was still a teenager, and the youngest child still an infant. Eliza’s grief was staggering. Yet although her husband had left her deeply in debt, she managed to see all her sons but her youngest attend college – a significant accomplishment for any mother in early 19thc America.
While none of the sons achieved their father’s rare stellar fame, all grew to be men that clearly carried Alexander’s heritage. Four of the surviving sons became lawyers, and were active in state and federal politics and government. The fifth was a soldier who attended West Point and fought in the Black Hawk Wars on the western frontier.
Tragically, Eliza’s older daughter Angelica’s mental instability deteriorated to the point that she could no longer be kept at home, and often lived under the care of a private doctor. The younger daughter, also named Eliza, married Sidney Augustus Holly, and Eliza lived with them in the later years of her life.
But Eliza also became a kind of surrogate mother to hundreds of orphaned children. She never forgot her husband’s grim childhood, and devoted herself to helping other helpless children. She was one of the women who founded the New York Orphan Asylum Society in 1806, and she sat on their board for many years. Beginning in 1821, when her own children were grown, she served as the asylum’s first directress, and for twenty-seven years she oversaw every aspect of the children’s care as well as assuming many of the financial and administrative aspects of running the asylum. Over a century later, the asylum has evolved into Graham Windham, an organization that continues to embrace Eliza’s ideals by offering support to children and families who need it most.
If Eliza was proud of everything that Alexander had done in his life, then he would have been equally proud of what she achieved on behalf of children - and if any mom deserves to be celebrated today, it's Eliza Hamilton. Happy Mother's Day, Eliza!
"Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton)" by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere. Order now. You can also pre-order my next book, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, which will be released on September, 24, 2019.