This is another of the letters that I saw last week at The Morgan Library as part of the Treasures from the Vault exhibition, on display through March 11, 2018. While the letter from fifteen-year-old Philip Hamilton to his father Alexander in the same exhibition was quite legible, this letter from Alexander to Eliza is a challenge to read today. The ink has faded, the paper is stained and worn and torn, yet still the words - and love - remain.
Here's a transcription of the entire letter, thanks to the National Archives:
"I have received my angel two letters from you since my arrival in Camp with a packet of papers, and I have written to you twice since I saw you. I acquainted you with the assurances that had been given me with respect to command, and bad you dismiss all apprehensions for my safety on account of the little prospect of activity.
"With no object of sufficient importance to occupy my attention here I am left to feel all the weight of our separation. I pass a great part of my time in company but my dissipations are a very imperfect suspension of my uneasiness. I was cherishing the melancholy pleasure of thinking of the sweets I had left behind and was so long to be deprived of, when a servant from Head Quarters presented me with your letters. I feasted for some time on the sweet effusions of tenderness they contained, and my heart returned every sensation of yours. Alas my Betsey you have divested it of every other pretender and placed your image there as the sole proprietor. I struggle with an excess which I cannot but deem a weakness and endeavour to bring [end of first page] myself back to reason and duty. I remonstrate with my heart on the impropriety of suffering itself to be engrossed by an individual of the human race when so many millions ought to participate in its affections and in its cares. But it constantly presents you under such amiable forms as seem too well to justify its meditated desertion of the cause of country humanity, and of glory I would say, if there were not something in the sound insipid and ridiculous when compared with the sacrifices by which it is to be attained.
"Indeed Betsey, I am intirely changed—changed for the worse I confess—lost to all the public and splendid passions and absorbed in you. Amiable woman! nature has given you a right to be esteemed to be cherished, to be beloved; but she has given you no right to monopolize a man, whom, to you I may say, she has endowed with qualities to be extensively useful to society. Yes my Betsey, I will encourage my reason to dispute your empire and restrain it within proper bounds, to restore me to myself and to the community. Assist me in this; reproach me for an unmanly surrender of that to love and teach me that your esteem will be the price of my acting well my part as a member of society....
"I write your father all the news we have. Give my love to your mother sisters and brothers. Love me and let your happiness always consist in loving
"Yr. A Hamilton"
Alexander wrote this letter on July 13, 1781. He and Eliza had been married about seven months. They had spent most of their short marriage together, and this was the first lengthy separation they'd faced. After resigning from his position as Gen. Washington's aide-de-camp earlier in the year, Alexander had hoped (and begged) for a field command with the army. Now, in the summer of 1781, it seemed as if his wishes would come true. Although the details were still evolving - and still very secret - the Continental Army was marshaling for a major encounter with the British. Alexander had left Eliza with her family in Albany, and rejoined the army at its encampment at Dobb's Ferry, NY, to await further orders. Before the summer was over, those orders would take Alexander to Yorktown, VA, and the last major battle of the American Revolution.
The Morgan Library's caption calls Alexander "lovesick," but the concern and devotion for Eliza shown in this letter goes deeper than the emotions of a fashionably pining swain.
It was an anxious time for them both. Alexander believed that a role in combat was essential to prove himself, and to gain the reputation for bravery, courage, and leadership that would lift him up to the next level of success and social prominence after the war. But for the first time since he had first left his studies at King's College to join the army, he now had someone else to care for, and to care for him. He loved Eliza, and he missed her. He longed for battle, but he didn't want to leave her a widow.
Eliza understood the stoicism expected of an officer's wife, having watched her mother, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, balance a large household and multiple pregnancies with Gen. Philip Schuyler's military career. But from Alexander's reassurances, it's clear that Eliza must have worried endlessly about her new husband. She would have known his desire and reputation for often-reckless glory, as well as how his slight frame and constitution weren't suited for the rigors of a long and dangerous campaign.
She'd other concerns, too, for by this time she must have known that she was pregnant with their first child, Philip, who would be born in January, 1782. Alexander doesn't mention her pregnancy here (and the first surviving letter that does is dated a month later) so it's possible she's waiting to be sure before she tells him of their coming child.
This letter would have been sent along with others for Gen. Schuyler and the rest of the family via a military messenger from the army's headquarters - one of the perks for Hamilton of being married to a general's daughter, and still being on good terms with the commander-in-chief. Envelopes weren't yet in use, so if you look to the left side of the page, you'll see the simple "Mrs. Hamilton" which would have been on the outside of the folded and sealed letter, and sufficient address since it was included with Gen. Schuyler's letters.
This letter is over 230 years old, so its condition is to be expected. But when I looked at those deep creases, I imagined how often Eliza must have unfolded the letter to read and reread the contents, seeking reassurance and love from her husband at war.
Above: Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) Letter to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, signed and dated Dobbs Ferry, 13 July 1781, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Photograph ©2018 by Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.