Many contemporary admirers of Eliza Hamilton assume that she left no letters of hers survive - that she burned every letter she ever wrote. This isn’t true. While the letters she exchanged with her husband Alexander Hamilton are gone - whether destroyed by Eliza herself or one of her sons. or lying forgotten in some descendant’s attic - other letters written by Eliza still exist.
The letter here was written in 1833, when Eliza was seventy-six. Despite her age, her penmanship is crisp and legible. No wonder: she was still employed as the directress of the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York (OAS), a position she had held since 1821, and would continue to hold until 1848, when she finally, reluctantly, stepped down at ninety-one. Although Eliza’s devotion to the OAS was her life’s work, it was not financially rewarding, and money remained a challenge to her from her husband’s early death in 1804 to her own in 1854.
As her sons grew into successful men, they contributed to her support - a support that she was reluctant to accept. In this letter to her fourth son, James Alexander Hamilton (1788-1878), she not thanks him for his generosity, but also poignantly assures him of his late father’s approval.
My Dear Son
Your unremitting kindness and Attentions and in this last Instance of providing for my Comfort demands my most ardent and affectionate thanks, as I think my wants will not require your enclosed check, until the Autumn. Let me say to you that when I shall require your goodness to aid me I will call upon you. As all good Acts are recorded in the Habitation in which your Father is, I make no doubt it is proclaimed to him, and you give him another motive to implore continued Blessings upon you. Amen.
My son I am Your affectionate Mother Elizabeth Hamilton
The letter must have touched James Alexander deeply, for he saved it. In 1869, long after Eliza’s death, he attached a cutting of “hair of my beloved mother Elizabeth Hamilton.” Eliza’s dark hair is mostly grey, and is bound with a white thread and affixed with red wax. The letter then likely became a memento for one of James Alexander’s own children or grandchildren.
In the era before photography, a lock of hair was an enduring link to a loved one, to be carefully preserved and cherished. James Alexander seems to have been the keeper and distributor of the Hamilton family hair. In various collections, his distinctive signature and the same red wax accompany not only cuttings of his father’s hair, but also a few treasured strands from his father’s friend and mentor George Washington (see here and here. ) More of Washington’s hair, again preserved by James Alexander, was recently sold at auction for nearly $38,000.00!
But for James Alexander, the sight of his mother’s familiar handwriting and the assurance of her love must have been priceless. On the reverse, he noted that this was “a most beautiful letter from my mother God bless her.” He’s right. It is. And I’m honored to have this tiny piece of Eliza in my own collection, a reminder of an extraordinary and inspiring woman.