There’s a sadly held notion out there that Eliza Hamilton was not well-educated, not well-read, just not able to measure up to her undeniably brilliant Alexander Hamilton. (One dunderhead biographer - of Alexander, not Eliza - goes so far to say that Eliza destroyed her letters from shame because they were so badly written in comparison to his!)
This simply isn’t true. Eliza and her sisters were girls born into privilege and wealth, and were educated accordingly. They all knew how to read and write and were literate in Dutch as well as English; it’s likely that they were taught French as well, though Angelica appears to have been the most adept of the sisters at that language. They would have learned history, geography, literature, and arithmetic, too. While “accomplishments” like needlework, music, and dancing would also have have been included in their education, they were raised to be not only agreeable ladies, but also practical managers, able to oversee every aspect of a large, complicated household and staff.
The book, above, belongs to the collections of Schuyler Mansion, Eliza’s childhood home in Albany, NY. It was given to the Mansion with a group of other books known to have belonged to Alexander. Like many 18thc gentlemen, Alexander was a serious book-buyer, and justly proud of his personal library. Most of his books were related to the law and to economics and finance, topics that not only interested him but were necessary to his work. Because of its subject, this book was long assumed to have belonged to him.
Until someone finally opened it, and saw the name written inside.
This book was Eliza’s property, not her husband’s, with her name, in her handwriting, marked on the title page. Purchased some time after 1789, the book could be considered proof that Alexander wasn’t the only one interested in economics. It’s not known whether he purchased it as a gift for her, or whether she bought it for herself. Letters written during their courtship show that Alexander recommended books for Eliza to read, and this might have been another of his suggestions. This is Volume III; Volume IV, also marked with Eliza’s signature, is now in the collection of Hamilton Grange and the National Parks Service.
(My friends at the Schuyler Mansion have suggested another way that the book might have come into Eliza’s possession: from her older sister, Angelica Schuyler Church. At this time, Angelica, her husband John Barker Church, and their children were living abroad. Angelica often sent gifts back to the Hamiltons, and this book could well have been something she chose specifically for Eliza - or it could also have been one that Eliza requested her sister to find for her in a London bookshop. So many possibilities!)
Anderson’s History of Commerce was the life’s work of Scottish economist Adam Anderson (1693-1765), chief clerk for the Stock and New Annuities of the South Sea Company. It was a bestseller among economic histories of its time, and was updated and republished after Anderson’s death. This edition dates from 1789.
However the book entered into Eliza’s own library, she must have read and understood its (to modern eyes) daunting contents. After Alexander’s death, Eliza became the Directress of the Orphan Asylum Society of New York that she helped found, and the Asylum’s budgeting and fundraising were among her many responsibilities - responsibilities that she handled with the acumen and efficiency that permitted the Asylum to grow and prosper.
In the even that you, like Eliza, want to add the book to your own collection, here’s the full, fulsome title: Anderson's Historical and chronological deduction of the origin of commerce, from the earliest accounts : containing an history of the great commercial interests of the British empire; to which is prefixed, an introduction, exhibiting a view of the ancient and modern state of Europe; of the importance of our colonies; and of the commerce, shipping, manufactures, fisheries, &c. of Great-Britain and Ireland; and their influence on the landed interest: with an appendix, containing the modern politico-commercial geography of the several countries of Europe / carefully revised, corrected, and continued to the year 1789, by Mr. Combe, in six volumes.
Photograph @2019 Jessie Serfilippi. Thank you, Jessie!
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton. Order now. My new book, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr is also available everywhere, in paperback, ebook, and audiobook. Order now here.