Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.
Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of The Wife of Alexander Hamilton follows Eliza through her early years in New York, into the ups and downs of her married life with Alexander, beyond the aftermath of his tragic murder, and finally to her involvement in many projects that cemented her legacy as one of the unsung heroes of our nation’s early days. Featuring Mazzeo’s “impeccable research and crafting” (Library Journal), and perfect for fans of the richly detailed historical books by Ron Chernow and Erik Larson, Eliza Hamilton is the captivating account of the woman behind the famous man.
What is Eliza Hamilton about?
The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton kind of summarizes it up, huh? This is a biography of Eliza Hamilton, from her childhood to her marriage to the fifty years she lives after Hamilton and Burr’s fateful duel. This book is, as the author states, one of the first if not the first comprehensive looks at Eliza’s life beyond the scope of her marriage, and it presents some interesting historiography as a result.
Though written in a more narrative, and entertaining way, this book is definitely a biography. It elaborates on the sources of Eliza’s life and attempts to piece together what’s missing–the parts of her life that she deliberately erased.
First things first, it’s clear that the biographer has a degree of respect and appreciation for Eliza that’s important when writing about her life. In fact, that respect goes so far as to have the author counter the popular view of Alexander Hamilton at the moment. As the author explains in an afterword, the Reynolds Affair has been debated by historians and by contemporaries of Hamilton. There are those that believe Hamilton’s story–that any evidence of improper speculation was actually tied to his affair with Maria Reynolds–and then those that believe Hamilton invented this cover story. The author of the biography stated that pro-Hamilton historians generally believe Hamilton’s version of events, as no evidence exists to the contrary, but that as a pro-Eliza biographer that becomes harder to support. I also enjoyed the fact that the biography spends so much time on Eliza’s childhood, personal relationships, flaws, and the tremendous work she did in her later life and the respect she earned in her time.
I think that for as long as the book was, more time could have been spent on relevant issues than on the ins and outs of Eliza’s social relationships. While relationships were important to Eliza’s life, so were many hot issues from her youth to her late adulthood. Discussing her thoughts and feelings is more difficult during some periods of time–since Eliza Hamilton burned many of her own letters–but there is ample evidence for some of her opinions with little time allotted to a further discussion of that.
I’m not a huge fan of filling in actual thoughts and feelings for a real historical person. In a work of nonfiction, I don’t think you need to create dialogue, inner monologues, or presume the feelings that someone would have had to write a compelling narrative about someone.
Altogether, this biography is well written, sympathetic towards Eliza’s life and flaws, and addresses the issue of the major affairs in her life–that overlap Alexander Hamilton’s–with quite a bit of nuance. I appreciate that the author felt that Eliza had more agency than she was ascribed during her time, and I found myself agreeing with the argument the author presented. It is also fair to point out that the author presents their argument, explains why they believe it, and present the other possibilities as well. The biography spends quite a bit of time on Eliza’s youth and her later life, not focusing solely on her life with Alexander Hamilton, which is spectacular considering how much Eliza accomplished outside of her marriage.