“Writing Herself Into the Narrative” – A review of ‘Eliza Hamilton’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo

elizaSo, yes, it’s no secret, I’ve been on a Hamilton kick lately. And when I saw Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Eliza Hamilton at the local bookstore, I thought it might be the perfect companion to what I already knew.

I’ve rarely been more wrong.

Tilar J. Mazzeo is not a historian, and this is clear on every single page. I  had misgivings about the book from the start, when I studied the extended family tree at the front of the book and noticed that she had Philip Hamilton (the eldest), dying in 1808 – which would mean that Alexander Hamilton had to return from the dead to give him all that bad dueling advice, given that Hamilton died in 1804, and Philip died in 1801. A typo? Perhaps. But that’s not the only issue with the family tree (which doesn’t lend credence to one of Mazzeo’s later claims), and it didn’t get better from there.

As Mazzeo points out, this is the first full-length biography of Eliza Hamilton – wife of Alexander Hamilton – ever published. As a historian and writer and woman, I think it’s fantastic that we are finally beginning to recognize the women that have been referred to as the ‘Founding Mothers.’ Far from being meek, illiterate, obedient wives, these women were strong, courageous, intelligent, and sometimes at odds with their powerful husbands. But this isn’t new territory – others, including Mary Beth Norton, Kathleen M. Brown, and yes, Cokie Roberts, have all walked this ground before. Today, we don’t often recognize the power these women wielded, or how much influence these women had, so this scholarship is both interesting and necessary.

But I would like to emphasize that key word:  scholarship. That is where Mazzeo, who is not a historian, is lacking in this book.  I’d also like to emphasize the word biography – because in the end, that’s not what this book is.

To be fair, I did like the first chapters, and the last chapters. Mazzeo clearly feels sympathy with Eliza Hamilton, and brings her and her family to life in the opening chapters. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Angelica and Peggy, and later, the youngest sister Cornelia (all of whom eloped against their parents’ wishes!). The entire Schuyler family comes to life in those early chapters, especially Eliza’s mother Kitty.

But when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and to your readers to remain objective, fair, and most of all honest. Mazzeo fails at all three. It’s not just the fact that she liberally peppers the book with her own views as if they were fact (telling us how Eliza felt or acted, when in fact we have no idea if she did or not, and this begins with the very first sentence). For instance, on page 151, she says “Eliza was frantic and had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to come home.” But nowhere does Mazzeo cite her sources for this. If Eliza wrote letters to this effect, Mazzeo has an obligation to cite them, to tell us in the endnotes (which are both inadequate and incorrect, by the way) why this was included. However, because these are not supported with evidence and citations, we are left to assume that all of this is down to Mazzeo’s imagination. In a work of nonfiction, this is not acceptable.

(Also, it bothers me that she repeatedly refers to Hamilton as “Alexander” throughout the book. Even Eliza referred to him as “Hamilton,” most often calling him “my dear Hamilton” in her letters. It’s annoying and amateurish.)

soapboxIn fact, Mazzeo hardly cites anything to support her claims, most of which fly in the face of accepted truths about Hamilton. On page 144, for example, she says blithely, “Alexander and Eliza were not an exception. They owned both enslaved people and indentures.” But, no end notes. No citations. Nothing. How can she say this (especially when Chernow goes to great lengths to point out that we don’t have evidence that the Hamiltons owned slaves) as if it’s gospel? She takes pains to point out that both Eliza and Hamilton kept household account books, that the family was always in a bit of a financial straits. Then where is her evidence for them owning slaves? The one receipt she references is not enough, when there is no evidence afterwards that those slaves ever took up residence in the Hamilton household. If the evidence is there, cite it. If it’s not – then it doesn’t belong in the book.

The title of this review is, of course, a reference to the musical Hamilton – and a fitting one, since Mazzeo makes repeated, Easter-egg references to the musical throughout the book. This only adds to the feeling that she wrote it only to ride the coattails of Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ‘Writing herself into the narrative’ is a reference not to Eliza, though, but to Mazzeo herself. And that brings me to the biggest criticism I have:  her treatment of the Reynolds Affair.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows the story of the Reynolds Affair – in the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, had a torrid affair, and was subsequently blackmailed by James Reynolds, her husband. He thought it long over, until he was accused of using his position as Secretary of the Treasury to do some insider trading to make his family and friends wealthy. Then, to clear his public reputation, he had to confess to a private affair – which did, yes, ruin his political chances, but which he felt was necessary in order to keep his public, professional honor intact. Mazzeo, however, seems intent on painting Hamilton as nothing more than a despicable scoundrel who fabricated a sexual relationship in order to cover up insider trading.

Which makes absolutely no sense. 

Mazzeo all but manufactures evidence to support her theory. She claims that Hamilton gave money to James Reynolds to invest for him, which was illegal; when those transactions were brought to light, Hamilton fabricated the story about the affair and blackmail to cover his tracks. This is where Mazzeo’s complete lack of historical knowledge and training are most evident. She claims – again, without proof – that the letters sent to him by Maria Reynolds were forged by Hamilton (possibly with the help of Eliza), and that is why Eliza stood by him during that time rather than kicking him to the curb.

First – there is no evidence that Hamilton knew Reynolds before this affair. Above, I referenced issues with the family tree. Mazzeo says that Maria Reynolds was a distant cousin to Eliza, and thus, Hamilton knew Reynolds as a relative. Let’s suppose that the family tree isn’t wrong in this case, and Maria was related to Eliza. Did Hamilton know? And if he did, why would he ask Reynolds to invest money for him? Why not secretly slip his father-in-law a few hundred dollars to invest instead? Or – since he was still Angelica’s husband’s lawyer, and handling his investments, why not slip a few hundred of his own money into John Church’s accounts, then withdraw it just as easily when the money had grown? Hamilton was a financial genius, and Mazzeo forgets this. She studied Eliza – but never Hamilton. Hamilton never really earned enough to support his family. When he died, he was $50,000 in debt. Do we really think a financial genius would have engaged in insider trading and yet not made a penny at it? 

Second – Hamilton would have never done anything to tarnish his reputation, or do anything that might possibly destroy the very things he’d created – the Treasury, and the Bank of the United States. Even a whiff of scandal at that time would have been just cause for his political foes to dismantle both and discredit him. He fought too hard, for too long, to jeopardize them in any way. The Republicans were looking to bring Hamilton down any way that they could. Insider trading – especially entrusted to someone Hamilton didn’t know?! – would have given them the ammunition they needed. There is absolutely no way he’d have risked that. None. Mazzeo needs to read Gordon S. Woods’ “Revolutionary Characters” for a better understanding of how these men viewed their honor. Sacrificing his marriage, admitting in public to a sexual relationship, in order to save his public and political honor – yes, these are precisely the things Hamilton would do. She admits several times that he was a bit of a hound. Yes, he was. And when someone under stress meets someone looking pretty . . .

As to why Eliza never kicked him to the curb – again, to anyone who has studied the eighteenth century, this is no mystery. Divorce was not unheard of, but for a woman, it was difficult to obtain. Where was she going to go? Would she, a devoted mother, risk losing her children? Risk their reputations? She had no choice but to support him. Besides, who’s to say what went on behind closed doors? Who’s to say what was in the letters she burned at the end of her life? Again, this goes back to the idea of public honor, which Mazzeo doesn’t understand. Eliza had a duty as Hamilton’s wife – and a Schuyler – to remain at his side, to not add fuel to the rumors. (It’s not as if it’s the first time a strong, independent woman has done this, after all – Hilary Clinton, anyone?)

There are other small issues of scholarship as well – for instance, she cites a letter from Angelica as proof that Eliza encouraged Hamilton to resign from the Treasury, but she cites the letter as being from 1793 or 94, not 1795 as Chernow does. A small thing, perhaps, but again, something that throws into question her veracity and judgment. In the few images in the book, she cites a portrait of Philip as being of William. Again – when you write history, every detail has to be exact, every idea has to be supported by evidence. If not, it throws into question your entire ability to do the work. And I already had those questions before I started reading.

Mazzeo treats the Reynolds Affair as if it was the midpoint of Eliza’s life – in truth, Hamilton’s murder was the midpoint of her life (she was 48 in 1804), and a scant 53 pages are given to the rest of her life. She lived another half a century, raised the rest of the children on her own, lost her family (including her father and Angelica), created New York’s first orphanage, fought for her husband’s rightful place in history, went west in her 80s, for God’s sake, to see her son William, and . . . all that in 53 pages?!

So no. I wanted to like it. But her treatment of Eliza is too light, too fictional, to be taken seriously, and as I said – in the end, I felt that all Mazzeo wanted to do was write herself into the recent Hamilton narrative by spending way too many chapters on the Reynolds Affair, which she neither understands nor cares to understand.

My hope is that someone else will do Eliza’s story justice.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s