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The Life and Legacy of 'Founding Mother' Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Eliza Schuyler Hamilton outlived her famous husband Alexander by fifty years and went on to make her own mark on history.

Many people have heard of Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler Hamilton from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton about her husband Alexander, but most know little of the life and legacy of this influential Founding Mother. Eliza lived for 97 years — and outlived her famous husband by 50 years — during a tumultuous period that included the American Revolution and the establishment of American government and democracy, as well as personal dramas and tragedies, including the deaths of both her oldest son and her husband in duels. Despite it all, she went on to devote her life both to preserving Alexander’s legacy and to charitable causes, including the creation of the first private orphanage in New York City, even while her own family struggled with financial hardship. "I think anyone else would have been broken," says Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, the biography that inspired the hit musical. "Not only did she live, she prevailed."

The daughter of prominent New York Senator Philip Schuyler, Eliza was born in Albany, New York on August 9, 1757 and was well known as both a child and a young woman for her strong will and character. She married Alexander Hamilton in 1780, and she was integral in his political career. She frequently assisted him with his writing, including acting as an intermediary between him and the publisher for the Federalist Papers, and sitting up late as he wrote Washington’s Farewell Address so that he could read segments of it aloud to her.

Eliza also supported Alexander's efforts to found the African Free School to educate children of slaves and free blacks in New York City.  The school was an initiative of the anti-slavery New York Manumission Society of which Alexander was a prominent member (Eliza was not permitted to join the male-only organization herself). Having grown up in a wealthy family, which like most major landowners of the time, owned slaves, Eliza grew to view slavery as a great sin. After the death of her father in 1804, Eliza and her brothers and sisters freed the remaining enslaved people on the Schuyler family estate.

During their 24-year marriage, Eliza and Alexander had eight children over a twenty-year period so much of Eliza's time was spent caring for their large family. Their marriage was severely shaken, however, in 1797 by the Reynolds Pamphlet in which Alexander admitted to a year-long affair and the subsequent scandal which ensued. In response to this revelation, Eliza, who was pregnant at the time with their sixth child, moved with the children to her parents' house in Albany. Over time, Eliza and Alexander reconciled — only for him to be killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, just two years after their oldest son, Philip, died in his own duel.

Alexander’s debts left Eliza in a difficult position after his death, especially with seven children to care for, and she was still grieving the death of Philip, as well as her mother and father who had both recently died. In an act of compassion, when her house in upper Manhattan was sold at auction to help cover those debts, Alexander's executors purchased it so that they could sell it back to her at half the price. Eliza scraped together the funds and drew on every scrap of her resourcefulness to keep going during these lean times. Her son James later remembered her as "a great economist and most excellent manager" who sewed undergarments for the children to help stretch funds.

Eliza turned that same keen eye for management to her charitable work. She continued her work with the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, which she had joined in 1798. She was also inspired by her husband's experience as a child orphan to co-found the Orphan Asylum Society in 1806, which established New York City's first private orphanage. She served as the second directress, equivalent to the organization's vice president, until 1821, and as the first directress for 27 years after that. In both roles, she raised funds and purchased or collected the supplies needed for the orphanage — but she also supervised the care and education for the children. She only left the organization when she moved away from New York in 1848; in her 42 years with the Society, she had been responsible for an estimated 765 children. Her impact on child welfare carries on to this day as the Orphan Asylum Society, now known as Graham Windham, continues to serve thousands of children in need annually.

In the years following Alexander's death, Eliza also fought to maintain his legacy. After the scandal of the Reynolds Pamphlet, Alexander had fallen out of political favor, and now his previous rivals were working hard to minimize his contributions. James Madison had written a draft of a similar address in 1792, when Washington contemplated retiring at the end of his first term in office; many were now arguing that Madison was the primary author. Eliza was able to prove that Alexander had rewritten that draft to such a significant extent that the work was primarily his. She also collected his papers and letters, and had them edited by her son John Church Hamilton. She then petitioned Congress to publish Alexander's works and add them to the Library of Congress to ensure they would exist in perpetuity.

Eliza's efforts to preserve and honor Revolutionary history also extended to other heroes of the period. The questionnaires she sent to Alexander's colleagues to learn more about his work provided a detailed look at the Revolutionary War and the first years of their new country; John Church Hamilton's book History of the Republic of the United States America drew heavily on her work and knowledge. When a national monument to George Washington was proposed, she also helped former First Lady Dolley Madison raise funds to begin its construction and attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony on July 4, 1848. She was a little more than a month away from her 91st birthday.

Eliza outlived her husband by 50 years, and died in 1854 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 97. It is thanks to her work that we know so much about Alexander Hamilton and his contributions to early America. "Her efforts made it easier to research Alexander’s life, because after his death, his enemies were in power," explains Chernow. "Elizabeth was working against the political system of the time, and time itself." For all of her work to raise up the legacy of her husband and other heroes of the American Revolution, however, she was exceedingly humble about her many personal accomplishments. In response to praise for her decades of work with orphans, Elizabeth simply stated: "My Maker has pointed out this duty to me, and has given me the skill and inclination to perform it."

Books About Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

From a Small Seed: The Story of Eliza Hamilton

From a Small Seed: The Story of Eliza Hamilton

Written by: Camille Andros
Illustrated by: Tessa Blackham
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

As a child, Elizabeth Schuyler learned that even a small seed could grow into something big — if it had the support it needed to thrive. Her loving parents and sisters gave her strong roots which allowed her intelligence and compassion to grow along with her. In this lyrical, fictionalized account of her life, young readers will learn how those principles guided her as she met and married Alexander Hamilton, lived through one of the most tumultuous parts of American history, and established a legacy all of her own through her devotion to charity and public service. This elegant portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton will inspire kids to imagine what small seeds they could help to grow.

Eliza Hamilton: Founding Mother

Eliza Hamilton: Founding Mother

Written by: Monica Kulling
Illustrated by: Valerio Fabbretti
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

As a girl, Eliza Schuyler was a spirited and intelligent child; as a young woman, the wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, she showed her big heart and her incredible strength of character. After Hamilton died in his infamous duel, she not only preserved his legacy: she also protected the memories of many other Revolutionary figures, and founded New York City's first orphanage, which still helps children today. This Level 3 biography from the Step Into Reading early reader series will teach kids about Eliza's life, work, and influence.

Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Written by: Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by: Esmé Shapiro
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was far more than the wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton! From her work building schools and orphanages to raising funds for the Washington Monument, Eliza — who outlived her husband by fifty years — was a determined and resilient force for change in her time. This well-researched picture book biography is framed as a letter from Eliza to her as-yet-unborn great-granddaughter, and accented with exquisite illustrations that mirror 18th century American paintings, elegantly illuminating the life and influence of this extraordinary woman.

Founding Mothers: Remembering The Ladies

Founding Mothers: Remembering The Ladies

Written by: Cokie Roberts
Illustrated by: Diane Goode
Recommended Age: 7 - 11

Turning America into a country required contributions from many people — including dedicated, patriotic women. Award-winning journalist Cokie Roberts provides an excellent introduction to women's contribution to the American Revolution in this engaging adaptation of her book for adult readers, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. She features profiles of multiple women, including early First Ladies Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, who famously urged her husband to "remember the ladies" when codifying laws for the new country. Fans of this book will enjoy the follow-up Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, which covers the period from 1776 to 1824.

Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship

Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship

Written by: L. M. Elliott
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Peggy Schuyler is used to being overshadowed by her two older sisters, brilliant Angelica and kind and beautiful Eliza. Even when George Washington's aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, contacts her, it's just to find out how to woo Eliza. But Peggy and Alexander become fast friends, and as her father and Alexander take on important roles in the Revolutionary War, she decides she can't sit on the sidelines. Soon, she's helping her father gather intelligence — and when British Loyalists storm the Schuyler home, it will take all of Peggy's courage and cleverness to win the day. Inspired by the musical Hamilton and backed up by in-depth research, Elliott has crafted a thrilling new historical novel that highlights a daring, brave, and loyal young woman and her world-changing friendship.

Alex & Eliza

Alex & Eliza

Written by: Melissa de la Cruz
Recommended Age: 14 and up

The Schuylers are the darlings of New York society, an esteemed founding family with three daughters — including the charming and keenly intelligent Eliza, who would rather be helping the colonies achieve freedom than dressing up for the grand ball. But this year's ball has an unexpected guest: Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant orphan and recently promoted colonel who serves as General Washington's right-hand man. The pair fall head over heels for one another, but Alexander has no land or money of his own: his prospects are dependent on the success of this rebellion. In this first book of a trilogy, young adult readers catch a glimpse of the resilient and civic-minded woman Eliza will become. The story continues in the sequels, Love & War and All For One.

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Recommended Age: Adults

Elizabeth Schuyler's life is turned upside down when she meets Alexander Hamilton and falls head over heels in love. But the Revolutionary War is raging and their marriage is far from perfect. She holds her head high through infighting and tragedy — and through America's first sex scandal, which forces her to confront Alexander's betrayal and somehow still find forgiveness. And then, suddenly, Alexander is dead in a duel. Eliza wants to fight to preserve her husband's legacy, but it seems like the more she learns, the more secrets she discovers. This historical fiction novel, drawn from thousands of letters and other original sources, captures a more complex picture of Eliza as a brilliant woman, and Founding Mother, in her own right.

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation

Written by: Cokie Roberts
Recommended Age: Adults

Revolutionary history is full of male heroes — but there were many women who contributed to the fight for America's independence too! Best-selling author Cokie Roberts sought out the stories of inspiring women, though letters, private journals, and more, to bring to life the role of women in the Revolutionary War. In these pages, women like Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Deborah Read Franklin, Eliza Pinckney, Catherine Littlefield Green, Esther DeBerdt Reed and Martha Washington get their due. To share these stories with middle grade leaders, Roberts also adapted her work into Founding Mothers: Remembering The Ladies for ages 7 to 11.

I, Eliza Hamilton

I, Eliza Hamilton

Written by: Susan Holloway Scott
Recommended Age: Adults

When Elizabeth Schuyler meets the ambitious Alexander Hamilton in the midst of the American Revolution, the pair are quickly married. Elizabeth knows Alexander's brilliance and boldness will make him one of the most important people in the new nation he has helped to create. As his wife, she helps with his political writings and manages their busy (and growing) household... until scandal, and then tragedy, strikes. Now, she must find her own path: one which ensures her beloved husband's legacy lasts, while also pursuing her own passions for charity and justice. This exquisite work of historical fiction depicts this little appreciated woman from American history in all of her vibrant and strong-willed glory.

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