Friday, June 2, 2017

“Examine Well Your Heart”

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
From The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings

Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton: The Musical. (Joan Marcus / The Public Theater)
I knew you’d fight until the war was won
         (HAMILTON: The war’s not done)
But you deserve a chance to meet your son
Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now

Will you relish being a poor man’s wife
Unable to provide for your life?
         (From “That Would Be Enough,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, from Hamilton: The Musical)
Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler first met in the fall of 1777, at a dinner in Albany at the home of her father, General Philip Schuyler, a commanding officer of the Revolutionary Army. They would not see each other again until a little more than two years later, in early February 1780, when Elizabeth visited relatives in Morristown, New Jersey. Her father had given her introductory letters to George Washington, whose troops were stationed nearby for the winter. Serving on Washington’s staff, Alexander inevitably encountered Elizabeth and, as a fellow aide said at the time, “Hamilton is a gone man.”

Later that month Alexander wrote to one of Elizabeth’s sisters—almost certainly Margarita, the youngest of the three Schuyler daughters in their early 20s. “I have already confessed the influence your sister has gained over me; yet notwithstanding this, I have some things of a very serious and heinous nature to lay to her charge,” Hamilton wrote in a letter laying out the “mischiefs” Elizabeth was guilty of:
She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty. Her good sense is destitute of that happy mixture of vanity and ostentation which would make it conspicuous to the whole tribe of fools and foplings as well as to men of understanding. . . . In short she is so strange a creature that she possesses all the beauties virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects, which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman. . . . She has had the address to overset all the wise resolutions I had been framing for more than four years past, and from a rational sort of being and a professed contemner of Cupid has in a trice metamorphosed me into the veriest inamorato you perhaps ever saw.
By the beginning of March, the couple were engaged to be married.

In his best-selling biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes how the colonel “sometimes mooned about in a romantic haze, very much the lovesick swain” and during the year of their engagement sent to Elizabeth “the most candid letters of his life”—nearly two dozen of which have survived. Even though he was marrying into a rich family, it’s clear that “Hamilton was too proud to sponge off the Schuylers,” and one recurring theme of the letters is insecurity over his relative poverty. Yet the couple would prove to be well-matched; Chernow laments the fact that “she remains invisible in most biographies of her husband,” perhaps because she “was certainly the most self-effacing ‘founding mother.’” In her introduction to The Essential Hamilton, Joanne B. Freeman describes how Elizabeth became “a calming presence and a pillar of strength in Hamilton’s all too harried life. His letters to her show the highs and lows of their relationship, from their flirtatious courtship to their close companionship of later years.”

When Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing his now-famous musical, he was especially inspired by the letters to Elizabeth, particularly one sent in August 1780, which we present as our Story of the Week selection.
It kind of captures everything I love about Hamilton. He’s kind of arrogant, he’s kind of insecure, he’s unbelievably romantic, it’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s basically him saying to Eliza, “Don’t marry me if you think you can’t be happy broke—because we might end up broke.”
Miranda adapted a line from this letter (“Do you soberly relish the pleasure of being a poor mans wife?”) as a line of the song “That Would Be Enough.” Last summer, the week before the show’s final performance featuring the original cast, the actor read the letter from the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings to a crowd of hundreds of fans gathered on the street outside the Times Square theater. The video of Miranda’s reading is presented below, followed by the text of the letter itself in the usual Story of the Week formats.

Note: Lieutenant Colonel Richard Kidder Meade, mentioned on the first page of Hamilton’s letter, was an aide-de-camp to Washington. In 1780 he married Mary Fitzhugh Grymes Randolph, a widow. Portia was the daughter of Cato the Younger and the wife of Brutus, the leader of the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar. The postscript mentions a letter from John Mathews, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress.

Following a brief introduction, Miranda’s reading of the letter begins at the 1:25 mark.

If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.