wil alexander

Guess who started listening to Hamilton a week ago…. and hasn’t stopped listening to it since.

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Alexander Hamilton on marriage, Part 3

I have previously posted an overview of AH’s marriage ideals, followed by a focus on the time period 1777-spring 1780. Here, I’ll focus on AH’s letters in the summer and fall of 1780, during which time he was engaged to Elizabeth Schuyler. My focus here is not so much on the AH-ES relationship itself, but on what can be gleaned about AH’s thoughts on marriage from the letters he composes to her.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on some biographers’ interpretations of AH’s marriage: that it was a cynical endeavor designed to improve his social station and ensure financial stability. I think more recent work has called this into question to the point that this interpretation is slowly being abandoned, although work integrating the Hamiltons’ marriage, 18th century companionate marriage, the role of marriage in that society, Hamilton’s views of honor, and further examination into Hamilton’s personal life still needs to be done. My posts are really drafts, or works-in-progress, in that area, that I hope to further flesh out as I’m able. I also feel the need to state that I don’t intend to erase ES’s voice on marriage, but as most of the letters we have from her that speak to her marriage are from after AH’s death (with a few very notable exceptions I’ll discuss later), they aren’t my focus right now.  

In the letters that we have from the time period July-October 1780, AH reveals himself to be deeply concerned with ES and their love, writing at times that he can think of nothing else. He expresses love, longing, eagerness to be reunited with her, and his insecurity. For those who have read all of the AH-ES courtship letters, the quotes below are probably very familiar. But I copy them here because I think they are necessary to try to get at AH’s thoughts as he approaches his December 1780 marriage to ES.  

From these letters, what can we glean about the qualities that AH wanted in his marriage?  

First, let’s look at the qualities he seems to value in ES.  He praises her for the following (I’ve tried to keep his original language as much as possible): innocent simplicity and frankness, beauty of person and mind, having unpretending good sense, good nature affability and vivacity, sweetness and charms, and the sweet softness and delicacy of your mind and manners. She is gentle and tender. He likes that she is sensible, and appreciates her candor. In a letter to MS, he praises her as unmercifully handsome and lacking in pretty affectations, vanity, and ostentation. To Laurens, he praises ES again for practical matters, and he notes his sexual interest in her.  

These descriptions put emphasis on ES’s value to him as a life partner - she’s honest, sensible, good natured, and loving. She doesn’t value vanity - which may be of concern given his financial situation. There is plenty in the letters that also expresses his sexual attraction and tenderness for her (and the delight he feels in her tenderness for him), but it’s interesting that AH, in describing her, praises her especially for her practical qualities, or rather virtues. He may also be signaling that his interest in her is not driven solely by lust or infatuation, but by a mature and thoughtful evaluation of the kind of partner she will be for him.  AH admits to “having moments when I feel a disposition to make a more perfect discovery of your temper, and character” 3Sept1780 and sends her questions designed to uncover these qualities. Considering that they are engaged about two months after her arrival in Morristown, he may have seen this as a way of also indicating to her his own suitability as a partner: he’s a practical and mature man who has thought carefully about their prospective union to arrive at the conclusion that, “I think we know each other well enough to understand each other’s feelings, and to be sure our affection will not only last but be progressive” 13Oct1780.

I’m going to break this down into somewhat clumsy and debatable categories that are often used in the ideals of marriage in that time period.

Social/religious function of marriage

I have ever since you gave me leave to do it, considered loved and cherished you as my own; but the prospect of your being so by those sacred ties which society has established and heaven approves has something delightful in it….How often have I have with Eloisa exclaimed against those forms which I now revere as calculated to knit our union together by new and stronger bands….A sincere passion takes pleasure in multiplying the ties by which it is held to its object. .. With transport will my heart answer to the question, will you take this woman to be thy wedded wife? 27Oct1780  

This is a the strongest statement we have, in this period, about AH’s belief in marriage, in its social and religious function. He speaks of it as “sacred ties” for society (this line of thinking will be confirmed in a future post with an AH quote), that he now “reveres” marriage, and he notes that it will further and more strongly tie them together, which he views with “pleasure.” He ends with an emotional statement of his feelings when he takes his wedding vows.

Life-long attachment

I alleviate the pain of absence by looking forward to that delightful period which gives us to each other forever; and my imagination serves up such a feast of pleasure as almost makes me forget the deprivation I now experience. 6July1780

The lovely partner of my life. 6July1780

[L]et our hearts melt in a prayer to be soon united, never more to be separated. Aug1780

In the quotes above, AH indicates that he expects their union to be life-long. Although the standard of the age, this probably wasn’t a simple notion for him - his mother had two unsuccessful romantic partnerships. Nor was divorce an impossibility for ES, given her own station, although she would have likely not had custody of their children.

Shared goals

I know too you have so much of the Portia in you, that you will not be out done in this line by any of your sex, and that if you saw me inclined to quit the service of your country, you would dissuade me from it. I have promised you, you recollect, to conform to your wishes, and I persist in this intention. Aug1780

An indifference to property enters into my character too much, and what affects me now as my Betsey is concerned in it, I should have laughed at or not thought of at all a year ago. But I have thoroughly examined my own heart. Beloved by you, I can be happy in any situation, and can struggle with every embarrassment of fortune with patience and firmness. I cannot however forbear entreating you to realize our union on the dark side and satisfy, without deceiving yourself, how far your affection for me can make you happy in a privation of those elegancies to which you have been accustomed. If fortune should smile upon us, it will do us no harm to have been prepared for adversity; if she frowns upon us, by being prepared, we shall encounter it without the chagrin of disappointment.  Aug1780

For after all the proofs I have of your tenderness and readiness to share every kind of fortune with me it is a presumptuous diffidence of your heart to propose the examination I did. 3Sept1780

[B]ut I want to know, whether you would prefer my receiving the nuptial benediction in my uniform or in a different habit. It will be just as you please; so consult your whim and what you think most consistent with propriety. If you mean to follow our plan of being secretly married, the scruple ought to appear entirely your own, and you should begin to give hints of it. …5Oct1780

These quotes on quite different matters indicates that AH sees their relationship as a partnership in which they both have opinions, and ES is expected to offer input into matters that affect them both.


So far My Dear Betsey as the tenderest affection can compensate for other inconveniences in making your estimate, you cannot give too large a credit for this article. My heart overflows with every thing for you, that admiration, esteem and love can inspire. I would this moment give the world to be near you only to kiss your sweet hand. Believe what I say to be truth and imagine what are my feelings when I say it. Aug 1790

I have no time to indulge my heart by dwelling on those assurances which it delights to be ever giving you of its admiration, of its esteem of its love. My life shall be a continued proof of the unbounded affection of your [remainder missing] 31July1780

Self-love will never per⟨mit⟩ me to be unkind to you; for are not y⟨ou the dearest⟩ part of myself? 31Aug1780

I entreat you my lovely girl to believe that my tenderness for you every day increases and that no time or circumstances can abate it. 25Sept1780

You cannot conceive my avidity for everything that would endear me more to you… 2Oct1780

[I write you so often] to indulge myself and to comply with that restless propensity of mind, which will not allow me to be happy when I am not doing something in which you are concerned.  This may seem a very idle disposition in a philosopher and a soldier…and goes on to use Achilles as an example of devotion to a woman, for he had liked to have sacrificed Greece and his glory to his passion for a female captive. 15Oct1780

I feel it is essential to my happiness that the period should arrive when all my moments will be softened, enlivened, and blessed by your company.  I almost pine after peace.  Then, if ever I suffer you to be out of my sight, it will be an unwilling sacrifice to decorum. 27Oct1780

Prepare my charming bride to crown your lover with every thing that is tender, kind, passionate and endearing in your sex. He will bring you a heart fraught with all a fond woman can wish. 27Oct1780

Here, AH expounds on the importance of affection in their relationship. Indeed, based on his numerous statements about it, it seems of utmost importance to him that their relationship be loving, tender, and marked by deep affection.


I know you will be ready to justify her conduct and to tell me the ill treatment she received was enough to make any girl of spirit act in the same manner. But I will one day cure you of these refractory notions about the right of resistance, (of which I foresee you will be apt to make a very dangerous application), and teach you the great advantage and absolute necessity of implicit obedience. Aug1780

When I come to Albany, I shall find means to take satisfaction for your neglect. You recollect the mode I threatened to punish you in for all your delinquen[c]ies. 8Aug1780

[Y]et [husbands] still retain the power of happiness and misery; and if you are prudent you will not trust the felicity of your future life to one in whom you have not good reason for implicit confidence. 13Oct1780

It’s difficult to tell, without knowing the mode of punishment, if AH is joking in the middle quote. All of the quotes note that husbands have the “power” to decide what is judicious. But it’s also notable that he’s warning her of this before their marriage, and in last quote, asking her to again evaluate his suitability.

Mutual satisfaction

Tis not the vanity of excelling others, but the desire of pleasing my Betsey that dictates these wishes. In her eyes I should wish to be the first the most amiable the most accomplished of my sex; but I will make up all I want in love. 2Oct1780

For your own part, your business now is to study “the way to keep him”—which is said to be much the most difficult task of the two; though in your case I verily believe it will be an easy one, and that to succeed effectually you will only have to wish it sincerely. May I only be as successful in pleasing you, and may you be as happy as I shall ever wish to make you. 5Oct1780

Take more care of my happiness, for there is nothing your Hamilton would not do to promote yours. 13Oct1780

As with shared goals, AH places emphasis on the importance of ES’s personal happiness to him, and indicates that their happiness is to be mutual.  


Could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfeited the esteem of so fine a woman….Indeed  my angelic Betsey, I would not for the world do any thing that would hazard your esteem.  'Tis to me a jewel of inestimable price & I think you may rely I shall never make you blush.  25Sept1780

The forfeiture of ES’s esteem will again make an appearance in AH’s very last letter to her. This quote seems to speak to the importance that ES see him as a gentleman.

Erotic attachment

A spirit entering into bliss, heaven opening upon all its faculties, cannot long more ardently for the enjoyment, than I do my darling Betsey, to taste the heaven that awaits me in your bosom. Is my language too strong? It is a feeble picture of my feelings—no words can tell you how much I love and how much I long—you will only know it when wrapt in each others arms we give and take those delicious caresses which love inspires and marriage sanctifies. 5Oct1780  

AH is not only sexual attracted to her, but he believes in, and looks forward to, the blessings of marriage sanctifying their sexual activity.

Before finishing here, I’ll note that AH also began developing relationships with other members of the Schuyler family in 1780 to whom he’d also enjoy a life-long closeness. CS is in Morristown for the spring on 1780; AH and MS meet and seem to develop a fond and joking correspondence, and PS was frequently with AH during the campaign in the summer and fall and became a correspondent on more than military matters. As he writes ES, “Mention me affectionately to your Mother and to Peggy. Tell all the family I love them” [27Oct1780]. As he refers to his own father as “our father” and CS as “mama”, AH demonstrates that their marriage also includes considering each other’s families as their own.  

I will do a separate post on the 16Sept1780 letter to Laurens, as it seems to get a lot of attention. I will also move on to discuss AH’s thoughts on marriage from the 1781-1804 period using specific quotes, and the Reynolds pamphlet.