Elizabeth Cobbs

The Hamilton Affair

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The Hamilton Affair Summary

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The Hamilton Affair (2016), a historical fiction novel by the American author and historian Elizabeth Cobbs, concerns the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, his courtship with his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, and his sex scandal involving an affair with Maria Reynolds. The Miami Herald called the book “a thoroughly researched portrait of the Hamiltons that makes you feel like you are in the room where it happened.”

The book begins with alternating biographies covering the early lives of Hamilton and Schuyler, the twin narratives only forming into a single story once the two meet. Alexander Hamilton was born in the 1750s on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. His father, James, was the son of a Scottish lord who had already encountered much disrepute before arriving in the British West Indies. Alexander’s mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien, led a very tumultuous existence in the years before meeting James. Though she inherited a sizable fortune from her father, she lost it to a greedy Danish man twelve years her senior who married Rachel for her fortune, then used obscure Danish laws to accuse her of adultery, steal her inheritance, and have her incarcerated in a prison in the town of Christiansted on Nevis for many months.

After her release, Rachel left her husband and her first son and embarked to the nearby island of St Kitts, where she met James. After fathering two children with Rachel out of wedlock, James Jr. and Alexander, James abandons Rachel to “spare her a charge of bigamy,” in James’ words. When Alexander is either eleven or thirteen (reports differ as to Alexander’s birth year), Rachel dies of yellow fever, leaving her two sons orphaned. The boys move in briefly with a cousin, until that man kills himself. Then, after bouncing around somewhat, Alexander ends up in the house of merchant Thomas Stevens who, it is suggested, might be Alexander’s biological father. Meanwhile, Alexander works as a trader at the firm Beekman and Cruger. His success at this firm allows him to make powerful friends, such as Hugh Mulligan, who eventually pays for Alexander to travel to New York to attend college at King’s College in New York City.

During his time as a student, Hamilton writes and speaks eloquently in support of the Patriots’ case in rebelling against the British. He helps start a militia in New York while still a student and later distinguishes himself in the Battle of Princeton, playing a pivotal role in securing victory for the Patriots. This attracts the attention of many generals who invite him to join their staff as a chief aide. He rejects these invitations, wishing to distinguish himself on the battlefield rather than through letter writing or other less glorious activities. However, he cannot resist the invitation to become General George Washington’s chief aide.

Eliza Schuyler, meanwhile, is born in 1757 in Albany, New York to Philip Schuyler, who would later become a general during the Revolutionary War, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, who belongs to one of the richest families in the state. The family owns slaves, and Eliza grows up with the backdrop of slavery around her. While described as impulsive and a tomboy, she is fiercely religious, belonging to the Reformed Dutch Church of Albany. Her father is often gone during her childhood, fighting as a general in the Continental Army during the French-Indian War. During this time, Eliza bonds with her mother over sewing and other activities.

One especially formative experience of Eliza’s youth involves meeting the statesman Benjamin Franklin when he visits the Schuyler family. She accompanies her father and Franklin to a meeting of the Six Nations where the diplomats and politicians in attendance impress her greatly.

The Hamilton meets Eliza when she is twenty-two, considered old for a woman of her station to still be single. Hamilton visits the Schuylers on a trip to Albany looking to recruit troops for Washington. She is immediately impressed by his worldliness, charm, and dashing good looks. “No one roused her as he did,” the author writes. After about two years apart, Alexander and Eliza reconnect in Morristown, New Jersey, marrying shortly thereafter. Their marriage is a happy one, giving them many children as Hamilton rises through the ranks as a lawyer, writer, and advocate.

The marital bliss changes in 1791 when Alexander meets Maria Reynolds, a twenty-three-year-old woman who has been abandoned by her husband. Feeling sympathy for her because his mother was thrust into a similar situation, Alexander agrees to deliver money to her. After following her up the steps to her home, the two make love, continuing an affair for the better part of a year. During this time, Maria’s husband, James, regularly extorts money from Alexander, threatening to expose the affair and ruin his political career. The situation grows exceedingly untenable when James is arrested for extorting back pay wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans, and Hamilton facilitates James’s release to avoid public discovery his affair with Maria. When James threatens to go public with the scandal, Alexander must choose between admitting his complicity in a scheme that took wages from veterans and admitting the affair. After securing the support of Eliza, Hamilton chooses his country over his public reputation and that of his family, admitting to the affair.

In 1804, Eliza and Alexander’s love story comes to an end when Aaron Burr shoots Alexander Hamilton in a duel over the political rivalry between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The rivalry between the two men actually began when Burr defeated Eliza’s father, Philip, for a United States Senate Seat.

The Hamilton Affair is yet another entry in the growing collection of Hamilton-related fiction that has expanded in the years since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit, Hamilton.