Hamilton And The Unsung Labors Of WivesRoundup
tags: Alexander Hamilton, womens history
Jennifer Forestal is Helen Houlahan Rigali assistant professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, and works on democratic theory and digital technologies, as well as American political thought.
Menaka Philips is assistant professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, and works on democratic theory, feminist and postcolonial studies, and American political thought.
Since the release of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus on July 3, the musical has prompted considerable debate: over its “racebent” casting, over its treatment of slavery and over its historical accuracy. In addition, the play’s ambiguous ending has launched discussion about the role of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in both the play and in her husband’s legacy. “Who tells your story?” asks the play’s final refrain. The answer, in this case, is clear: Eliza.
By leaving viewers with the final image of Eliza — alone — at center stage, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda marks her as an extraordinary figure. As Alexander Hamilton describes her, in both his private letters and in the musical, Eliza was the “best of wives and best of women.” In the years following Hamilton’s death, Eliza co-founded the first private orphanage in New York City, which still exists today. But it is also Eliza who “tells the stories” of men like Hamilton, George Washington and others, securing their legacies as America’s “Founding Fathers.” Alongside first wives Dolley Todd Madison and Louisa Adams, Eliza raised funds to build the Washington Monument. She also recovered and organized Hamilton’s writings and petitioned for their preservation in the Library of Congress.
But in highlighting Eliza’s role as Alexander’s caretaker, curator and champion, “Hamilton” praises her for performing the kind of work that women — and especially wives — have carried out for millennia. In fact, women’s labor was integral in creating the legacies of Socrates, Machiavelli, John Locke and many other “great men” who have been remembered for their political and intellectual endeavors. Our political and intellectual heritage, in other words, is largely the product of women’s unsung labors.
Women have, throughout history, supported and preserved their husbands’ legacies. Historian Jennifer Jones shows that Thérèse Levasseur, for example, worked for years after the death in 1778 of her husband, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sending letters to the French National Assembly, Catherine the Great and others, to establish herself as guardian of Rousseau’s estate and legacy. Like Eliza’s work, Thérèse’s petitions were ultimately rewarded — the National Assembly granted her an annual pension of 600 livres for her work as the “veuve Rousseau.” Yet Thérèse, ridiculed by many of her husband’s contemporaries as being beneath his station, was kept out of view in commemorations of her husband; she was, for instance, not allowed to accompany Rousseau’s ashes when they were reburied at the Pantheon in 1794.
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