In the spirit of the Oscars and this week of after-Oscar buzz, I’ve been watching a few nominated movies and those that have won Oscars in the past. Anyone who knows me well will attest that I am a rabid movie fan. I love a good story, especially a story with some depth, one that shakes my pre-conceptions or even has an ending that leaves a thing or two unresolved. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have no choice but to confess: I am also a sucker for mindless romantic comedy. Much as the big Oscar blunder illustrated, sometimes we want to see a light and fluffy La La Land and other times we need to confront our reactions to important social issues of the type examined in Moonlight. (For what it’s worth, in my opinion the Academy got it right in the end, though not without drama. But what good is Hollywood without the drama?)
Still, the escapism I find in a romantic film is an antidote for uncertainty, a salve for my stress, one that I suppose I indulge a little too often. I am guilty of watching my favorite films over and over, to the point that I can chime in on the dialogue at will. I don’t even want to calculate how many days of my life I have spent watching and re-watching every Nora Ephron film. (You’ve Got Mail is my favorite. Who can resist Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks playing catch on the upper west side?) There is something comforting in knowing how the movie will end and that all those loose ends that, in real life do not tie in a neat bow, may at least do so on screen.
I also like the movies that make you wonder “How could those two have gotten together?” and “What could she possibly see in him?” just as we sometimes do in real life. The old notion that opposites attract is often explored in movies because it is so often the essence of real relationships. Consider movies like Someone Like You, The Proposal, Two Weeks’ Notice, or When Harry Met Sally; all are premised on the mismatched couple who, despite all of their squabbling, somehow come together in the end.
So, leave it to me to read a letter from Alexander Hamilton to his friend John Laurens and think, “That reminds me of a movie.” Worse yet, the letter echoes a very silly movie in which the main character played by Ben Stiller (as convincing a neurotic as Woody Allen any day), is dating a woman (Jennifer Aniston) who is his opposite in every way, and their incompatibility leads him into all kinds of embarrassing situations. Since he works in risk management, he decides to create a risk management assessment which compares her wifely qualifications to those of his ex-wife. Of course, she finds it and, hurt and upset that he would reduce their relationship to an exercise of data analysis, breaks it off. (It’s a romantic comedy, so not to worry—he does something ridiculous like eat peanuts off a New York City street to convince her that he is worthy, and no surprise, it works.)
It’s a pretty good bet that the screenplay writers for Along Came Polly were not aware that Alexander Hamilton—an inexhaustible letter-writer—did much the same thing as, in a letter to his friend, he outlined his requirements for a wife. Here’s an excerpt:
Knowing that Hamilton had less-than-respectable origins, it’s beyond presumptuous that he would set such high expectations for his future wife. His boasting at the end of the letter is evidence of his incredible conceit. Hamilton’s checklist approach to selecting a wife also highlights the point of my November blog post, “Becoming a Woman in the Colonies.” True to the convention of colonial times, Hamilton considered a woman to be a man’s possession, and with ownership came a man’s right to certain expectations regarding her character.
Furthermore, Hamilton was a notorious “ladies’ man,” flirtatious and charismatic in the presence of the opposite sex, and with his smooth talk and flashing violet eyes, he was a pretty successful charmer. Before meeting Eliza, Hamilton had a string of crushes, most famously on Catherine Livingston with whom he shared intimate and suggestive letters; then on Cornelia Lott, about whom he could scarcely stop talking to his fellow soldiers; then, a month later, on a girl named Polly. In each case, he declared himself madly in love only to lose interest as soon as he laid eyes on the next pretty face—his fickle nature a sign of his immaturity and perhaps his need for continual validation. It is true that Martha Washington named her tomcat “Hamilton” for just this reason.
Hamilton’s arrogance also stemmed from his extraordinarily rapid rise to prominence in the colonies, first as a student at Kings College. Because of his unequaled intelligence, his natural giftedness with the pen and his strict study habits, he became a prolific writer and began writing editorials justifying the colonists’ defiance of British rule. One of the early and most famous was a response to an editorial written by Samuel Seabury in support of the Continental Congress. It was typical of Hamilton, who was especially adept at debate, to read an opinion and be unable to resist the urge to counter-argue. What follows is the re-enactment of this editorial jousting as converted by Lin-Manuel Miranda into a rap battle.
Shortly thereafter, Hamilton used his argumentation skills while speaking in public to growing rebellious crowds on the Common, an outdoor gathering place near Kings. According to Chernow, the first was an impromptu speech that “he started out haltingly, then caught fire in a burst of oratory,” delivering a vehement endorsement of the Boston Tea Party. Later, his leadership skills took over and when revolution made its way to New York City, he commanded a small group of volunteers to move heavy artillery from the battery, in the process saving it from British pilfery.
Alexander Hamilton was making a name for himself, and soon his abilities drew the attention of General George Washington, who enlisted Hamilton’s assistance as an aide de camp. Those in Washington’s close unit had certain privileges and one of them was joining his social circle at gatherings called “dancing assemblies,” elegant balls where men and women in extravagant formal attire and high powdered wigs did the minuet or the English country dance.
During this time, Eliza slipped gracefully into adulthood in her more sheltered environment, surrounded by a large family bestowed with wealth, privilege and status, neatly nestled in her home in Albany. When she ventured outside her familiar surroundings, it was often to visit a family member, as she did on February 2, 1780. Her Aunt Gertrude had married Dr. John Cochran, Washington’s personal physician, so it was natural that she would have accompanied her relatives to one of the dancing assemblies attended by Washington and his men. This is where she was reacquainted with Colonel Hamilton, who had once briefly visited the Schuyler mansion on a military errand. From the evening of that elegant ball on, Hamilton was a “gone man,” as described by his friend and fellow aide, Tench Tilghman, and he began relentlessly courting Eliza, spending each evening at the Cochran’s home. Only a month later, in early March 1780, they became engaged.
To have decided to marry after only a month’s time, Hamilton and Eliza undoubtedly had a deep mutual attraction. It is also fair to surmise, whether through clues found in a comprehensive biography or a shred of diary or letter, that they had opposite natures. Their grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, describes Eliza as “gentle and retiring,” with a “quiet charm” who was “fond of domestic affairs” and “lacking the superficial grace and accomplishment of many of her more sprightly and dashing friends” (96). Conversely, Alexander Hamilton is described by his grandson as “a mixture of aggressive force and infinite tenderness and amiability,” an individual who was prone to “always speak his mind freely—perhaps too freely for his own comfort” who “wondered why others did not think and act as he did,” and who sometimes exhibited “resentful impatience” (37). Intense and outspoken, hungry for attention and glory, Hamilton must have found Eliza to be a stabilizing comfort, yin to his yang.
But there is more to their pairing that, for me, is a sad footnote, revealing a relationship that would prove to be one-sided and exploitative. In his checklist of wifely qualifications, Hamilton writes, “But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better.” Was he merely an opportunist, who, as he intended, had found a mate from a very wealthy family? And, beyond wealth, how could Hamilton not have realized that when the family patriarch, a revered General, became his father-in-law, the marriage could only serve to bolster his own status in the military where his ambition was boundless? There is strong evidence early in this analysis that wealth and position motivated Hamilton’s choice. It is all the more likely that Hamilton was motivated by self-interest since marital stresses later in life, as we shall see in future posts, show that Hamilton often prioritized his pride and ego above Eliza’s happiness and well-being. Sadly, from this relationship flaw Eliza would suffer consequences for the rest of her life .
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Flexner, J.T. (1997). The young Hamilton: a biography. New York: Fordam University Press.
Hamilton, A. (1961). The papers of Alexander Hamilton (Vol. II). H. C. Syrett (Ed.) New York: Columbia University Press.
Hamilton, A. M. (reprinted 2015). London: Forgotten Books.
Miranda,, L. (2015). Hamilton (An American musical). New York: Atlantic.