With Hamilton becoming a national phenomenon the ten dollar founding father Alexander Hamilton has been put back in the spotlight. I myself have listened to the original cast recording multiple times (and have unsuccessfully tried to follow along with Lafayette’s insanely fast rap). So when I discovered Elizabeth Cobbs newest book The Hamilton Affair in the bookstore I immediately picked it up. I was able to get the author Elizabeth Cobbs to answer a few questions on Hamilton, history, and writing historical fiction. Be sure to scroll down for my interview with Elizabeth.
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Revolution, and featuring a cast of iconic characters such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette,The Hamilton Affair tells the sweeping, tumultuous, true love story of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, from tremulous beginning to bittersweet ending—his at a dueling ground on the shores of the Hudson River, hers more than half a century later after a brave, successful life.
Hamilton was a bastard son, raised on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He went to America to pursue his education. Along the way he became one of the American Revolution’s most dashing—and unlikely—heroes. Adored by Washington, hated by Jefferson, Hamilton was a lightning rod: the most controversial leader of the American Revolution.
She was the well-to-do daughter of one of New York’s most exalted families—feisty, adventurous, and loyal to a fault. When she met Alexander, she fell head over heels. She pursued him despite his illegitimacy, and loved him despite his infidelity. In 1816 (two centuries ago), she shamed Congress into supporting his seven orphaned children. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton started New York’s first orphanage. The only “founding mother” to truly embrace public service, she raised 160 children in addition to her own.
With its flawless writing, brilliantly drawn characters, and epic scope, The Hamilton Affair will take its place among the greatest novels of American history.
About The Author
Award-winning historian Elizabeth Cobbs brings fresh, unexpected perspectives to our understanding of the past and present. Building upon worldwide research and extraordinary life experiences, Elizabeth writes fiction and non-fiction that is both scholarly and witty. Her path-breaking books and articles reveal a world that is as intriguing and surprising as it is real.
Elizabeth earned her Ph.D. in American history at Stanford University. She now holds the Melbern Glasscock Chair at Texas A&M University and a Research Fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Her books have won four literary prizes, two for American history and two for fiction. Elizabeth has been a Fulbright scholar in Ireland and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She has served on the Historical Advisory Committee of the U.S. State Department and on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in History.
Be Sure to Follow Elizabeth:
- Tell us about your latest book The Hamilton Affair?
In The Hamilton Affair I try to capture the inner lives of Alexander Hamilton and his spirited wife Eliza Schuyler. What was it like to live through the heady, frightening, thrilling, joyful, and tragic years of the American Revolution and early republic? How did their love survive despite all that life could throw at them, including infidelity and murder?
- What was it about Alexander and Eliza Hamilton that made you want to write their story?
As a historian, I had been trained to think of Hamilton as a preening, scheming monarchist committed to defending the privileged and wealthy. I thought it might be fun to write a novel about an intriguing political villain. Then I found a tender lover and passionate patriot instead of the cold elitist I expected—and I knew I had to tell Alexander’s tale! He introduced me to Eliza, a woman who had ducked out of history’s spotlight but deserved to be remembered as one of our most dedicated Founding Mothers. I vowed not to rest until others knew her surprising story, too.
- Did you visit any of the places mentioned in the book? If so what was your favorite place to visit?
Yes! I visited Alexander’s Caribbean birthplace on Nevis and boyhood town of Christiansted on St. Croix. I visited Eliza’s childhood homes in Albany and Saratoga. I traveled to Washington’s Crossing in Pennsylvania, where he forded the Delaware with the Continental Army on Christmas Eve in 1776, and to Valley Forge, where the revolutionary army hunkered down against the brutal winter of 1778. I scouted colonial Philadelphia, where he served as first Treasury Secretary and met seductive Maria Reynolds. I visited the home in Manhattan that Alexander built for Eliza and their eight children (now a National Park), and in which she raised their family after his death.
My favorite places? The saddest place for me was the grave of Alexander’s mother on St. Croix and the dark prison into which she was thrown for fleeing her abusive husband. The place that made me smile was Eliza’s home in Albany, where she and Alexander pledged their vows and conceived their first child in December 1780.
- There is a renewed interest in Alexander Hamilton thanks to the hit musical Hamilton. Have you seen or listened to Hamilton? If so what do you think of it?
I’ve not yet seen the musical, but could sing along if given the opportunity! The music and script are brilliant. Lin-Manuel Miranda changed a few key facts about Eliza’s sister Angelica for dramatic effect, but he’s done a great service by breathing new life into this amazing era from which we can learn so much about love, sacrifice, idealism, and loyalty.
- When writing historical fiction how do you decide what to leave in, take out or embellish?
Tough question. Short answer? It depends. I have no particular formula, except that I never alter a known fact. It’s against my training as a professional historian. I embellish quite a bit, but in ways consistent with the facts. I think of crafting a story as being similar to putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle of Alexander’s life has a hundred extra pieces, including lies that were told about him. Half the pieces of Eliza’s story are missing, so I paint new details to fill the gaps and show the richness of their time together.
- As a historian how important is it for you to remain historically accurate?
I consider it a duty to portray individuals in ways they and their contemporaries would recognize as true. That said, I write from a particular point of view. My chapters alternate between Eliza’s and Alexander’s perspective. Naturally enough, the Hamiltons developed a negative view of men like Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson with which those men and their admirers would disagree. But that’s an unavoidable result of seeing the world through Eliza’s and Alexander’s eyes.
- The Hamilton Affair is about Alexander and Eliza Hamilton while your other book Broken Promises is about Charles Francis Adams. Are there any other historical figures you want to write about?
Wanted: Fascinating women and men. At the moment, I’m toying with the Marquis de Lafayette and his wife Adrienne. Her grandmother, mother, and sister were all guillotined—and she used an American passport to save her husband’s life. Other characters I find intriguing are the wives of Andrew Jackson and Simon Bolívar. Send me your suggestions!
- If someone wants to learn more about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton after reading The Hamilton Affair what recourses (books, websites, ect.) would you recommend?
The books of Ron Chernow and Joseph Ellis are wonderful. Both writers are winners of the Pulitzer Prize for good reason. Chernow’s biography, Hamilton, is the most comprehensive. Ellis’s Founding Brothers is shorter and weaves together the tales of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others—placing Hamilton in the rich, murky soup that was the Revolution.
- What are you working on now?
My next book is The Hello Girls, America’s First Women Soldiers. During World War I, the army drafted 2.8 million American men. For the first time in U.S. history, at General John Pershing’s urging, a handful of women volunteered as well. They alone had the qualifications to operate the most advanced communications technology of the day: the telephone switchboard.
The majority were younger than 25. Some fudged their birthdates to qualify and one snuck in at age 16. They came from every corner of the U.S. and some across the Canadian border. There isn’t a spunkier, more determined group of women in all history. Like many of the infantry “Doughboys” who volunteered in 1917, they burned with pity for France and Belgium, invaded by an implacable enemy. They were also supremely conscious of bearing their nation’s trust as its first women soldiers. When General John Pershing inspected their columns on parade grounds across France, standing in their blue uniform skirts alongside men—or they connected a telephone call from an artillery officer to a unit awaiting orders to fire—the women felt what one called “an awful responsibility.” They also took satisfaction in meeting it, supremely conscious of paving a path for other women to serve their country.
The Hello Girls, America’s First Women Soldiers hits the stands next April. Read how they rescued army communications, helped win the war, and earned the vote for women!