The wild success of the musical helped Cobbs convince her publishers that her book would sell. “They told me there was a market for biographies of Founding Fathers, but they weren’t so sure about historical fiction,” she says.
“The Hamilton Affair” (which Cobbs will discuss Monday at Politics and Prose) dives more deeply into its subject than the musical, especially in its exploration of the life of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth.
“Of all the founding mothers, she is the only one who assumed a public role,” Cobbs says. “Even before her husband died, she founded a society for widows. And she later founded an orphanage in New York that still exists today.”
A history professor at Texas A&M University, Cobbs didn’t alter facts for the sake of storyline, as the musical does. “I wanted to connect the dots; I didn’t want to move any of the dots,” she says.
Here are a few tidbits from Cobbs’ research that fans of the musical might find surprising.
Hamilton wasn’t a rapper, but he was a great singer.
The country’s first secretary of the Treasury was known for leading rousing songs at public taverns, and he also played piano and sang duets with his children. “I like to think he lived his life fully every day with the hope and expectation that things would land sunny-side up even when they often didn’t,” Cobbs says.
Hamilton wasn’t a gold digger.
Hamilton might have married Elizabeth in part for her family’s social standing, but he never accepted financial support from her parents. And he could have used the help: Hamilton’s government job barely paid the bills. “Eliza was a woman of real character, as she proved again and again throughout her life, and I think that’s why Alexander was attracted to her,” Cobbs says.
Jefferson paid journalists to slander Hamilton.
One man on Thomas Jefferson’s payroll, State Department translator James Callender, wrote newspaper articles and pamphlets claiming that Hamilton was a closet monarchist who was manipulating feeble-minded George Washington. Callender also broke news of the extramarital affair between Hamilton and Maria Reynolds. “One of the reasons the Hamilton story resonates so much today is because it’s about partisanship, and how when people exaggerate their enemies’ faults, it can lead to real tragedy,” Cobbs says.
Elizabeth faced public humiliation with bravery.
After Callender accused Hamilton of adultery and illegal speculation, Hamilton published an excruciatingly detailed account of his affair to clear his name of the second charge. Exposed to public ridicule, Elizabeth didn’t hide out at home with her newborn baby — she went out and started fundraising for widows and orphans. “She was making her own identity at that moment. She wasn’t going to be just Mrs. Alexander Hamilton anymore.”
The woman could hold a grudge.
Elizabeth, who lived to 97, collected her husband’s papers in the hope that future historians would celebrate his crucial role in putting the young country on sound financial footing. Still, Elizabeth was no saint. She held James Monroe responsible for her husband’s political downfall, as the former president was most likely the one who leaked the proof of Hamilton’s affair. And when Monroe came to visit some 20 years after the leak, she refused to talk to him.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Mon., 7 p.m., free.
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