“We know the founding fathers, but the mothers are a mystery.”
— Renee Elise Goldsberry, 2015 BET Cypher
The Broadway juggernaut Hamilton hasn’t been immune to the discussion regarding diversity in media. Many essays have praised the inclusive cast, flipping the notions we have of our founding fathers on their heads. But others have criticized the lack of depth regarding the female characters, due to the primary focus on the titular character Alexander Hamilton.
But blaming Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer of Hamilton, is unwarranted; the majority of our gaps of knowledge regarding Eliza Schulyer and her sisters are self-inflicted. The fact is there simply isn’t much left written by her — not because someone wanted to highlight her husband over her, but because she burned her letters to him.
This highlights a notion that our cries for inclusivity haven’t plunged into — the difference between erasure by the dominant narrative versus purposely taking oneself out of the spotlight — aka the right to be forgotten or self-editing your image.
The song Burn toys with that idea as Eliza sings that she’s “erasing herself from the narrative” and that future historians “don’t get to know what I said.” While it’s also a clever conceit and a nod to the fact that there isn’t much available about her, it can also be seen as an empowering act. Instead of history dictating who she is — perhaps as the pitiful wife involved in a sex scandal — Eliza simply removes any record of herself, until she is ready to return as her husband’s archivist after his death.
It’s not an uncommon notion — Martha Washington burned all but two letters to her husband George. Even today, as the Internet becomes as ubiquitous as electricity, we’re wrestling with the right to be forgotten and the ability to erase ourselves from the online record. It’s the demand to control our own images, and the longevity of them.
Even the United Nations’ Human Rights Watch has weighed in on this subject, observing that privacy online is “one of our more pressing issues,” according to Human Rights Watch Global Affairs Director Eileen Donahoe.
While the Internet and social media didn’t exist back in the colonial era, even then there was a concern about lasting impressions in the narrative of life.
That legacy is referenced constantly throughout the play with lines like “Who lives/Who dies/Who tells your story,” “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you’ll never see, “ and “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me,” found throughout the musical.
Even Daveed Diggs, who plays both Lafayette and Jefferson observed this is an accurate portrayal of the era in an interview with Vulture:
“Some of my favorite research was reading the letters between Lafayette and George Washington where they’re, like, trading tips about who should build a statue of you. “Oh, you’ve got to have this guy write a poem about you. It’s going to be really big in 100 years.” Information didn’t travel very fast. You were never going to be remembered in your own lifetime. That wasn’t a thing, let alone, like, the day you do something. The show manages to both celebrate it and warn against it, too.”
Perhaps that obsession with legacy is what Eliza was battling against. Instead of having a defined image set in stone thanks to letters and journals, she is free to flit in and out of history, entering and exiting at her own will through the gaps of our knowledge about her. We’ll never know for sure, because she chose to leave no trace of her words.
This self-image control is different than erasure. Erasure is not getting recognition for accomplishments that exist on record. Instead women’s accomplishments are ignored in our everyday rudimentary history lessons, or even worse, credit is given to someone else.
What Eliza and her contemporaries did is different than erasure. But there are plenty of examples of erasure of history created by women, ranging from science to pop culture : diminishing the accomplishments of Annie Jump Cannon and her revolutionizing star classifications, or assuming that Elvis Presley first sang Hound Dog, igniting rock and roll instead of Big Mama Thornton. Erasure ignores that Mary Shelley wrote one of the first science fiction stories with Frankenstein.
Erasure would be Miranda choosing to end Hamilton focusing on Aaron Burr, who serves as narrator throughout the musical. Instead, the final word is given to Eliza as she and the cast list all of her accomplishments. This includes gathering all of her husband’s work (a staggering excess of 22,000 pages of writing); helping record stories from Revolutionary War soldiers; speaking against slavery; and founding an orphanage that exists today.
Miranda chooses to credit Eliza for her work, because without her efforts Alexander Hamilton’s efforts would have become a footnote to history at best.
Eliza sings herself back into the narrative, not to be defined as a wife enduring a sex scandal, but as a historian looking to preserve a huge chunk of history. Her ability to edit and define what is her legacy — through removing herself from the record — is more empowering than people realize.