Why Eliza Burns Hamilton's Letters (True Story & Meaning Explained)

The 2015 Tony Award-winning Broadway sensation Hamilton, is based on a true story, but when adapting a true-life story many facts can get lost or changed.  The musical's depiction of The election of 1800 for example had several details left out of the true story. With such historical inaccuracies, it is fair to wonder if Alexander Hamilton's wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), really did suffer as she does in the musical and if she actually did burn all the letters sent by her husband.

In the musical Hamilton, Eliza Schuyler meets Alexander Hamilton at a party and is immediately smitten. They eventually marry, and she supports him from afar while he is at war. Throughout their marriage they wrote many passionate love letters representing their devotion to one another. After the war, Eliza, her sister Angelica, and their children head upstate for the summer while Hamilton stays home and works. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton starts an affair with Maria Reynolds. Maria’s husband begins extorting Hamilton for money and, after Hamilton’s political rivals discover this extortion and mistake it for government embezzlement, he decides to publicize the affair in "The Reynolds Pamphlet" to clarify his situation to everyone. Eliza is heartbroken and burns all the love letters Alexander wrote to her, which is described in the song “Burn.”

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While it was true Eliza did burn some of the letters, she did not actually burn all of them. Miranda included Eliza burning all of the letters to connect her character to Hamilton's central theme of history’s legacy. There are no concrete explanations in any historical document as to Eliza's exact motivations for burning Hamilton's letters. This allowed Lin Manuel Miranda to use this ambiguity to contrast Eliza with her legacy-obsessed husband as she seemingly destroys his legacy.

The true story of Eliza Hamilton is that she burned some but not all of her husband's letters. Many of the letters can still be found today in the Library of Congress. However, Eliza did separate from Hamilton for a time after the publishing of "The Reynolds Pamphlet" while pregnant with their sixth child. After the illness of one child and the death of another, it appears Eliza and Alexander reconciled their differences and remained married until Hamilton’s death.

The meaning behind Eliza burning the letters in Hamilton is reflective of the show’s central theme, which is stated in the song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Throughout Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton is obsessed with how history remembers him, which is why he ruins his life to clear his name. He would rather live with the shame of infidelity than be accused of conspiring against the government he helped create. Eliza refutes Alexander Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy by erasing herself from the narrative as she sings in “Burn.” She claims that “the world has no right to my heart, the world has no place in our bed.” The song claims she feels betrayed that Hamilton would publicize their marriage to protect his legacy rather than work it out with her in private to protect their pride. In response to the question "Who tells your story?" Eliza responds by burning the letters and claiming that she doesn't want to tell her story.

By Hamilton's ending number, Eliza does put herself back in the narrative by detailing how she worked to defend Alexander Hamilton’s political contributions and writings as well put forth as her own philanthropic contributions to the United States of America. This may also allude to the fact that she did save some of Hamilton’s love letters, so she did not completely remove herself or their relationship from history’s eyes. While Hamilton may primarily be about her husband Alexander, the show ends with Eliza Hamilton finally deciding to tell her story.

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