How Alexander Hamilton’s Widow, Eliza, Carried on His Legacy
After Vice President Aaron Burr killed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler “Eliza” Hamilton, had to find a way to continue without her beloved husband. One of the ways she found comfort – and honored her memory – was to found two institutions in New York that support low-income children.
Hamilton Free School, located in north Manhattan (not far from where the couple lived), provided education for students from families who could not afford private education for their children. She also became the founder of the Orphan Asylum Society, the city’s first private orphanage, which built a facility in Greenwich Village that provided homes for hundreds of children.
By focusing on the children, Eliza found a connection to the legacy of her late husband. Hamilton grew up as an orphan in the Caribbean and was able to come to America to study when the benefactors paid him.
Eliza forced to move downtown after Hamilton’s death
After the death of her husband, Eliza Hamilton stayed for a time in The Grange, the two-and-a-half-storey shingle house on present-day W. 143rd Street just east of Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, where it was surrounded by gardens. filled with tulips, hyacinths, lilies and roses, according to historian Jonathan Gill. But at the time of Hamilton’s death, he still had a mortgage and owed money to the builders, and his wife was struggling under the weight of all this debt.
The following year, a group of deeply pocketed friends of her husband bought Eliza’s house and property for $ 30,000 and quickly sold it back to her for $ 15,000 so that she would have money to take care of. of herself and her family. Despite this, according to Gill, Eliza eventually became unable to take care of the upkeep of the estate, and in 1813 she was forced to sell it and move to poorer areas of the downtown area.
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Despite the move, Eliza kept in touch with people who lived a few kilometers from her old house. At that time, the still isolated region had no free public schools, and paying tuition fees in a private academy was too expensive for parents, according to Don Rice, president of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance, a community institution that has helped preserve the history of the region.
Eliza, who struggled to pay for the education of her own children after the death of her husband, could show empathy. She “made enormous sacrifices to send the children to school in the city and keep them at home with her”, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the biography 2019 Eliza Hamilton: The extraordinary life and times of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Explain.
“Eliza Hamilton wanted to find a way to honor the memory of Hamilton, where their last home had been together,” says Mazzeo.
Eliza was also motivated by her faith. As biographer Ron Chernow wrote, the deeply religious widow “also believed passionately that all children should be literate to study the Bible.”
Hamilton Free School opens in North Manhattan
According to documents uncovered in the early 1900s by the New York Historical Society, Eliza began by finding a small house near Fort Washington, the Revolutionary War fort that was located at the intersection of what is now Fort Washington Avenue and W. 183rd Street, to be converted into a school. But the number of students quickly increased, this improvised configuration was not adequate.
The widow could not afford more space, but a group of wealthier women in the area decided to help. In March 1818, the group asked the New York State Legislative Assembly to incorporate a free school and asked for $ 400 to build a new school building. Legislators approved the request and the school received annual funding from the city.
Eliza Hamilton and her benefactors moved quickly, and by the end of May they had already built a 1,050 square foot one-room school with a sloped roof – large enough for 40 to 60 students – around which is now Broadway between 187 th and 189 th streets.
Out of the limited Hamilton Free School budget, he could only afford one teacher, who also doubled as the school janitor, according to memories of William Herbert Flitner, who attended school in the years 1840. “All the researchers came from the locality between High Bridge and Kingsbridge”, he remembers many years later.
Flitner recalled that the school provided students with textbooks and that they studied arithmetic by doing calculations on slates. Spelling was taught from Webster’s basic spelling book, a popular text of the time.
According to Mazzeo, Eliza is unlikely to be involved in everyday life. However, “We know that Ms. Hamilton regularly visited the school and presented awards on award days, so she remained involved in the central mission of the school and in celebrating its achievements.”
Eliza spent a large part of her time on her other big project – helping to found the city’s first private orphanage in lower Manhattan.
Orphan Asylum Society rises in downtown Manhattan
In 1806, Isabella Graham and Sarah Hoffman, two other widows and social activists with whom Eliza became friends, asked her for help. According to Mazzeo, Hoffman had discovered five children crying over the bodies of their deceased mother in a slum, which led them to realize the need for an orphanage in the city.
Eliza and the other women arranged to rent a small two-story house on Raisin Street in the village of Greenwich and hired a married couple to care for the young residents. In March of the same year, they officially founded the Orphan Asylum Society and recruited other women for the cause.
In the first year, the company took in 20 children but had to refuse nine times more, according to Mazzeo. Eliza and the other activists quickly set out to raise $ 25,000 to build a larger facility on a donated package on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Eliza went out personally and asked for donations, and with the help of $ 10,000 from state lawmakers, the cornerstone was laid for a three-story orphanage in July 1807.
When Eliza Hamilton died in November 1854 at the age of 97, the downtown school still existed, but she had clearly seen better times. As the New york herald reported in 1856, the one-room school was outdated and so dilapidated that it was “unfit for use,” even though it still had a student body of 60 to 70 children.
The following year, according to another newspaper article published in New York Tribune, the school building was destroyed by fire. After public schools were finally built nearby, administrators at Hamilton Free School converted it to the first lending library in the area, and it later evolved into the Dyckman Institute, an advocacy group. education. Ultimately, Eliza Hamilton’s school became a scholarship fund that helps students in Washington Heights and Inwood attend Columbia University.
The Orphan Asylum Society, in turn, has become Graham Windham, a private, not-for-profit social service agency that provides parental support and mental and behavioral health treatment to 5,000 children and families each year. He also runs a school for young people at risk.
As Mazzeo notes, Eliza “was just passionate about the well-being of children, and where she saw problems, she tried to find solutions.”
READ MORE: What role did Alexander Hamilton play in Aaron Burr’s controversial presidential defeat?