Legacies are notoriously fickle things. They're difficult to create, and even harder to maintain.
Yet one New York woman's legacy still flourishes after more than two centuries. Built on kindness and a genuine concern for the welfare of others, the legacy of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854) continues today because the same challenges that faced many children in 1806 unfortunately remain a part of our society in 2017.
During her lifetime, Eliza Hamilton thought of the present, not posterity. Born to privilege and married to Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasure, she still believed in helping others directly. She brought food, clothes, and comfort to refugees of the French Revolution, and to new widows after yellow fever epidemics. She took in a young motherless girls who'd no place to go, and the child became part of her own family for years. In 1797, she was one of the founders (with her friend Isabelle Graham and her daughter Joanna Graham Bethune) of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.
When Alexander Hamilton died after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, Eliza was grief-stricken, but refused to fade into genteel widowhood. Financial difficulties - Hamilton had left her saddled with many debts - forced her to seek assistance from family and friends to support herself and her children, yet still she continued to help others. Her late husband had begun life as a poor and fatherless child, and orphans were always to hold a special place in her heart - and her energies.
In 1806, Eliza, Isabella Graham, and Joanna Bethune founded the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York (OAS). Eliza was named second directress. The OAS began with sixteen orphans, children rescued from a harrowing future in the city's streets or almshouses.
But Eliza and her friends realized that these first orphans must be only the beginning of their mission. In the first years of the nineteenth century, New York had grown into the largest city in America with a population of over 60,000, crowded largely into the winding streets of lower Manhattan. the harbor had made the city a major port, and goods and passengers arrived from around the world.
While some New Yorkers prospered, many more fell deeper into poverty and disease, and it was often the children who suffered most. In greatest peril were children who arrived in the city as new orphans, their immigrant parents having died during the long voyage. Completely alone, these children were often swept into dangerous or abusive situations with little hope of escape.
Eliza and her friends would not abandon them. With each year, the OAS grew larger, and was able to help more children, yet the goals of the OAS never changed. Children were provided not only with food, clothing and shelter, but also education and the skills of a trade so that they cold become independent and successful adults.
In 1821, Eliza was named first directress (president), with duties that ranged from the everyday business of arranging donation for the children in her charge to overseeing the finances, leasing properties, visiting almshouses, and fundraising to keep the OAS growing. With her own sons and daughters now grown, these children became an extended family. She took pride in each of of them, and delighted in their successes, including one young man who graduated from West Point.
She continued as directress until 1848 when she finally, reluctantly, stepped down at the age of 91, yet she never lost interest in the children she had grown to love. When she died in 1854 at the remarkable age of 97 - over fifty years after her beloved Hamilton - The New York Times wrote of her: "To a mind most richly cultivated, she added tenderest religious devotion and a warm sympathy for the distressed."
The OAS that Eliza Hamilton helped found continues today. Now known as Graham Windham, it has evolved into an organization that supports hundreds of at-risk children and their families in the New York area. Times have changed - the 19th century's orphans are today's youth in foster care - but the mission remains true to Eliza Hamilton's original goals: to provide each child in their care with a strong foundation for life in a safe, loving, permanent family, and the opportunity and preparation to thrive in school, in their communities, and in the world.
"We serve the children who need us most," says Jess Dannhauser, president and CEO of Graham Windham. "It's a deep personal commitment for us. We don't turn anyone away. These are hard-working, courageous kids who want to make something of themselves and are looking for ways to contribute, and we're constantly adapting to discover the best ways to serve them."
Last week - August 9 - marked the 260th anniversary of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton's birthday. Although I completed writing I, Eliza Hamilton months ago, I've been thinking a lot about Eliza again lately, especially in a world that seems to have become increasingly selfish and uncaring, with little regard for those in need.
Not long ago, I visited the churchyard of Trinity Church in Wall Street, where Eliza and Alexander Hamilton are buried side by side. It's become something of a pilgrimage site for fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda's phenomenal musical, and Alexander's ornate tomb in particular is often decked with flowers and other tributes.
On this morning, Eliza's much more humble stone - where she is described only as her father's daughter, her husband's wife, as was common for 1854 - was notably bare, and I resolved to find a nearby florist. Before I did, however, I stopped inside the church itself. Near the door is a box for contributions to Trinity's neighborhood missions, and I realized then that Eliza didn't need another memorial bouquet. Her legacy instead continues in the example of her own selflessness, compassion, and generosity to others. With a whisper to the woman who'd lived long before me, I tucked the money I'd intended for flowers into the contribution box.
Thank you, Eliza, and may your legacy always endure.
Above: Grave of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Photograph ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, available everywhere. Order now. My next historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, will be published by Kensington Books on September 24, 2019. Pre-order now here.