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How Alexander Hamilton's Widow, Eliza, Carried on His Legacy

June 30, 2020 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

Eliza Hamilton poured her energy into founding a free school and an orphanage in New York to help children in need.

After Vice President explains.

“Eliza Hamilton wanted to find a way to honor Hamilton’s memory, in the place where their last home had been together,” says Mazzeo.

Eliza was also driven by her faith. As biographer Ron Chernow has written, the deeply religious widow also “believed passionately that all children should be literate in order to study the Bible.”

Hamilton Free School Established in Northern Manhattan

According to documents unearthed in the early 1900s by the New-York Historical Society, Eliza started out by finding a small house near Fort Washington, the Revolutionary War fort that was located at the intersection of present-day Fort Washington Avenue and W. 183rd Street, to be repurposed as a schoolhouse. But the number of students quickly grew, that improvised setup wasn’t adequate.

The widow couldn’t afford a bigger place, but a group of wealthier women in the area decided to help. In March 1818, the group petitioned the New York State Legislature to incorporate a free school, and asked for $400 to build a new school building. Legislators approved the application and the school received some annual city funding.

Eliza Hamilton and her benefactors moved quickly, and by the end of May, they’d already built a one-room, 1,050-square-foot schoolhouse with a slanted roof—big enough for 40 to 60 students—around what is now Broadway between W. 187th and W. 189th streets.

On the Hamilton Free School’s shoestring budget, it could afford just one teacher, who also doubled as the school’s janitor, according to the reminiscences of William Herbert Flitner, who attended the school in the 1840s. “All of the scholars came from the locality between High Bridge and Kingsbridge,” he recalled 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 Elementary Spelling Book, a popular text of the time.

It’s unlikely that Eliza was involved on a day-to-day basis, according to Mazzeo. However, “We know that Mrs. Hamilton did regularly visit the school and give out awards on prize days, so she remained involved with the school’s central mission and with celebrating its achievements.”

Eliza was giving much of her time to her other big project—helping to found the city’s first private orphanage …read more


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