Who tells Eliza's story? Philanthropy and "Hamilton: An American Musical"
Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical turned international attention to the story of founding leader Alexander Hamilton, but also sparked the public rediscovery of his wife Eliza Hamilton's philanthropy.
Hamilton dramatizes the life and death of Alexander Hamilton. It has also put Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757–1854) back in the narrative for her role in creating and leading a pioneering orphanage. Originally known as the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, the institution still exists and is now known as Graham Windham.
Over 200 years after Eliza Hamilton and others established the orphanage, the actress portraying Eliza in Hamilton's original Broadway cast, Phillipa Soo, learned from Miranda that the charity Eliza and others founded is still around. No longer an orphanage, it is now a family and youth development organization with an array of programs. The cast and crew of Hamilton have been supporting the child welfare agency by raising money, and Soo and fellow cast member Morgan Marcell established #TheElizaProject, a program to bring arts to Graham Windham kids.
Acquiring Eliza Hamilton's portrait and a Hamilton costume connects these stories of how Americans have given time, talent, and treasure to help kids and families in New York over 200 years. The portrait of Eliza Hamilton hung in the charity's buildings for over a century, while the green suit was worn by Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton's second act. The suit will briefly be on display at the museum starting March 22 through late spring. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when the portrait goes on view.
The Eliza Hamilton depicted in the portrait is an older woman, at the stage of her life when New Yorkers knew her for her leading role in the Orphan Asylum Society. Several decades earlier, Americans would not have encountered a woman as a philanthropic leader. Before the late 1700s, women in the thirteen colonies and early republic gave aid personally or donated to organizations led by men, but women did not set up or run charities themselves. That changed in the 1790s.
In the years after the Revolution, Americans threw themselves into the work of forming philanthropic organizations, often drawing on examples of European institutions. It was in that era that women, including Eliza Hamilton, began to create and manage their own charities. Initially, some people doubted the women had the capacities to run charitable organizations and criticized them for engaging in inappropriately public roles. By focusing on the needs of other women and children, however, women gained acceptance for their organizational activity. The Orphan Asylum Society was one of these early, trailblazing charities.
The Orphan Asylum Society, founded in 1806, grew out of an existing charity, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Founded in 1797, the Widows Society's mission was exactly what the name proclaimed: helping poor widows with small children. Over time, the charity's leaders realized that when widows died, their children—now ineligible for the group's aid—often wound up in almshouses, tax-supported institutions that housed destitute people. In response, Eliza Hamilton, along with Isabella Graham, Joanna Bethune, and Sarah Hoffman, founded the Orphan Asylum Society. The Orphan Asylum Society was modeled on a famous orphanage in the German city of Halle. By the time Eliza Hamilton stepped down from her role as director in 1848, the Orphan Asylum Society was itself well-known and she was recognized for her philanthropic leadership.
Around the time Eliza Hamilton retired, the famous singer Jenny Lind donated proceeds from her performances to the Orphan Asylum Society. In later years, P. T. Barnum and William Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy, gave in various ways to help the kids. The Hamilton costume helps us bring the story of artists' contributions to philanthropy up to date. It allows us to explore not only the show's contributions to musical theater and ideas about American identity, but also the role of the arts in nurturing humanitarianism. For centuries, music, theater, painting, drawing, photography, and other arts have been used to help raise funds and raise awareness for philanthropic causes. Artists and writers have created distressing imagery or heartrending stories, for instance Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, in efforts to spur audiences to address suffering and injustice
But artists have not only shocked consciences. They have also used the arts to inspire people to give time or money by nurturing their imaginative engagement with charitable role models. Hamilton has done so, while pictures of the directors of the Halle orphanage did likewise in the 1700s. In that vein, the portrait offers a look at how Americans have used images both to foster benevolence and to shape the public memory of philanthropy—including women's groundbreaking role in it. As I begin to build the museum's new collection in the history of philanthropy, I am thrilled we have acquired objects that allow us to consider these and other aspects of the enduring impact of founding philanthropists.
The Eliza Hamilton portrait will join the National Museum of American History's new philanthropy collection, helping to tell the story of how philanthropy has formed and reformed our nation. The suit will join the theater collection in the Division of Culture and the Arts.
Amanda Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life.
The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein.