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Philip Schuyler Is Knocked Off His Pedestal in Albany


There was a time when one probably had to be a committed Revolutionary War buff or an aficionado of early Albany aristocracy to know the name Philip J. Schuyler.

But that was before “Hamilton.”

Indeed, as any devotee of the blockbuster musical can tell you, the Schuylers were Colonial-era movers and shakers, and the central figures in the show’s fraught love triangle between Hamilton and two of the Schuyler sisters.

And while Philip Schuyler never speaks during the show, he is a presence even before he becomes Hamilton’s father-in-law: “Take Philip Schuyler, the man is loaded,” Aaron Burr intones, and Schuyler is mentioned frequently by his daughters, Angelica, Eliza and Peggy.

In reality, Schuyler was much more prominent than a bit part: the patriarch of a wealthy Albany family — a patroon, as Dutch-era landowners were known — he served as a New York lawmaker, a United States senator, and a major general in the war with the British, and was a close friend of George Washington.

Those accomplishments had resulted in a seven-foot-tall statue of Schuyler being placed, nearly a century ago, on a pedestal in front of Albany’s grandly Romanesque City Hall, just across from the State Capitol. In recent years it sometimes drew “Hamilton” fans to snap selfies.

But Schuyler also enslaved people, by some accounts among the most in the Albany area at the time. That fact has led to a reconsideration of his legacy, and ultimately to his statue’s removal — a slow-motion retreat on a flatbed trailer — after years of delays and amid a backlash by some who argue that such actions do little to remedy past sins and may even miss an opportunity for education.

The removal is part of a wider reckoning with the racist actions of historical figures, a movement that gained steam during the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis. That re-evaluation has included the removal or dismantling of scores of monuments devoted to Confederate figures, and has even touched on Hamilton himself, who some scholars say is likely to have enslaved people despite his reputation as an abolitionist.

In Schuyler’s case, the statue’s detachment — from a pedestal hiding a 1920s time capsule, complete with a letter from a Schuyler descendant — was authorized by Albany’s mayor, Kathy Sheehan, via executive order in June 2020.

In an interview, Ms. Sheehan said that her decision had come, in part, after concerns were raised by Black members of her staff. “You couldn’t get into City Hall without walking past the statue,” said Sheehan, a Democrat, who said budget problems and the pandemic had stymied earlier efforts to move the statue.

Ms. Sheehan noted that Schuyler’s slaveholding was well-known. Nearly two decades ago, the remains of enslaved people were discovered buried on property once owned by the Schuyler family.

Alice Green, the executive director of the Center for Law and Justice, a civil rights organization in Albany, said that the statue’s removal was “a relief.”

“It didn’t seem right that we should have a statue on public property, glorifying and paying tribute to someone who had done what he did to African American people,” said Dr. Green, adding that her group had worked for years to have Schuyler sent packing, and that the publicity around “Hamilton” may have given the effort momentum.

“Some people, I think, became more angry after learning more about who Schuyler was,” Dr. Green said. “And they only were able to do that because people started talking about Schuyler as a result of ‘Hamilton.’”

The removal was met with opposition from some prominent local lawmakers: Representative Elise Stefanik, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House majority, who represents a district in Northern New York, accused Ms. Sheehan of trying to “erase history” with the statue’s removal.

Jeff Perlee, a Republican member of the Albany County Legislature, echoed that.

“I just think it reflects poorly on Albany, and its awareness of its own history,” said Mr. Perlee, adding that — unlike Confederate figures — Schuyler was “someone who sacrificed everything he had to create this country.”

“Can you imagine Boston turning its back on Sam Adams or Virginia denying Thomas Jefferson?” Mr. Perlee continued. “The leaders in those places, I think, are sophisticated enough to understand the historical context and the whole measure of attributes and negative features of historical figures. And unfortunately, the leaders in Albany don’t.”

There is no question that Schuyler — and Hamilton — had a major presence in Albany. Hamilton, who famously died in a duel with Burr, his political rival, in 1804, was married to Eliza Schuyler at the family’s mansion on Albany’s south side in 1780, where Hamilton also worked on the U.S. Constitution, according to “O Albany!,” a history of the city by William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Both Hamilton and Burr also had law practices in the capital, not far from City Hall.

The Schuyler Mansion, overlooking the Hudson River, was a seat of power in old Albany, an impressive estate with formal gardens and a working farm manned by dozens of enslaved people and other servants, according to the state’s parks department. Mr. Kennedy said that Schuyler — who married Catherine Van Rensselaer, from another prominent Dutch family — was host to some of America’s most famous figures at its most formative moments.

“He was constantly talking with people like Benjamin Franklin when they were planning the Declaration of Independence,” said Kennedy, who is 95 and the éminence grise of Albany’s literary scene. “And his house was a place of common traffic with the leadership of this nation.”

The Schuyler statue — in bronze, by J. Massey Rhind, a Scottish-born sculptor — was a gift of George C. Hawley, a local beer baron, and treated as front-page news in the Knickerbocker Press, which recounted a parade and thousands of onlookers at its unveiling, including military units and Boy Scouts, in June 1925.

“The attention of millions of persons from all parts of the world will be arrested by General Schuyler’s figure, eloquent reminder of duties of manhood and obligations of citizenship,” the Press quoted Charles H. Johnson, the keynote speaker, as saying.

Mr. Johnson’s prediction may have been hyperbolic, but the smash success of “Hamilton” — which opened at the Public Theater in 2015 and transferred to Broadway — has had a spillover effect to related Albany attractions. Attendance at the Schuyler mansion — now a state historic site — doubled between 2015 to 2019, as officials there and others began offering special Alexander Hamilton tours at the mansion and around Albany.

The Schuyler sisters have also had their close-up, with specialized tours at the mansion, and a 2019 exhibition at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

At the same time, however, historians here do not try to whitewash Schuyler’s personal connection with slaveholding, including at the mansion, said Heidi L. Hill, the site’s manager. The mansion’s exhibits highlight the stories of an enslaved butler and valet of Philip Schuyler, as well as the story of an enslaved woman who fled the mansion. The mansion also was the publisher of a 2020 paper linking Hamilton to slavery.

Schuyler died in 1804, just months after Hamilton was killed in the duel. Schuyler’s fame ebbed, but his name has continued to be affixed to villages, schools and bakeries around the Albany area (though some of those have also decided to change their names).

“He’s one of those figures that’s like hugely significant in his own lifetime, but he doesn’t have quite as prominent a role post-Revolution,” said Maeve Kane, an associate professor of history at the University at Albany. “So he has this role during the Revolution and then he kind of fades away.”

Dr. Kane added that while the musical hadn’t necessarily changed the perception of Philip Schuyler, it had “acted as a catalyst for these broader conversations about early America.”

“And as a historian, I think that’s valuable,” Dr. Kane said.

As for the sculpture itself, the bronze was taken to an undisclosed location as the city considers where it put it; a 2022 study, “What to Do With Phil?,” authored by a local youth group — the Young Abolitionist Leadership Institute — considered several options, including moving the statue to a location near the Capitol.

In the meantime, Mayor Sheehan says that she hopes that a new city commission — likely to be approved by Albany’s Common Council this summer — will find a good spot where the fullness of Schuyler’s life can be told, saying the removal is “not about scrubbing” the past.

“It’s not about cancel culture and not about canceling him, but about moving him to a place where the entire story is contextualized,” she said, adding, “You cannot contextualize the history of anyone on a traffic circle.”





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