A statue of Albany’s Philip Schuyler (1733-1804) has stood in front of City Hall since its dedication by Mayor William S. Hackett on June 25, 1925. The statue was a gift to the city from George C. Hawley, a beer baron whose family owned the Dobler Brewery in Albany, in memory of his wife Theodora M. Hawley.
Slavery was legal in his time but a reprehensible practice. Schuyler held a number of slaves whom he apparently freed or sold by 1803 according to his biographer, Don Gerlach. But slavery was despicable and inhumane. Schuyler, hailed for more than two centuries for his role in defending Albany during the American Revolution and then serving both the new state and national governments, had become a symbol of racial oppression.
Mayor Sheehan’s decision to remove the statue seems sound, but narrow. Just removing the statue misses an opportunity to explore Schuyler’s leadership role and Albany’s strategic importance in the Revolution and in New York and American history generally.
New York City’s policy for monuments may be a useful model. It is based on a 2018 report by a committee appointed by Mayor Bill deBlasio, Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers “When responding to contested monuments and markers, the Commission recognizes that each phase of evaluation will require in-depth knowledge and expertise to inform potential actions,” said the report. “While there are always limits to historical analysis, we must seek to understand the historical context within which monuments were erected and also be authentic to the ideals of equity and justice that mark our present.” The commission also offered a set of principles to follow that might be considered.
Schuyler was one of New York’s most important founders and leaders in the Revolutionary era, when New York’s survival and success were essential to the emerging nation. If not for the actions of Schuyler and others leaders like him, the American Revolution might not have succeeded.
Schuyler was praised from the time of his death onward. History books routinely cited his role. Former Governor Horatio Seymour (who has his own troubled history with race), speaking at Schuylerville during the New York’s centennial celebration of the American Revolution in 1876, said Schuyler “gave an example of patient patriotism unsurpassed in the pages of history.”
The State designated his Albany mansion a State Historic Site in 1917. History-minded Assemblyman (later governor) Al Smith sponsored the bill that authorized the purchase and restoration. Governor Charles Whitman called it a monument to “as fine patriotism as the world has ever known.” at the dedication ceremony. State Education Commissioner John Finley referred to “the glorious memories which belong to the house” including its hosting George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other leaders for meetings on political and military strategy during the Revolution.
The federal government included his Schuylerville home as part of the Saratoga National Historical Park, created in 1938. The State Education Department issued a booklet for students, Philip Schuyler and the Growth of New York, 1733-1804 in 1968, citing “the decisions he made and his influence on his world” through decades of public service.
Until recently, historians seldom mentioned Schuyler’s slaves, a startling and unpardonable omission to say the least. The history of Black people in New York State has received little attention, another serious deficiency. That needs to change.
A good place to begin consideration of Schuyler is Don R. Gerlach’s books, Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York, 1733-1777 (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1964) and Proud Patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783 (Syracuse Univ. Press, 1987).
Schuyler’s importance to history
What did Philip Schuyler do to merit sustained recognition of his leadership? Five themes emerge.
* A persuasive advocate for the patriot cause.
Schuyler, a wealthy landowner, served on the Albany City Council, 1756-1758 and in the New York Colonial Assembly in 1768. As tensions with the mother country mounted, he could have played it safe, kept out of the political debate, stayed neutral, just waited to see how things turned out. Many other wealthy and influential people did just that. But Schuyler acted on the principle that he needed to step in and lead.
He at first opposed violent resistance to British colonial rule, but also asserted that people cannot be taxed without their consent. Gradually despairing of compromise, he moved — and convinced others in New York to move – toward assertion of their rights by force of arms. By April 1775, after the clashes at Lexington and Concord, he framed the choice clearly for fellow New Yorkers: “Fight for right and freedom” or “Be ruled by a military despotism.”
Schuyler was a New York delegate to the first Continental Congress, helping move that body toward declaring independence in 1776. People had confidence in Schuyler; his influence was decisive in moving New York from passive colony to a leader in the war for independence.
*A selfless wartime leader
Schuyler left the Continental Congress and was appointed one of four major generals (the top commanders) under George Washington in 1775. There were no precedents; action required improvisation and staying on the initiative. He cobbled together an army from New York soldiers, Continental troops and New England militia. He bought some military supplies with his own credit as backing. Sometimes he appealed to the citizens of Albany whom he was trying to protect. In response to one urgent appeal, city authorities sent agents from house to house to buy blankets for the troops.
At the order of the Continental Congress, General Schuyler organized and initiated an invasion of Canada in 1775. The expedition was hastily planned and poorly equipped. Illness forced him to delegate execution to a subordinate and the invasion failed. But his army did foil a British invasion of New York in 1776. Much of the time, Schuyler was ill and in pain, but he tried not to show it.
Albany was in patriot hands but was a strategic target for the British who felt that conquering the city and the new state of New York would split the rebellious New England colonies from their compatriots in the south. That is a reminder of Albany’s strategic importance.
Assigned by Washington to stop the British invasion from the north and protect his home town, Schuyler bought time through strategic retreats that stretched British supply lines, blocked trails by falling trees, kept supplies from teaching the enemy, assembled guns and provisions, and brought in more troops. Albany County Historian (later Assemblyman) Jack McEneny called Schuyler’s actions “nothing short of brilliant” in his book Albany: Capital City on the Hudson (American Historical Press, 1998).
Richard Ketchum, in his book Saratoga: The Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (Holt, 1999), notes that he did “everything possible to make life miserable for the enemy…. Schuyler may not have been the best field commander around, but he was a superb and energetic organizer with a no-nonsense way of… informing people what they had to do, bucking up the ones who needed some iron in their spine, reminding them of what was at stake in this fight.”
Removed from command after a subordinate surrendered Fort Ticonderoga to advancing British forces, Schuyler insisted on a court martial, which exonerated him. He kept working to set up his successor, General Horatio Gates, for victory at the Battles of Saratoga where he defeated British general John Burgoyne, on October 17th, 1777. That turned out to be the turning point of the Revolution.
In John Trumbull’s famous painting of Burgoyne’s surrender on display in the U.S. Capitol, Philip Schuyler is one of the men behind Gates, in civilian clothes (brown coat) since he was out of the army by then.
Schuyler sent a force to break up an enemy attack from the west the same year, urging citizens there to “show no sign of fear; act with vigor and you will not only save your country but gain immortal honor.”
Schuyler graciously offered his Albany mansion for the house arrest of General Burgoyne before the general and his aides returned to England. He did this despite Burgoyne having burned Schuyler’s summer home in Schuylerville.
Schuyler served in the Continental Congress again in 1779-1780.
* Shaping the new state
Schuyler did not attend the convention in Kingston that developed the first state constitution in 1777 but he strongly supported that document, particularly its provisions for a strong governor. He was one of two candidates to run for the first governor in 1777, barely losing out to another Revolutionary War hero, General George Clinton.
As the war concluded, Schuyler helped organize opposition to Clinton, believing his policies were too much inclined to win popular support and not enough to protect and business interests.. Philip Schuyler served the new state in many ways. He was a member of the State Senate, 1780-1784, 1786-1790, and 1792-1797, where he helped to enact critical fiscal policies to stabilize the fledgling state. He served as Statue Surveyor General, 1781-1784, mapping parts of New York’s landmass. He served as one of the state’s first Indian Commissioners. He was one of the first Regents of the University of the State of New York, 1784-1804 where, among other things, he led in the chartering of Union College in 1795.
He was a strong proponent of the U.S. Constitution and supported policies to strengthen federal authority. He supported the fiscal plans developed by the first secretary of the Treasury, his son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton. He was a moving force in developing the Federalist Party and an early practitioner of responsible partisan politics. He served in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1791 and 1797-1798.
*A leadership model
Schuyler was something of a model statesman in the new republic. He exemplified dedicated public service that puts the good of the state above personal or partisan gain. He helped lead and channel demand for change, forging consensus and public understanding and support.
He was not sidetracked by resentment and persevered when defeated for governor or re-election to the Senate, or losing military command despite his best efforts.
Schuyler demonstrated how to lead when there are no precedents: keep the goal in mind, improvise and forge ahead.
He also set the tone for responsible politics. Schuyler showed how public leaders should support political parties and earnestly debate political opponents. He was skilled at partisan maneuvering but always put principles, state, and nation first. He demonstrated how to stop debating, put politics aside, and start compromising and get the people’s work done.
What comes next?
Mayor Sheehan has not yet announced what comes next.
History is undergoing an overhaul of sorts these days. Historians are more attuned to the historical experience of Black Americans and other minorities than in the past and to the themes of diversity and inclusion. That shift is overdue and seems likely to continue.
Albany is one of the nation’s most historically interesting and diverse cities. As final plans are made for removing his statue, this would be a great time for Albany to revisit its Revolutionary era history. It would be an opportunity to explore the nature of leadership, how people lived and what they thought, and how the community came together and persevered at a challenging time. It would recall Albany’s historical strategic importance.
It would be a particularly opportune time to explore the neglected issue of race and slavery. As historian Jill Lepore notes in her book This America: The Case for the Nation (Liveright, 2019), we need “a clear-eyed reckoning with American history, its sorrows no less than its glories.” Alan Singer’s book New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY Press, 2008) might be a useful starting point.
A new history initiative could be even broader, covering much or all of Albany’s history, result in more materials on Albany history for use in the schools, or a new comprehensive history of the city.
Another thing to consider might be to develop a Strategic Plan for Albany’s History. It could include provisions for studying the historical past and also for documentation of ongoing history, e.g., through community archival projects, businesses and institutions developing their own archival programs, and oral and video histories posted on social media as a means of recording the present for study in the future.
The effort could also engage the community in a conversation about how and why history matters and how it affects the present. The new American Association for State and Local History report Making History Matter: From Abstract Truth to Critical Judgment might be a useful guide.
A final useful insight may be a point in Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (Random House, 2018): “we learn the most from those who came before us not by gazing up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly, but by looking them squarely in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not gods.”
That might be a good starting point for a new consideration of Philip Schuyler.
Illustrations: Statue of Philip Schuyler in front of Albany City Hall; and a portrait of Philip John Schuyler by Jacob H. Lazarus.