Many people know Alexander Hamilton as the guy on the ten dollar bill, or, as of recently, the namesake and main character of the smash hit Broadway play. Some people even know that his final resting place is Trinity Church, where he lies interred beneath a beautiful marble monument. But did you know that Hamilton's involvement with Trinity goes far beyond the graveyard?
In this video tour, learn about Hamilton’s life at Trinity Church. You’ll see the places where Hamilton spent time as a new immigrant, documents showing his participation in church life, and the final resting places of Hamilton, his wife Eliza, his son Philip, his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, and his friend Hercules Mulligan. There’s even a mystery or two to ponder.
For a closer look at some of the documents mentioned in the tour, continue with this exhibit, which features a collection of items from Trinity's archives that highlight the little-known religious life and connections of this founding father.
Five of Hamilton's children were baptized at Trinity between 1788 and 1800. Notably, several of them were non-infants, suggesting perhaps that this was a period of heightened religious involvement or interest for the Hamiltons.
Fresh off his turn as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton returned home to New York in 1796 and wasted no time in setting up his legal practice. After designing the country's financial system, Hamilton, through the legal aid he provided, began to help Trinity refine and understand theirs. This 1796 legal case deals with an unusual problem: the legality of Trinity making more than 5,000 pounds a year. The 1697 Charter says that Trinity may not "use, lease, grant, demise, alien, bargain, sell, and dispose of" land "exceeding the yearly value of five thousand pounds." In 1705, the struggling parish was granted a large swath of land on the western side of Manhattan. At first, as the case notes, the provision in the Charter was not a problem, as the land brought in "not more than 300 pounds annual whole." However, by the early 1790s, that began to change as the city grew and the land accrued value. In this case, signed by Hamilton, the counsellors argue that because the land will eventually end up worth more than 5,000 pounds no matter what Trinity does, that they can't be held to that clause.
Richard Harison, with whom Hamilton practiced law and whose signature is also seen on this case, is also buried at Trinity Church. He served on the Vestry from 1788-1827, and as Trinity's first Comptroller from 1815-1827.
In this second instance of Hamilton flexing both his legal and financial prowess on Trinity's behalf, Hamilton provides legal aid to set up St. Mark's in the Bowery as the first Episcopal Church in New York that is independent of Trinity. At the request of Peter Stuyvesant and with land provided by him, Trinity began building St. Mark's in 1795. By 1796, however, Trinity's Vestry began discussing the possibility of incorporating St. Mark's as a "distinct Corporation," perhaps in response to the financial strain they were feeling, having just come through the American Revolution and having recently rebuilt Trinity Church. Further supporting the financial strain theory is the fact that Trinity was very concerned with protecting their right to their endowment. How could they set up independent parishes but also retain sole ownership of their land? Hamilton was once again asked to provide legal counsel. His advice, which Trinity followed, was to endow St. Mark's with a part of the church farm, and ask St. Mark's to relinquish all further claims to the land. St. Mark's was incorporated as a separate parish in 1799. This document is the deed wherein they release their rights to the church farm in exchange for an endowment of 30 lots.
In 1776, Trinity Church was burned to the ground in a devastating fire that took down nearly a quarter of Manhattan. Because of the strain of the American Revolution, Trinity was not rebuilt until 1790. Financially devastated by the war, one of the ways Trinity (and many churches) raised money was by selling pew subscriptions. Until the mid-1800s, pews at Trinity were reserved for those who rented them and their families. Though pew ownership was one of the requisites of membership in Trinity Church, owning a pew didn't itself make you a member. You also had to receive communion, which Hamilton did not do (if he even attended services). As such, despite his many connections, Hamilton couldn't be considered a true "member" of Trinity Church.
This list of communicants (people who received communion at service) kept by Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church from 1801-1815, lists Eliza Hamilton among their numbers. We know that Eliza was more devout than Alexander, and can deduce from this document that perhaps he kept a pew at Trinity Church more for the use of his wife and family than for himself personally.
We would be remiss not to note that Trinity had connections with Hamilton's rival and eventual murderer, Aaron Burr. Burr rented from Trinity the Richmond Hill estate, a large parcel of land in today's Hudson Square area. Here we see the page in Trinity's rent roll where Burr, in financial difficulties after his star had fallen following the duel, turns the mortgage of his property over to prominent millionaire John Jacob Astor. Astor in turn divided the property into lots which he sublet, contributing to his vast fortune.
Three years before Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton's son Philip engaged in a duel of his own there. Philip confronted a young lawyer named George Eacker about some remarks Eacker had made about Philip's father, resulting the challenge. Like his father, Philip lost the duel and his life. He is recorded here in the burial register for Trinity Church, but no burial location is given. It's thought that perhaps due to the dishonorable nature of his death, he was buried in an unmarked grave or outside the bounds of the churchyard. The location of his grave remains a mystery.
Two more documents bearing Alexander Hamilton’s signature were recently rediscovered in the archives. These documents are of particular interest in that they show Hamilton actively participating in congregational matters. Though we still can’t say for sure whether or not he was an official member of the church, these documents seem to hint that he may have been a more involved church-goer than previously suspected.
In Trinity’s early years, the struggling parish relied on pew rents and subscriptions to support itself. Pew rent was a reliable source of regular income, but for extra expenses like building and repair projects, and salary for the Assistant Ministers, subscriptions were used. Subscription lists were sent around by a committee, and members of the congregation would pledge to give various amounts to support the cause. This subscription list is for salaries for the parish’s three Assistant Ministers, and we see that Alexander Hamilton has pledged to give 2 pounds. The minutes of the Vestry note that the committee responsible for securing the subscriptions for this list was “furnished with a State of the Debt of the Church in order that members of the congregation may be convinced of the necessity of such subscriptions.”
In 1792, the Vestry needed to call another Assistant Minister to the parish. The congregation took it upon themselves to make their preferences known, via a petition to the Vestry, about which minister should be called. One faction presented a petition for a Mr. Pilmore. A second faction, including Alexander Hamilton, presented this petition for the Rev. John Bisset. Whether or not the petitions influenced the vestry’s decision isn’t recorded, but we do know that Hamilton and the Bisset faction got their wish: on October 1st, 1792, the Vestry called John Bisset as the parish’s new Assistant Minister.