Anne Petrimoulx 2016-09-26 12:26:06
Alexander Hamilton has been resting peacefully in Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan for 212 years, but his grave has certainly not seen the number of visitors it’s received in the last year since the day he was buried. Many people who were only marginally familiar with the founding father were introduced to the details of his extraordinary life and accomplishments through the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton. In addition to being Hamilton’s final resting place, Trinity was Hamilton’s church, and our archives contain several documents bearing his name and signature. The success of Hamilton has presented a unique opportunity to join in the excitement and share with his new fans the spiritual side of the man that we trace through our archives as well as to increase awareness of our archives as a great resource. From the Grave Back to Life Trinity Church was founded in 1697 as the first Anglican parish in New York City. The Vestry, or leaders of the church, established recordkeeping precedents early on, beginning a tradition of stewardship ensuring that the collection we have today is deep and varied, boasting of royal documents on parchment, sermons that span the handwritten to the typewritten to the digital, and records on our parishioners and tenants that paint a picture of the changing face of New York over centuries. The archives was completely organized for the first time in 2003. We’ve always known how great this collection is, but as a two-person operation with a fairly niche focus, we don’t have the resources of larger archives. The resurgence of interest in Hamilton has been a great opportunity to show others how our collection can shed light on subjects that may not immediately come to mind when you think of church archives. Outside interest started with questions about Hamilton’s grave and slowly expanded to questions about the graves of other characters from the musical (about a third of the characters are buried in one of our parish’s three burial grounds). Part of responding to these requests has been to add information about the historical figures’ lives at Trinity, pointing to the records we hold as evidence of those lives. Working with the expert direction of our communications colleagues has reminded us to move the story from the grave back to life. There’s certainly a parallel to be found here to the age-old problem of archives being portrayed as dusty and stagnant. Hamilton, his friends, and his family had a life here, just like the records that we hold, and the most exciting story is in the activity portrayed by the records. Hamilton as Parishioner As we looked more carefully at our Hamilton documents in relation to each other, the church at large, the country, and Hamilton’s life, we began to see an interesting story emerge, especially when two more documents bearing Hamilton’s signature were unexpectedly uncovered in the course of an unrelated inventory project. Hamilton’s signature on a 1787 document listing parishioners who pledged money to support the salaries of the parish’s assistant ministers, and a 1792 petition from a faction of the congregation to elect a certain assistant minister, paint Hamilton as a more active and involved parishioner than we previously thought. We were never sure how involved Hamilton was with the church based on previous records. With the addition of these two pieces of evidence showing Hamilton’s participation in everyday church life, the collective story of our documents speaks to a current of religion and church involvement running throughout his life, not a life punctuated by intermittent periods of religious interest. We shared this newly-found narrative of Hamilton as an engaged churchman with the media and as the basis of new exhibits both online and in-person. For New York Archives Week in 2015, we hosted a pop-up exhibit displaying our Hamilton documents and invited the local community. A digital version on our website allowed us to include people who couldn’t make it to the temporary exhibits and provided a comprehensive and easily-shareable resource. We held two more pop-up exhibits in 2016; one in advance of Hamilton’s big Tony Awards weekend in June, at which we debuted the rediscovered 1787 and 1792 scrolls, and one in conjunction with an annual event commemorating Hamilton’s death. Both were well-attended by the public and press. The public attendance was instantly gratifying as we engaged in conversations with historians and musical fans alike and saw the delight and wonder on attendees’ faces. The press presence shared our archives as a resource with a wider audience. In one instance, the coverage brought our resources to the attention of a local teacher with whom we’re now planning a class project involving Trinity’s Hamilton records. Hamilton as Church Leader Our records show a fascinating multi-dimensionality to Hamilton’s churchman persona, as he was both a church-goer and a leader in the church. The first record we have chronologically is the 1787 clergy subscription list, followed closely by the 1788 baptism of three of his children over the course of two days. We have posited that this might be Hamilton taking steps to formally align himself with his chosen church by bringing his family into the fold. Other church-related Hamilton records include pew rent records showing Hamilton renting a pew in the newly-rebuilt Trinity Church in 1790, the baptism of two more children in 1797 and 1800, the aforementioned 1792 assistant minister petition, and his wife Elizabeth’s name on a list of communications (people who attended church regularly and received communion) kept by Trinity’s rector, the Rev. Benjamin Moore. The narrative of Hamilton’s death has always included Moore by his deathbed, administering communion and last rites, but our records bring Hamilton and Moore’s relationship back into Hamilton’s life. In addition to being a parishioner, Hamilton was also a respected leader within the church, using his time and talents as a lawyer to provide legal advice to the church. Hamilton advised the church on two important matters in the late eighteenth century—the ability of the church to earn money and to set up independent parishes. Advising in the affirmative on both cases, Hamilton played an unexpected role in the growth of the Episcopal Church—certainly something for which he is not well-known. We shared this and other interpretations of Hamilton’s involvement in church life at the New York Historical Society, which came about as we planned for the 250th anniversary of our St. Paul’s Chapel on October 30, 2016. Hamilton’s documents will be a part of that celebration, too, since one of the many notable events that have taken place at St. Paul’s was Hamilton’s speech on July 4, 1789, in which he eulogized General Nathanael Greene. Seizing Opportunities Opportunities like the success of Hamilton will not always present themselves—and, when they do, may require extra work and unfamiliar roles (such as handling an influx of press inquiries). But there’s no question that they’re worth it for the opportunities they bring. Seizing on trends that relate to our collections allows us to connect to new users and promote awareness of the power of archives. Not only that, it gives archivists a chance to examine materials more closely and gain a deeper understanding of the lives behind them.
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