CAPITAL REGION — If the statue of Gen. Philip Schuyler in front of Albany City Hall is to be removed, there are willing takers.
In Saratoga County, where the Schuyler family had deep pre-colonial roots, the village of Schuylerville bears the family name — and is a place where the Republican hierarchy doesn’t mind taking a shot at Democrats like Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan.
“@MayorSheehan is trying to erase the history of General Schuyler, a Revolutionary War hero. His statue belongs in Saratoga where he fought for Independence from British rule the same freedom and independence that the Mayor now enjoys,” Saratoga County GOP Chairman Carl Zeilman wrote on Twitter Thursday evening.
Earlier on Thursday, Sheehan announced plans to have the 94-year-old statue removed, on the grounds that Schuyler was the largest New York slaveowner of his era — part of a larger national reckoning with racial discrimination and the proper place of monuments built to Confederate leaders in the South, and to slaveowners like Schuyler.
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Zeilman said Friday he’s serious about wanting the statue in Saratoga County. “Historians worldwide point to the Battle[s] of Saratoga not only as the turning point in our fight for freedom, but as a watershed moment in the course of human history setting a new paradigm for human liberty. We can honor his distinctly American contributions to setting the foundation of a free people, while understanding the progress we need to continue making toward a more perfect union today,” Zeilman said in an email.
Albany officials have said they believe the statue should be in a museum, placed in a proper historical context, and don’t appear to be willing to let it go. “We’re looking to keep this statue here in the city of Albany. This isn’t about completely erasing the history and the contribution to our history of Gen. Schuyler. It’s about contextualizing it in a place other than city hall,” Sheehan said in a statement reported by WAMC on Friday.
A reckoning in upstate New York comes up against the fact that in the pre-colonial era in New York, it was common for people in the ruling classes, with vast properties, to own slaves. Slavery was not outlawed in New York until the 1820s.
Johnstown, for example, is named for Sir William Johnson, the most powerful British official in upstate New York in the decades before the American Revolution, and who despite groundbreaking relations with American Indians owned numerous African slaves he used for heavy labor.
Warren, Washington and Rensselaer counties are also named for people or families who owned slaves in the pre-colonial era or later. Among the nation’s founders, 10 of the first 12 U.S. presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives.
Beyond the political back-and-forth, there’s a serious desire among local officials in Schuylerville to have the statue to display.
They think they could display the Schuyler statue and put his life into historical perspective, and so does U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who lives in the town of Saratoga.
“If Mayor Kathy Sheehan removes the statue of Philip Schuyler, our local bipartisan community leaders in Schuylerville will welcome the statue here as an opportunity to commemorate his role in our nation’s founding with appropriate historical context,” U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik wrote in a social media post on Friday.
“We intend to keep the statue within the City of Albany,” David Galin, Sheehan’s chief of staff, responded Friday evening. “It’s interesting that Representative Stefanik took the time to talk about the removal of a statue of a slave owner but couldn’t make the time to talk to Mayor Sheehan about revenue replacement for states and localities when the Mayor reached out weeks ago. The invitation to speak is still open.”
Beyond the political back-and-forth, officials in the Schuylerville area say they’re seriously interested.
Schuyler wasn’t just a wealthy slaveowner, but a fighter in the French and Indian War, a planner of campaigns including the defense of Saratoga during the American Revolution, a member of the Colonial Congress, one of New York’s first members of Congress, and a United States senator. He was also the father of Elizabeth Schuyler, who has achieved note in recent years due to her marriage to Alexander Hamilton being featured in the hit musical “Hamilton.”
The Schuyler family primarily resided in Albany, but owned the area along the Hudson River that is now Schuylerville and vicinity as a “country estate.” The Schuyler House there was burned by the British during their 1777 retreat, but quickly rebuilt. Today, the house is part of the National Park Service holdings connected to the Battle of Saratoga.
Schuyerville, which has about 1,400 residents, was earlier known as Old Saratoga, but changed its name to Schuylerville in 1831 in recognition of Philip Schuyler’s contribution to the nations founding and to his local generosity, said Wood. Schuyler had died in 1804.
“He was a very wealthy business entrepreneur. He owned a lot of land here, and he was very generous,” said Saratoga Town Supervisor Thomas N. Wood III, who is a former town historian. Schuylerville is within the town of Saratoga.
There are no monuments to Schuyler or any other individuals within Schuylerville’s boundaries, though the hilltop Saratoga Victory Monument is just outside the village.
“There’s a lot of dialogue taking place on Facebook and throughout the village, and I think there is a great openness here, that if it is going to be removed then the next home should be in Schuylerville,” Wood said Friday.
He acknowledged Schuyler’s ownership of slaves would need to be recognized. “That’s an aspect that we’re not proud of or happy about, but it was the truth,” Wood said. “None of that makes it right, but it existed. It isn’t right to own another human being.”
Schuylerville Mayor Dan Carpenter thinks the house site would be a great location for the statue.
“We are interested, and we are working with Supervisor Wood to let Mayor Sheehan know we are interested in obtaining the statute. We are exploring places we might be able to put it,” Carpenter said. “One possibility is the Schuyler House.”
Carpenter said he believes the community could put Schuyler’s role in history into the proper perspective.
“Obviously, we do not condone or support the ownership of slaves, but the Schuyler name is traditionally associated with our community, and what he did for the defense of our nation in the American Revolutionary, and for the founding of our country,” Carpenter said. “I feel that when you look, there are many leaders that, unfortunately, they have this stain, but there are traditions of the 17th century that were acceptable then, and are not acceptable now.”
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.
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