Louisa Lee Schuyler and Her Legacy
This post was written by Schuyler Center’s 2019 summer intern, Kathryn Delehanty, after a deep dive into the New York State Archives.
Louisa Lee Schuyler, founder of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, (SCAA), was born to Eliza Hamilton Schuyler and George Lee Schuyler in 1837. The Schuylers were a prominent family–Eliza Hamilton Schuyler, a great grandchild, and George Lee Schuyler, a grandchild of Philip Schuyler, the decorated Revolutionary War Veteran. Louisa’s life was dedicated to public service, and she left a legacy that speaks volumes about the way she lived her life. As stated by SCAA’s first Executive Director, Homer Folks, “Perhaps Miss Schuyler’s greatest characteristic was that of complete readiness to undertake the thing that needed to be done when convinced that that was what needed to be done, wholly irrespective of the difficulties that seemed to be in the way.”
The Civil War shaped Louisa Lee’s life; she was 25 when it began. However, Louisa Lee attributed something earlier in her life to her initial passion about reforming state systems for people living in poverty. In her 1915 speech, “Forty-Three Years Ago,” Louisa Lee tells the story of the first time she understood how lacking hospitals were for the sick and needy. One Christmas, at her grandparents’ house in the Hudson River Valley (nicknamed Nevis for the island Alexander Hamilton was from), a doctor from a New York City hospital made a house call after Louisa Lee’s grandmother fell and broke her arm. That night, by the light of the fire, this doctor mesmerized the children with stories from the hospital, which captured Louisa Lee’s imagination. He mentioned his long term patients’ loneliness and their yearning for outside human contact, which stuck with Louisa Lee through her younger years, becoming her focus and passion in the years after the war.
At the breakout of the Civil War, Louisa Lee became the chair of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which boasted 25,000 package deliveries with only one lost. The stress of the war effort combined with the devastation the war left behind forced Louisa Lee to retreat to Europe to restore her health. During this time she was able to process the devastation of the war, as well as the future of hospitals. In the fall of 1871, Louisa Lee visited the Westchester County poorhouse, which inspired her to form SCAA to improve the wellbeing of people in poverty in State institutions. In 1872, in the parlor of her father’s house, Louisa Lee and her like-minded friends founded the State Charities Aid Association. SCAA helped create the first nursing school in the country at Bellevue, the hospital for the poor in New York City. In 1875, three years after its founding, SCAA advanced a bill called the Children’s Law, which removed children from almshouses with adults, revolutionizing the way poor children were treated. After the victorious beginning years of advocating for poor children, SCAA worked on aiding mentally ill poor people, and eventually helping to end preventable blindness in children. The work continued into the 20th century with an adoption placing agency, and now, with an organization lobbying for people who can’t afford lobbyists.
Louisa Lee Schuyler was a woman determined to make the world around her a better place, and by creating SCAA, she managed to ensure the longevity of her activism. With the recent interest in the Schuyler family from Hamilton the musical we are rediscovering our own Schuyler legacy. Louisa Lee, similarly passionate about advocacy for the neediest among us, was alive at the same time as her great-grandmother for 17 years. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton’s founding of the first private orphanage in New York City certainly had a profound impact on Louisa Lee in her early years. Following her grandmother’s death, Louisa Lee was thrown into the brutality of the American Civil War and then lived her life in pursuit of economic equality for all. On the 100th anniversary of Louisa Lee’s death, Homer Folks said, “Clearly we do not have to fight again the battles of which Miss Schuyler won, but there are other phases of public health and public welfare which still need Miss Schuyler’s type of consideration and action.” The battles Louisa Lee fought are long won, but to this day, 147 years after we were founded, we fight for the rights of New Yorkers with Louisa Lee’s passion and tenacity.