Gilder-Lehrman Center, Yale and New Haven Celebrate Life of James Hillhouse

The life and work of pioneering anti-slavery reformer and civic leader James Hillhouse (1754-1832) will be commemorated in New Haven next month as part of Yale University’s Tercentennial celebration.

The Yale Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition will join the Amistad Committee and other local sponsors to salute Hillhouse in a program of public events, September 13-15. These include a dedication at his gravesite, an exhibit of memorabilia from his life and a forum about his life and times in the school named in his honor, Hillhouse High School.

Born in Montville, Connecticut, Hillhouse grew up in New Haven, where he attended the Hopkins School and Yale College. He enlisted in the American Revolutionary army and led the Foot Guard in defense of New Haven against the British invasion of July 6, 1779. The following year, he entered state politics and by 1790 had been elected to the U.S. Congress. Chosen to finish the term of Senator Oliver Ellsworth in 1796, Hillhouse was elected to the seat a year later.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1810, Hillhouse distinguished himself as an early critic of slavery. He proposed such amendments to the Constitution as random appointment of the president from the Senate and term-limits on all federally elected officials, largely to check the slaveholding South from accruing too much power.

Closer to home, Hillhouse was an effective treasurer and fundraiser for his alma mater Yale College, successfully soliciting funds from the Connecticut legislature and the network of Yale alumni beginning to fan across the growing nation. Locally, Hillhouse arranged to have elm trees on his farm replanted in downtown New Haven, earning it the epithet “Elm City,” and he established the Grove Street Cemetery, where he is buried.

Events in honor of Hillhouse will begin with an opening reception for the memorabilia exhibit, on Thursday, September 13, at 5 p.m. at the New Haven Free Public Library, 133 Elm Street. A forum, “James Hillhouse and His World” will take place Friday, September 14, 7:00 p.m at Hillhouse High School, 480 Sherman Parkway. Speakers include Peter Hinks, Hamilton College, who will discuss blacks in Federalist New Haven, and Kariann Yokota, assistant professor of history at Yale, who will speak on the Federalist world of Connecticut. On Saturday, September 15, at 10:00 a.m., Hillhouse’s grave at the Grove Street Cemetery, Grove and Prospect streets, will be dedicated as part of the Connecticut Freedom Trail; and there will be a community reception on Saturday, September 15, 11:15 a.m. in McDougal Center Common Room, Hall of Graduate Studies, 320 York Street.

A related event, the dedication of the grave of Amistad captives who died in Connecticut, will take place on Saturday, September 22, at the Grove Street Cemetery. Tejan Kabbah, president of Sierra Leone, which has ties to the Amistad, is expected to attend the ceremony.

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