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James Hillhouse
For New Haven, for Country, and for Yale

During his tenure as President, Richard C. Levin has become known for his skill at bringing town and gown closer together. But he was hardly the first Yale administrator to meld the interests of the University and its host city. From the 1780s to the 1830s, James Hillhouse, a man of astonishing vision and strength, helped Yale and New Haven develop in harmony.

Born in 1754 in comfortable circumstances in Montville, Connecticut, he was the son of Judge William and Sarah Griswold Hillhouse. At the age of seven, however, he was adopted by his childless uncle, James A. Hillhouse, a New Haven attorney. The younger Hillhouse, a classmate and close friend of Nathan Hale, graduated from Yale in 1773, became a lawyer, and took over the legal practice of his deceased uncle in 1775. During the Revolution, as captain of the Governor’s Foot Guard, he commanded troops, along with volunteer residents and Yale students, during the British invasion of New Haven in July 1779.


In 1784, Hillhouse worked to incorporate the city of New Haven.

The advent of peace brought Hillhouse many opportunities to serve. He was appointed treasurer of Yale in 1782 and filled that office until his death 50 years later—still the longest term as a senior administrator in Yale history. In 1784, Hillhouse worked with Yale President Ezra Stiles, Roger Sherman, a former Yale treasurer, and others to incorporate the city of New Haven. One of the first urban planners, he envisioned a city of prosperity and beauty.

Hillhouse drained and leveled the Green, planted the elms that later gave New Haven its nickname, the “Elm City,” and organized the Grove Street Cemetery, the world’s first incorporated cemetery with family plots, which were laid out in landscaped streets like a model city. Called “The Sachem” for his sagacity as well as his appearance, Hillhouse named his immense city and farm property that extended from Grove Street up Hillhouse Avenue and Prospect Hill into Hamden, Sachem’s Wood.

As treasurer, Hillhouse invested Yale’s money shrewdly. In one instance in 1791, President Stiles marveled at his skill in taking advantage of the “astonishing speculations” on the national bank. (He bought shares at $25 and sold them at $175, a financial coup that “neated 1050 D. to the College.”) Hillhouse also formed new relationships with the state of Connecticut that saved Yale about $40,000, an enormous sum in the 1790s.

While he served Yale, Hillhouse also became a successful politician, first as a state representative and councilman in the 1780s, then as U.S. representative from 1791 to 1796, and U.S. senator from 1796 to 1810. But while attending Congress in Philadelphia in 1792, he still found time to confer with the artist John Trumbull on the first campus plan in America, Yale’s Old Brick Row.


Hillhouse was the antislavery leader in the Senate.

A staunch anti-Jeffersonian, Hillhouse is remembered mainly for his unsuccessful proposal in 1808 of seven Constitutional amendments to curtail the political strength of the Southern states by limiting the president’s appointment powers and his service to one term, and reducing the terms of congressmen. Less well known is that Hillhouse was the antislavery leader in the Senate. As early as 1799, he attempted to end the slave trade, and in 1804 he proposed the prohibition of the importation of slaves into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Two of his amendments restricting slavery actually passed, but were later overruled.

In 1810, Hillhouse left the Senate to become commissioner of the Connecticut School Fund. Through mismanagement, this million-dollar fund for the support of public education had become nearly worthless. Hillhouse devoted his energy to restoring its value, and in 1825, with the fund at a secure $1,700,000, he resigned to supervise the construction of the Farmington Canal. Always dedicated to aiding African Americans, he hired William Lanson, the African American builder of New Haven’s Long Wharf, to construct the New Haven section of the canal.

In September 2001 Hillhouse’s grave in the Grove Street Cemetery was dedicated as a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. At his funeral in 1832, his political constituents hailed him as “honest Jemmy Hillhouse.” His friends at Yale eulogized his efforts to enable the College to expand from “an obscure seminary to in many respects the first literary institution of a mighty nation, and not the least among the great luminaries of the world.”  the end


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