Hamilton and Slavery
Somewhere in Between: Alexander Hamilton and SlaveryBy Michelle DuRoss University at Albany, State University of New York
Alexander Hamilton's biographers praise Hamilton for being an abolitionist, but they have overstated Hamilton's stance on slavery. Historian John C. Miller insisted, "He [Hamilton] advocated one of the most daring invasions of property rights that was ever made-- the abolition of Negro slavery. Biographer Forest McDonald maintained, "Hamilton was an abolitionist, and on that subject he never wavered." Hamilton's position on slavery is more complex than his biographers' suggest. Hamilton was not an advocate of slavery, but when the issue of slavery came into conflict with his personal ambitions, his belief in property rights, or his belief of what would promote America's interests, Hamilton chose those goals over opposing slavery. In the instances where Hamilton supported granting freedom to blacks, his primary motive was based more on practical concerns rather than an ideological view of slavery as immoral. Hamilton's decisions show that his desire for the abolition of slavery was not his priority. One of Alexander Hamilton's main goals in life was to rise to a higher position in society. His humble birth meant that he would not only have to work hard but that he would have to befriend the right people -- the wealthy and influential. During the eighteenth century, a large number of upper-class Americans held slaves. When Hamilton had to make a choice between his social ambitions and his desire to free slaves, he opted to follow his ambitions.
Some historians maintain that Hamilton's birth on the island of Nevis and his subsequent upbringing in St. Croix instilled in him a hatred for the brutalities of slavery. Historian James Oliver Horton suggests that Hamilton's childhood surrounded by the slave system of the West Indies "would shape Alexander's attitudes about race and slavery for the rest of his life." He also thought that Hamilton being an "outcast" on the island led him to sympathize with the slaves. Horton relies solely on secondary information. No existing documents of Hamilton's support this claim. Hamilton never mentioned anything in his correspondence about the horrors of plantation slavery in the West Indies. Instead, Hamilton's impoverished childhood motivated him to spend his whole life trying to improve his position in society. If Hamilton hated the slave system in the West Indies, it might have been because he was not a part of it. He grew up surrounded by wealthy white families, while his remained impoverished. After his father deserted the family, Hamilton's mother supported Alexander, his brother, and herself. She died when he was a teenager leaving him to fend for himself. Within a year, he secured a job as a clerk for a local merchant, but Hamilton hated the lowly position. He wrote to his childhood friend, Edward Stevens, in 1769, expressing his desire for a war so that he could rise above his station.
Hamilton's involvement in the selling of slaves suggests that his position against slavery was not absolute. Besides marrying into a slaveholding family, Hamilton conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army. In 1777, before he married Elizabeth, he had written a formal letter to Colonel Elias Dayton, relaying Washington's request that Dayton return a "Negro lately taken by a party of militia belonging to Mr. Caleb Wheeler." Hamilton, Washington's aide de camp during the revolutionary war, remained close to Washington throughout his life. He served as his first Secretary of the Treasury and drafted some of his speeches, including the farewell address. Hamilton probably would not have wanted to offend Washington, who owned slaves, and he would have followed his superior's orders. Although the available evidence is silent on Hamilton's feelings toward performing this particular duty, his action suggest, at the least, his complacency. After his marriage, Hamilton intervened to retrieve his in-law's slaves. In 1784, his sister-in-law Angelica wrote to her sister Elizabeth explaining that she wanted her slave, Ben, returned. In response, Hamilton wrote to John Chaloner, a Philadelphia merchant who conducted business transactions for Angelica's husband, and stated, "you are requested if Major Jackson will part with him to purchase his remaining time for Mrs. Church and to send him on to me." In addition, Hamilton also handled Angelica's husband John Barker Church's finances because the couple spent most of their time in Europe. Hamilton deducted $225 from Church's account for the purchase of "a Negro Woman and Child." Hamilton wanted to be part of the upper class and his relationship with the Schuyler family and with George Washington made his wish possible; it was more important to Hamilton to cultivate these relationships than to make a stand against slavery. To be fair, it should be noted that if Hamilton had adamantly opposed slavery enough to refuse aiding the purchase of slaves or the return of slaves, he would not have been able to maintain such influential friendships; consequently, his stand on slavery would have had little impact on the abolition of slavery.
Scholars often point to Hamilton's support of John Laurens' plan to enlist blacks into the army as proof of his egalitarian views, which they claim supports the idea of Hamilton as an ardent support of abolition. Hamilton supported giving slaves their freedom if they joined the Continental Army because he believed it was in the best interest of America, not because he wanted to free slaves. When Laurens devised a plan in 1779 to admit blacks into the army, South Carolina was in dire need of soldiers to fight in the Continental Army. Although many leaders, including George Washington, worried about allowing blacks into the army, Hamilton backed Laurens' plan. Hamilton wrote to John Jay, then president of the Continental Congress, to explain the merits of the plan. He argued that he saw no other way of raising soldiers without admitting blacks. Hamilton realized that many people, especially Southerners, would disagree with the plan because they would not want to "part with property of so valuable a kindÖ" Hamilton countered critics of the plan by claiming that the British would devise a similar plan and then the slaveholders would lose their property in slaves without any benefit. When left with such choices, Hamilton believed the slaveholders would naturally send their slaves to fight for the American cause. Hamilton argued that the only way to keep black soldiers loyal was to grant them their "freedom with their muskets." The argument that Hamilton's support of Laurens' plan shows he was an advocate for the liberty of blacks ignores Hamilton's motivation for doing so. He wanted America to win the war and admitting blacks into the army seemed the best option at the time. In his discussion of Laurens' plan, Ron Chernow maintains that Laurens and Hamilton "were both unwavering abolitionists who saw emancipation of slaves as an inseparable part of the struggle for freedomÖ" While their call to arm blacks may imply that they saw blacks as equal and wished all to be free, there is evidence to the contrary. According to John Laurens' father, John would never force someone else to manumit his slaves because he believed too much in property rights. Hamilton has been accused of owning slaves, by scholars and his grandson, which suggests that any beliefs he has on the quality and natural rights of blacks did not always translate into action. It is possible that Hamilton did not own slaves but, even so, his involvement in slave transactions suggests a more ambiguous picture of Hamilton than the "unwavering abolitionist." Hamilton was motivated by practical terms more so than any ideology that espoused the equality of the races. That is not to say that Hamilton viewed the races as innately unequal, but that it did not dictate Hamilton's positions on policy. Hamilton, like Laurens, wanted to allow blacks into the army because they thought it was the only practical solution to the army's problems. Hamilton's membership in the Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves in New York has led historians to believe Hamilton was an abolitionist. Richard Brookhiser, Hamilton biographer and main curator of an exhibit on Alexander Hamilton at the New York Historical Society, maintains that Hamilton was an abolitionist. Brookhiser mentions that Hamilton was a founding member of the Society. He then asserts, "The society didÖsuccessfully push to make slavery illegal in New York -- a considerable achievement in a state where slavery was a real presence." He fails to cite evidence of the Society's impact on New York laws. Furthermore, he does not show any direct involvement of Hamilton in the quest for New York anti-slavery laws. The Society's records lack substantial information about Hamilton suggesting that he did not play a dominant role in the society. New York enacted legislation providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves in 1799, but did not abolish slavery until 1827, more than twenty years after Hamilton was killed in a duel.
Hamilton's membership in the society did not conflict with his emphasis on property rights. Members of the Society could still own slaves. When the members convened on Feb. 4, 1785 to draw up their constitution, they created a committee to decide how the members of the society should act toward slaves they owned. Hamilton was part of the committee, which originally pushed for members to manumit their slaves. The committee's proposal was rejected and members were allowed to remain slaveholders. Although Hamilton sat on committees and at times was chancellor of the Society, his attendance at meetings was sporadic. Moreover, the records of the Manumissions Society, along with Hamilton's papers, lack any real discussion from Hamilton regarding his thoughts on the society or what the society should strive to achieve. His membership gave him the opportunity to further interact with the top of New York society. The Society boasted an impressive list of upper-class New Yorkers, including John Jay and Robert Troup. Hamilton's involvement in the Society also elicited praise from his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. Although the anti-slavery society in Pennsylvania explicitly pushed for the abolition of slavery, the anti-slavery society Hamilton belonged to advocated the manumission of slaves. The Society said that people should free their slaves, not that they should have to free their slaves. Hamilton supported the freeing of slaves, but only if it did not interfere with the protection of property rights. Hamilton thought property rights should affect representation, which is one reason why he supported the three-fifths clause in the Constitution. Although he remained silent on this issue during the Constitutional Convention, he argued for it during the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788. Hamilton disliked the Constitution, but realized that no plan would be perfect. The Constitution was a compromise between the state delegates; once they made their decision, Hamilton set out to gain support for it. He feverishly went to work writing a series of essays to persuade New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution and pled his case during New York's Ratifying Convention. Hamilton suggested that the more property one has, the more his vote should count. Hamilton feared the lower classes and as a result he supported giving them less say in the government. Hamilton believed the wealthy had more virtues, while the poor more vices; "Their [the elites'] vices are probably more favorable to the prosperity of the state, than those of the indigent; and partake less of moral depravity." Hamilton thought that the lower classes were lazy and would not contribute to the economic growth of the nation, whereas the wealthy, if they had vices, were greedy or vain – vices that would not be as detrimental to the prosperity of America. In Deficiencies of the Confederation, Hamilton proposed that Congress appoint officers of the state according to these qualities: "Congress should choose for these offices, men of the first abilities, property and characterÖ." Hamilton noted during the Constitutional Convention that Britain's House of Lords is a most noble institution" because they have "nothing to hope for by a chance, and a sufficient interest by means of their property." According to Hamilton, people with a substantial amount of property would provide stability. He believed that for people to be independent they must own property. Hamilton showed that he respected the upper class and wanted them in positions of power. Hamilton argued that since slaves were taxed they should count in representation, alluding to the popular revolutionary phrase "no taxation without representation." He favored Great Britain and during the Constitutional Congress had suggested a system of government similar to the one in Great Britain where representation was limited to wealthy property owning men. Hamilton's support of the 3/5 clause coincides with his belief that people with more property should have a greater say in how the country is run.
Hamilton accepted protecting slavery in the Constitution to ensure the union of North and South, which was necessary for the financial growth he envisioned. Since Southerners believed they needed the extra representation to protect their slave system, Hamilton recognized that the three-fifths clause was necessary to create the union – without the three-fifths compromise the South would never have agreed to the formation of the United States. They reasoned that without the clause, the North would dominate Congress and could destroy slavery. For Hamilton, the prosperity of America depended on the union of North and South. He maintained that the Southern States were an "advantage" to the North by pointing out that the Southern States possessed tobacco, rice, and indigo, "which must be capital objects in treaties of commerce with foreign nationsÖ." The New York Evening Post, founded by Hamilton, contained advertisements for goods produced by slaves. The advertisements in a New York paper further illuminate the interconnection between the North's and South's economy. Hamilton's position shows that he favored trade and that the North needed the South to maintain profits. He chose national economic power over taking a stand against slavery. Hamilton's actions regarding the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783 and the related Jay's Treaty of 1794 provide a complicated picture of his position on slavery. Hamilton initially criticized the British breach of the Treaty of 1783 and called for the British to return blacks carried off by the British. But Hamilton shifted his position to avoid confrontations with Great Britain and its diplomats, especially after his friend, John Jay, had secured a modified version of the Treaty. Moreover, he believed recognizing the Treaty would help secure America's position among nations and its economic prosperity. Hamilton also managed to reconcile his belief in the sanctity of property rights with his support of Jay's Treaty. The controversy surrounding the Treaty of 1783 relates to Article VII of the treaty. Henry Laurens, a prominent South Carolinian slaveholder who profited from the slave trade, urged Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams, who were negotiating the peace treaty, to include a provision that forbade the British from taking slaves during their evacuation from America. Laurens request ended up as Article VII of the treaty, which stated: All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States. [emphasis added] Simon Schama points out that the slave interest dominated the politics of the early republican period. "By inserting his article into the draft treaty Laurens was obliging not only his fellow Carolinians but the entire slaveholding class of the South who had made the revolutionÖ" He explains that almost immediately the issue of blacks being carried off became a source of tension between Britain and America. When Washington met Guy Carleton on May 6th, 1783, he began the conversation by discussing Article VII rather than questioning Carleton about the final evacuation from New York. According to Schama, Washington's face "reddened" when Carleton told him that blacks had already been evacuated with the British even though the British had been recording names so that the slaveholders would be compensated. Despite his frustration, Washington denounced the idea that America should default on its part of the treaty because the British had broken the treaty by carrying off blacks. Washington did not want to resume fighting with Britain. Schama believes that Washington's position was in line with his realism. Washington's response to the British carrying off blacks in violation of the Treaty of 1783 is similar to Hamilton's in its realism.
Hamilton also did not want to risk war with Britain, even though he supported the idea that the British violated the treaty by carrying off blacks. During the original discussion over the peace treaty, Hamilton had stated that the British needed to return blacks they took with them; Hamilton argued that the taking of blacks after the war violated property rights. Hamilton presented a motion to the Continental Congress on May 26, 1783 that "protested against the seizure of Negroes belonging to citizens of the United States." Besides Hamilton's public motion, he also made a similar comment in his private correspondence to George Clinton, governor of New York: Suppose the British should now send away not only the Negroes but all other property and all public records in their possession belonging to usÖshould we not justly accuse them with breaking faith. Is this not already done in the case of the negroes? Hamilton considered the British carrying off blacks as a violation of the Treaty of 1783 and would have preferred the British to have upheld it. Nonetheless, when he realized that the United States could not regain the lost property of slaveholders, he accepted it rather than dissolve the treaty altogether. Hamilton disagreed with those, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who considered the treaty void because of Britain's violation. He explained to Clinton "it has been said by some men that the operation of this treaty is suspended 'till the definitive treaty." More than a year after Hamilton wrote the letter to Clinton, he remarked on his opponents' claims in his Second Letter from Phocion: That a breach of the treaty on the part of the British, in sending away a great number of Negroes, has upon my principles [Hamilton's opponents] long since annihilated the treaty, and left us at perfect liberty to desert the stipulations, on our part.
Hamilton admitted the validity of his opponents' point – the British defaulted on the treaty – but he explained that it was up to the injured party whether or not to nullify the treaty. Hamilton argued, "if the interest dictates a different conduct it may wave the breach and let the obligation of the treaty continue." Hamilton believed it was in the best interest of the U.S. to abide by the treaty. He maintained that the treaty was still beneficial even if the British failed to hold up all parts of it. His position remained the same on the correctness of returning slaves or compensating slaveholder, yet he did not want to terminate the agreement with Britain altogether. Continue to page 2 »
John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 122. Miller also claimed that Hamilton owned slaves throughout his life and did not suggest that there was a contradiction between being an abolitionist and owning slaves.  Forest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: a Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), 34. For examples of Hamilton biographers' who claim he was an abolitionist see Richard Brookhiser, Alexander Hamilton: American (New York: The Free Press, 1999); Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004);Henry Cabot Lodge, Alexander Hamilton (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1886) ; Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: Youth to Maturity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957); Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventurer (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962); Nathan Schachner, Alexander Hamilton (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1946).  James Oliver Horton "Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generations," New York: The New York Journal of American History 3 (2004), 16-17, http://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/about/Horton%20-%20Hamiltsvery_Race.pdf.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, eds. Harold C. Syrett, Jacob E. Cooke, and Barbara Chernow, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia Univ., 1961-1987), 4.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:34-38.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 1:283-284.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:585  Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, eds. Julius Goebel Jr. and Joseph H. Smith, vol. 5 (New York: Columbia Univ., 1964), 494. Scholars disagree on whether Hamilton owned slaves or not. Hamilton's grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, asserted that Hamilton owned slaves and used Hamilton's expense-book as evidence: "Cash to N. Low 2 Negro servants purchased by him for me, $250." If he did it would strengthen the argument that Hamilton had other priorities than freeing slaves. Still, even if he did not, his involvement in slave transactions shows he accepted the reality that slavery existed in America.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:18.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:18.  Chernow, 121. Daniel G. Lang "Hamilton and Haiti" in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 235. Lang also uses Hamilton's support of Laurens' plan as proof of his support of abolition.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:30.  Brookhiser, 175-176.  New York Manumission Society Records, 1785-1849, 11 vols., New York Historical Society.  "An Act for the gradual abolition of Slavery," March 29, 1799, Laws of the State of New York 22(Albany, 1799), 721-23. The law for gradual abolition of slavery was finally passed during the governorship of John Jay who was a founding and influential member of the New York Manumissions Society. Although Jay owned slaves, he was a well know advocate for gradual abolition in New York State and his position may have hurt him politically at times. Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, eds. Mary-Jo Kline and Joanne Wood Ryan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 104-6. The New York Evening Post, founded by Hamilton, still contained advertisements for the renting out of slaves as of December 9, 1801. If Hamilton was strongly opposed to slavery and pushed for a law against it, it is reasonable to assume he could have prevented the printing of advertisements in his newspaper two years after the law was passed.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:597.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:604.  Benjamin Franklin, An Address to the Public, from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the abolition of slavery, and the relief of free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, November 9, 1789. Library of Congress, American Memory, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/rbpe:@field(DOCID +@lit9rbpe 14701000))  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:30.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:43.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:408.  The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Max Ferrand, ed., revised edition, 4 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1937) http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founder/print_documents/v1ch8s10.html  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:24.  The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 5-6.  The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 5-6.  New York Evening Post. 1801.  The Definitive Treaty of Peace 1783. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, ed. Hunter Miller, Vol. 2: 1776-1818 (Washington : Government Printing Office, 1931), Avalon Project of Yale University. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/britain/paris.htm  Schama, Simon, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (New York: HarpersCollins, 2006), 138.  Schama, 146. Guy Carleton was commander of the British troops in America during the initial peace between Britain and America. He was responsible for the evacuation. Carleton became known as Lord Dorchester in 1786 after being honored by Britain.  Schama, 148.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:365.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:369.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371. James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were the most famous who disagreed with Hamilton on this issue. Jefferson, Thomas, Autobiography, Avalon Project of Yale University http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon /jeffauto.htm# treatydebate  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:540.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:540.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:367-372.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:67-68.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:369, 370.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:304.  David N. Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 137.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 5:487.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 5:487.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 26:526.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 11:408-409.  John Jay, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was sent as special envoy to Great Britain.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 16:319-321.  The Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation was the preliminary version of the Jay's Treaty. An additional article was added to it before it was officially signed by the U.S. and Britain.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 18:404, 415.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:517.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:417.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:431.  Schama, 138, 149.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:367-372.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:513-516.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:518.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:519.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:92-93.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:93.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:101-102.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:101-102.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:160-162.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:236.  Ternant was minister plenipotentiary to the United States from 1790-1793.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 9:220.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 16:738-741.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 13:169.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 13:170.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 26:89-91, 117.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 21:33, 38-39.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 22:475. Hamilton often referred to Saint-Dominique as Santo Domingo, which was a separate country.  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 22:475.  Daniel Lang, "Hamilton and Haiti," in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 243.  Lang, 234.  Lang, 242.  Lang, 242. Alexander Hamilton, "The Utility of the Union in respect to Commerce and a Navy," in The Federalist, ed. George Stade (New York: Barnes and Noble Classic, 2006), 65.
Get Tutoring Info Now