Alexander Hamilton, Enslaver? New Analysis Says Sure
The question has got around on the fringes of Alexander Hamilton’s rise in pop culture: Did the $ 10 founding father, who was celebrated as a “revolutionary Manumission abolitionist” in the musical “Hamilton”, actually have slaves?
Some biographers have carefully considered the matter over the years, often in footnotes or passing references. However, a new research paper published by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, NY offers the most sounding case yet.
Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter in the mansion, examines letters, books of accounts and other documents in the newspaper entitled “One thing so hideous and immoral: Alexander Hamilton’s hidden story as a slave”. Her conclusion – about Hamilton and what she proposes is wishful thinking by many of his modern admirers – is blunt.
“Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was critical to his identity, both personally and professionally,” she writes.
“It is important,” she adds, “that the myth of Hamilton end as” the abolitionist founding father “.”
The evidence cited in the newspaper, which was tacitly published online last month, is not entirely new. But Ms. Serfilippi’s haunted case has drawn the attention of historians, especially those who have questioned what they see as his inflated anti-slavery testimonies.
Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of History and Law at Harvard and author of “The Hemingses of Monticello”, described the paper as “fascinating” and the argument as plausible. “It just shows that almost all of the founders were involved in slavery in some way,” she said.
Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale and editor of the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings, said the detailed evidence had yet to be fully weighed. But she said the paper was part of a welcome revision of what she called “Hero Hamilton”.
“It is fitting that we are anticipating Hamilton’s status as a slave at a time when it is driving home how important it is for white Americans to seriously anticipate the structural legacies of slavery in America,” she wrote in an email .
Ms. Serfilippi’s research “complicates its history and better reflects the central location of slavery in America’s founding,” she said. “It also reflects Hamilton more closely.”
But Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography describes Hamilton as an “uncompromising abolitionist,” said the paper took a one-sidedly negative view.
The paper, he said in an email, “seems like a great research job that broadens our sense of Hamilton’s involvement in slavery in many ways.” But he said he was dismayed by the relative lack of awareness of Hamilton’s anti-slavery activities. And he asked what he sometimes called them “bleak conclusions”, beginning with the claim that slavery was “essential to his identity”.
“I don’t blame Jessie Serfilippi for looking closely at Hamilton and slavery,” he said. “The great personalities of our history deserve such rigor. But she leaves out any information that would contradict her conclusions. “
Hamilton married into the powerful Schuyler family in 1780. Slavery was widespread among the New York State elite, and the Schuylers were some of the largest slave owners in their area. Over the years, more than 40 people have been enslaved at the Albany mansion and one other property.
In recent years the mansion has conducted extensive research into “the servants” (as the enslaved individuals of the household were usually called) included in its tours. The fact that the Schuylers were slaves does not necessarily shock the visitors, said Ms. Serfilippi. But the extent of Hamilton’s ties to slavery is a different story.
“There are some people who come here and know that he’s not exactly an abolitionist,” she said. “But it’s surprising when I talk about the details of the research.”
Travis Bowman, the senior curator of the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites who oversaw the internal review of Ms. Serfilippi’s article, said the relative lack of research on enslaved people in Hamilton’s household partly reflects the general lack of science on slavery in the north contrary. And the complexity of gradual abolition (New York’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1799 that phased out slavery for decades) makes it particularly difficult to track down enslaved people and clearly determine their status.
“It is a very strange time,” said Mr. Bowman. “Many people granted half freedom. When enslaved people went away, they didn’t go after them. “
The idea that Hamilton stands out from the institution goes back to the very first biography of his son John Church Hamilton, who claimed in 1841 that his father “never owned a slave”.
This claim was flatly refuted by Hamilton’s grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton. In his 1910 biography, he called it “untrue” and noted that Hamilton’s own ledger had entries showing how he bought slaves for himself and others.
But the idea of resolute anti-slavery in Hamilton has endured and has grown stronger in recent decades. It’s certainly an image that appeals to contemporary readers looking for a founding father relatively untouched by slavery.
In her work, Ms. Serfilippi questions what she considers persistent myths, beginning with the oft-repeated claim that his childhood, exposed to the brutalities of slavery on St. Croix, left him with what Mr. Chernow in his biography “a chose aversion to slavery. “
“To date,” she writes and repeatedly other scholars, “no primary sources have been found to corroborate the idea” that Hamilton’s childhood sparked hate slavery.
Hamilton criticized slavery at various points in his life and, compared to most white contemporaries, held enlightened views about the capabilities of blacks. He was also an early member of the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785 to advocate gradual abolition and promote the voluntary liberation of the enslaved. (A number of members, including Philip Schuyler, his father-in-law, were slave owners.)
However, Ms. Serfilippi also notes documented cases of Hamilton consulting with legal clients on issues related to slavery. Hamilton probably would not have been hired for such work, she argues, “if he had been classified as merely abolitionist among his colleagues.”
That Hamilton helped legal clients and family members, including his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church, buy and sell enslaved people has been noted by biographers. But whether Hamilton enslaved people in his own household is a dire question.
Some modern biographers, Ms. Serfilippi notes, address the question, albeit often briefly. In his biography, Mr. Chernow writes that Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth “may have owned a household slave or two” and cites “three weird references in his papers”. But she offers a more definitive reading, arguing that a number of primary sources “prove that Hamilton bought enslaved people for himself”.
Much of her case is based on notes in his cash books and family letters. For example, in May 1781, six months after his marriage to Elizabeth, Hamilton wrote to George Clinton, mentioning waiting for a sum of money “to pay Mrs. H’s value[amilton] had from Mrs. Clinton. “
Some historians, she writes, have read this as payment for the value of their work. But Hamilton, Ms. Serfilippi argues, clearly “exchanged money for the woman herself”.
She also cites a number of similar references in other letters which she claims are corroborated by information in the cash books. For example, in a letter to Hamilton dated August 1795, Philip Schuyler refers to “a negro boy and woman who was engaged to you.” In March 1796, a payment of US $ 250 to Schuyler for “2 Negro servants he bought for me” is recorded in Hamilton’s cash books.
Ms. Serfilippi also cites several letters from Philip Schuyler referring to “maids” traveling with Elizabeth and the Hamilton children at a time when Hamilton’s cash books, she argues, do not contain a record of maid wages – a clue, she says, that they have been enslaved.
In another entry in the cash book from June 1798, Hamilton reports that he received 100 US dollars for the “tenure” of a “negro boy”. That Hamilton could rent him to someone else – a common practice – “absolutely shows that Hamilton enslaved the boy,” Ms. Serfilippi writes.
And the Hamiltons, Ms. Serfilippi claims, appear to have enslaved people until Hamilton’s death.
She points to a piece of paper that is included towards the end of the cash book and contains an inventory of Hamilton’s property, apparently made after his death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804. The inventory lists his house (£ 2,200 worth) and furniture and books (£ 300). There are also “servants” worth £ 400.
Hamilton’s own inventory, which he made shortly before the duel, does not contain any reference to servants. However, Ms. Serfilippi believes that the posthumous inventory drawn up to manage his affairs is more likely to be accurate.
“The Hamiltons were in debt,” she said. “It would make sense to take everything into their possession.”
It remains to be seen whether Ms. Serfilippi’s firm conclusions will be widely accepted by scientists. For them, it’s not just about how we see Hamilton.
“When we say Hamilton did not enslave people, we erase them from history,” she said. “The most important thing is that you were here. We have to acknowledge them. “