J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 12, 2020

The Facts about Alexander Hamilton and Slavery

The Schuyler Mansion historic site, a New York state park, just published a report by interpreter Jessie Serfilippi titled “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver” (P.D.F. download).

As Serfilippi notes at the beginning, Alexander Hamilton has long been described as an opponent of slavery. Lately authors have said that attitude was motivated by what he saw as a boy growing up in the Caribbean. This portrayal became a big part of American popular culture through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton.

The report shows that claim has old roots:
Starting with the first published biography of Hamilton, written by his son, John Church Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton has been almost exclusively portrayed as an abolitionist. In volume II of the biography he wrote about his father, John C. Hamilton writes “[Alexander Hamilton] never owned a slave, but on the contrary, having heard that a domestic whom he had hired was about to be sold by her master, he immediately purchased her freedom.” No evidence of such a sale has been found.
In fact, as Serfilippi documents in detail, Hamilton owned multiple “servants” in his New York mansion:
In 1804, it is possible there were four servants at The Grange. The first would be the woman Hamilton purchased for Eliza in 1781, the woman and boy, and the maid for Angelica [Church]. It is known that a man or boy named Dick died, meaning it is more likely that there were three enslaved servants in 1804. . . . Who they were may never be known, but the presence of “servants” on the inventory of Hamilton’s estate is proof enslaved servants were present at The Grange when Alexander Hamilton died in 1804.
The report notes that the 1810 U.S. Census found no one enslaved in the widow Eliza Hamilton’s household, so “slavery in the Hamilton family ended with Alexander Hamilton’s death.” Nonetheless, John Church Hamilton was eleven years old when his father died and surely recalled the household before that year. His 1840s biography made his father more politically palatable for the ante-bellum North.

Serfilippi also collects the evidence of Alexander Hamilton buying people for his family and friends. As an attorney, he sometimes argued for people’s freedom and may have done work for the Manumission Society, but in other cases he represented slaveholders. His public political writing on slavery issues appears to have tacked with his party’s course.

When we think about it, none of that should be a big surprise given Hamilton’s identification with his society’s elite, his anti-democratic conservatism, and his Schuyler in-laws’ slaveholding. But we’ve had the opposite message for over a century now. It’s good to see the hard evidence.

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