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.

5 comments:

DLama1950 said...

This monograph is hardly “hard evidence”. The fact that this work is written by someone with an MFA, rather than someone trained in historical analysis demands a full review of her work and the source documents. Your pre-disposed belief that Hamilton was an elitist and “anti-democratic” (have you read his works?) may be colouring your viewpoint. The fact that you question that as an attorney he represented both plaintiffs and defendants or either side in a contract issue beggars belief. This is not only a long standing practice in English Common Law (see Blackstone) it was also demonstrated by the likes of John Adams who defended a British soldier charged in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre.
Unless there are more evidentiary facts to be offered I believe the jury is still out.

J. L. Bell said...

Just because this report about Hamilton’s slave ownership can upset fanboys, there’s no reason to misrepresent it or what I wrote about it. That just shows how an emotional reaction can overwhelm rationality.

Let’s start with how the report presents the “hard evidence,” including citations and even images of the documents in question. No one claims the report itself is hard evidence. Let’s try to think more clearly.

Another elementary failure of interpretation here is the claim that I “question that as an attorney he represented” clients of various perspectives. I didn’t question that in the least. I stated it as a fact. Some Hamilton admirers have claimed that his caseload showed he worked against slavery. My point was that his full list of clients doesn’t offer evidence for that. You appear to be making the same point while still trying to flail at people writing things you don’t like. (Incidentally, John Adams didn’t defend just “a British soldier”; he famously defended a captain and eight enlisted men, as this blog continues to discuss at length.)

As for Hamilton’s identification with the elite and his anti-democratic beliefs, I let his writings speak for themselves. They’re much more accurate than fanboys projecting their own economic philosophies and ideals back onto him.

Jessie Serfilippi wrote this report as an experienced interpreter at a historic site associated with Hamilton through his marriage. Interpreting historical sources for the public is her job. Again, she laid out the evidence for everyone to see, even if some don’t want to see it. A pseudonymous internet commenter has no standing to complain about a professional’s qualifications to share her research.

It’s striking how little this comment has to say about the evidence laid out in the report, particularly from Hamilton’s estate inventory. It’s almost as if the commenter was trying to avoid looking at the historical facts.

Anonymous said...

Cognitive dissonance is in full effect for some people, it seems. I find it funny that people are quick to dismiss evidence of Hamilton's misdeeds, and yet seem hellbent on indicting Aaron Burr as the worst villain in history despite very little evidence to support that.

Anonymous said...

It's disturbing to now know that our 3 smallest denomination bills depict men who bought and sold human beings.

J. L. Bell said...

Abraham Lincoln remains on the five-dollar bill.