Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: An Introduction

Paul Finkelman recently wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times focusing on Thomas Jefferson’s views on race. Finkelman states:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

I was discussing the issue this weekend with Rand Scholet at the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, and it is truly remarkable how progressive Hamilton’s views on race were compared to many of his contemporaries. Hamilton grew up in the West Indies and was surrounded by slavery: slaves accounted for almost 90% of the total population. He participated in the slave trade on an administrative basis as a young clerk, and developed a disgust towards the entire institution. When Hamilton was involved with the Revolution, he advocated allowing blacks to join the Continental Army, despite opposition from many of his contemporaries. Hamilton’s philosophies on race were comparatively extremely progressive. I plan to write a series of blog posts highlighting Hamilton’s stance on slavery and other racial issues including the incorporation of black soldiers into the Continental Army, the New York Manumission Society, and the rebellion in Haiti. For more background on this issue, see James Oliver Horton’s Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation.

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