Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Enlisting Black Soldiers in the Continental Army

In a March 14, 1779 letter to John Jay, then-president of the Continental Congress, Hamilton advocated a proposal to raise three or four battalions of black soldiers.  This was a project that Hamilton and his friend and fellow abolitionist John Laurens came up with together, and John Laurens delivered the letter to Jay.  In the letter, Hamilton stated:

The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.

In the book Black Patriots and Loyalists, Alan Gilbert describes the role of black soldiers in both the Loyalist and patriot cause.  The British actively recruited black soldiers, with Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation.  The proclamation stated that all indentured servants and slaves “free” who were “able and willing to wear arms.”  While black soldiers had been part of the colonial militias, Washington had refused to accept them into the official Continental Army.  However, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation prompted Washington’s decision to finally accept black soldiers in the army on December 31, 1775.  In 1781, during the Battle of Yorktown, when Hamilton was commanding a battalion of troops under Lafayette, Lieutenant Colonel de Gimat’s battalion was composed of a majority of black soldiers.

According to the Freedom Trail Foundation:

By 1779, 15% of the Continental Army and colonial militias were made of men of African decent. They saw action in every single major battle including Ticonderoga, Monmouth, Valley Forge, Princeton, and Washington’s Delaware crossing.

Despite the opposition of his contemporaries, and Washington’s initial refusal, Hamilton and Laurens persisted in advocating for the acceptance of black soldiers into the Continental Army.  Hamilton’s responses to the racist views of his contemporaries foreshadowed his lifelong commitment to the cause of abolition.  In sharp contrast to the blatant racism of “Enlightenment” thinker Jefferson, Hamilton never wavered on his philosophical opposition to slavery.

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