One of the most unpopular positions that Hamilton took in his political career was his outspoken defense of the Jay Treaty. The provisions of the treaty were made public in the spring of 1795, and chaos erupted in response. Jeffersonians took up the cry: “Damn John Jay! Damn every one that won’t damn John Jay! Damn every one that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!”
Hamilton risked his popularity, and even his safety to defend Jay’s Treaty. He was the sole voice to publicly support the treaty amidst a flood of negative sentiment. In fact, a mob attempted to stone Hamilton at a public meeting in New York for his defense of the treaty.
One specific aspect of Hamilton’s Camillus letters deals with the issue of slavery and natural law. During the Revolution, the British had issued Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, offering freedom to slaves who left their masters and joined the British army. According to Michael D. Chan, the actions of the British “infuriated southern slaveholders, especially because many of them were groaning under the weight of debts owed to British citizens.” These Southerners insisted that any treaty with Britain include a provision for either returning the slaves or compensating the slaveowners for their loss.
However, as Colleen A. Sheehan states: “The Jay Treaty provided for neither restoration of nor compensation for the slaves carried away. This was a bitter pill for many Americans not only because of financial loss, but because of how the matter had been handled by the British from the state.”
Hamilton addressed the issue in his Camillus letters as follows:
- IV.—The stipulation relates to “negroes or other property of the American inhabitants”; putting negroes on the same footing with any other article. The characteristic of the subject of the stipulation being property of American inhabitants, whatever had lost that character could not be the object of the stipulation. But the negroes in question, by the laws of war, had lost that character; they were therefore not within the stipulation.Why did not the United States demand the surrender of captured vessels, and of all other movables, which had fallen into the hands of the enemy? The answer is, because common sense would have revolted against such a construction. No one could believe that an indefinite surrender of all the spoils or booty of a seven-years’ war was ever intended to be stipulated; and yet the demand for a horse, or an ox, or a piece of furniture, would have been as completely within the terms “negroes and other property,” as a negro; consequently, the reasoning which proves that one is not included, excludes the other.The silence of the United States as to every other article is therefore a virtual abandonment of that sense of the stipulation which requires the surrender of negroes.
- V.—In the interpretation of treaties, things odious or immoral are not to be presumed. The abandonment of negroes, who had been induced to quit their masters on the faith of official proclamation, promising them liberty, to fall again under the yoke of their masters, and into slavery, is as odious and immoral a thing as can be conceived. It is odious, not only as it imposes an act of perfidy on one of the contracting parties, but as it tends to bring back to servitude men once made free. The general interests of humanity conspire with the obligation which Great Britain had contracted towards the negroes, to repel this construction of the treaty, if another can be found.
Hamilton’s response to the issue of the British freeing of slaves during the war was nothing short of radical. Using the framework of the laws of war, Hamilton put forth salient and controversial points relating to the morality of slavery. Hamilton challenged the idea that freed slaves could be properly grouped with other types of “property” referred to in the treaty. Additionally, Hamilton called the idea of returning freed slaves to slavery “odious” and “immoral,” despite the fact that slavery was prevalent throughout the Union.
Hamilton’s fearless defense of a treaty he believed in, even at the height of its unpopularity, demonstrates to me Hamilton’s commitment to stand for something, no matter what the personal or political cost.
Read the full Camillus letters here.