Hamilton’s Legacy on Race and Slavery: James Alexander Hamilton’s 1860 Letter

On July 4, 1860, the New York Times published a constitutional analysis from James A. Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s third son.  The letter was entitled: Property in Man.: Letter from Hon. James A. Hamilton on the Doctrine of the Constitution Concerning Slavery.  Hamilton’s letter is a fascinating constitutional analysis from a contemporary perspective.

The editors of the New York Times introducing the letter noted:

We publish this morning a paper from one of the surviving sons of ALEXANDER HAMILTON, upon the leading political topic of the day, which merits and will repay a careful perusal. It discusses the provisions of the Federal Constitution on the subject of Slavery, in a spirit of candor and with the temper and ability of a statesman. We remember no document of any kind in which this whole subject is presented with more convincing force and clearness than in this.

As we have hitherto insisted, the pending political contest is simply a struggle of contending sections for power. Possession of the Federal Government is what both North and South are striving for. But there is a motive for this contest on both sides, — and the leading motive of the South is a determination to regard Slavery as their paramount interest, and its protection and perpetuation as their settled policy. They have invented the doctrine that slaves are made property by virtue of State laws; — that they are recognized as property by the Federal Constitution; — that they may, therefore, be taken, held and treated as property in every territory and other part of the United States where the Constitution is the supreme law; and that the Federal Government is bound to protect their owners in the possession and control, of this property, whenever the Territorial Government shall fail to do so. If this position can once be established, the slaveholding interest becomes at once and forever the controlling interest of the Government.

It is scarcely necessary to say that no such doctrine can ever be incorporated into the body of American law. It matters little what Presidents may do, what Congress may vote, what Party Conventions may decree, or what the Supreme Court may decide, in regard to it. They may give a temporary show of validity to the claim; they may postpone the day when it shall be effectually and forever scouted from the councils of our Government, — but they can no more prevent that day from coming than they can prevent the setting of to-day’s sun. The people of this country will never sanction any such principle. Neither sophistry nor force can ever induce them to give it their recognition. If resisted only by constitutional weapons, and in the spirit of the Union, they will sweep away the arrogant and preposterous claim without undue damage to the interest on whose behalf it is preferred. But a violent and revolutionary resistance on the part of the slaveholding interest, will involve far more serious and fatal results.

Mr. HAMILTON’s letter sets forth the constitutional doctrine in regard to Slavery. It proves conclusively that the Constitution does not recognize slaves as property, or as in any respect under the special protection and control of the Federal Government, — but as “persons held to service or labor in one State under the laws thereof.” This is the constitutional basis on which the whole subject rests, and upon which the political treatment of it must be based. We commend the letter to all who are interested in the principles which underlie the party contests of the day.

The lengthy letter is well worth reading in its entirety for anyone interested in the Civil War or in constitutional analysis of slavery in the 1860s.  However, some of the key points are outlined for you below.

Hamilton introduced the piece by explaining that his intention was to refute the proposition, expressed in Justice Taney’s Dred Scott opinion and by many supporters of slavery that:

“the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution” — and Southern men generally, with their allies in the North, insist that the Constitution of the United States, proprio vigore, carries Slavery wherever it reaches; and that, as property, they have a right to take their slaves into the Territories of the United States — there to be protected by a slave code, to be enacted by Congress.

Hamilton argued, that contrary to Justice Taney’s contention that slavery was supported in the Constitution,

“…it was the deliberate purpose, not of individual members alone, but of the Convention, to exclude from the Constitution, not only the hated word “Slave” but the detested thing “Slavery;” and we have, therefore, the right to insist — before it can be asserted, with any title to our respect, that this august and intelligent body affirmed or establish. ed “the right of property in a slave,” and thus reversed the established law of Nature on that subject — that the language of the Constitution should be found to be so explicit; as to be irresistible.”

Hamilton went on to criticize the Southern interpretation of slavery as contrary to the original object of the framers:

“The object of the framers of the Constitution was: To establish the Union, and a government for that Union on the basis of the equality of man; to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity; to give to the Federal Government, no more power over the States or the people thereof than “was essential to preserve that Union; to direct the foreign relations and such relations among the States and the people thereof, as were necessary and proper. To regulate commerce, and to secure the power of taxation; at the same time to leave with the States and the people thereof the regulation of such subjects as are of a domestic and social character; and particularly the rights of private property, and the control and disposition thereof. In this view of the subject it may be asked — Could the power to establish Slavery in a State come within the scope and object of the Government of the Union? On the other hand, if it were to exist at all, must it not be considered of a character so entirely social and domestic as to be most emphatically one of the reserved rights of the States, and consequently without and beyond the jurisdiction or power of the Federal Government.

This interpretation is that which “the Fathers” held to be true; and it is that under which the Government was administered during more than one half century of its existence, with the approval of all the departments of the Government, and of the people of all parts of the country.

We are told by Southern men of distinguished rank, with an arrogance in tone and manner which can never be properly indulged among equals, that unless the North shall renounce this interpretation, sanctioned by time and the highest authority, and adopt that of Chief Justice TANEY and Mr. BUCHANAN, with the Democracy of the South, the Government and Union of the United States are to be destroyed, and with them the brightest hopes of mankind, founded on popular government.

This recent heresy is dictated alone by a lust for power, disguised under an assertion, made with all the confidence of truth and sincerity, that unless the Territories of the United States shall be opened to Slavery, there to be protected by Congress, the institution will be so “cribbed, coffined and confined,” as to be distroyed by its increasing numbers.”

Hamilton also published a short piece outlining some basic principles that framed his perspective.

“Every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has a right to but himself.” — Locke.

“Natural liberty is the gift of the beneficent Creator of the whole human race.” — Hamilton.

“Slavery is a system of outrage and robbery.” — Socrates.

“Slavery is a system of the most complete injustice.” — Plato.

“No man by nature is the property of another.” — Dr. Johnson.

“Slavery in all its forms, in all its degrees, is a violation of divine law, and a degradation, of human nature.” — Brissot.

“Not only does the Christian religion. but nature herself cry out against the state of Slavery.” — Pope Leo X.

“The wise and good men throughout all time; and the Christian Church throughout all the world; with an unimportant exception during a brief period in our own country, have denounced ‘Slavery’ as ‘an atrocious debasement of human nature.’ — Franklin.

Although James A. Hamilton’s analysis was written five decades after his father’s death, I find it fascinating to loosely trace Hamilton’s anti-slavery efforts as part of the New York Manumission Society to his son’s beliefs and conduct during the Civil War.   During the war, Hamilton was active on the Union side and documented several meetings with President Lincoln in his memoirs, including one immediately before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

(Look for more It’s Hamiltime! posts on James A. Hamilton soon as part of an upcoming series on Hamilton’s family and friends).

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