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).

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: The African Free School

On November 2, 1787, the African Free School opened its doors.  Demand grew rapidly, and the Manumission Society opened a second school.  At its peak in 1822, enrollment in the schools reached 800 students, and in the 1820s and 1830s, enrollment remained steady at 600-700 students.


In 1830, Charles C. Andrews, a teacher at the Male School, published a work on the history of the institution, entitled The History of the New-York African Free-Schools, from Their Establishment in 1787, to the Present Time; Embracing a Period of More Than 40 Years; Also A Brief Account of the Successful Labors of the New York Manumission Society; with an Appendix.  Fortunately, the book has been digitized by Google (free e-book available here), preserving a fascinating, near-contemporaneous history from the head of the institution.

Andrews wrote:

“The first New-York African Free School was instituted in the year 1787; soon after the organization of the Manumission Society of this city.  The Society, viewing with commiseration, the poor African slave, and exerting all lawful means to ameliorate his sufferings, and ultimately to free him from bondage, extended also its care to the children of this injured and long degraded race amongst us, by imparting to them the benefits of such an education, as seemed best calculated to fit them for the enjoyment and right understanding of their future privileges, and relative duties, when they should become free men and citizens.”

Some of the first members of the New York Manumission Society were George Clinton, Alexander Hamilton, William Shotwell, Lawrence Embree, Robert Bowne, Willet Seaman, John Keese, John Jay, John Murray, Jr., Melancton Smith, Matthew Clarkson, James Duane, and James Cogswell.

Andrews noted that the “designs” or goals of the New York Manumission Society were:

“1st. To effect, if possible, the abolition of slavery in this state, by procuring gradual legislative enactments.

2dly. To protect from a second slavery such persons as had been liberated in the state of New-York, or elsewhere, and who were liable to be kidnapped, and sold to slave dealers in other places.

And 3dly.  To provide means for educating children of color of all classes.”

Andrews himself is an interesting and controversial figure in the history of the African Free School.  The New York Historical Society states:

“The schoolmaster of the New York African Free School for over twenty years, Andrews is a somewhat controversial figure. Because the Manumission Society chose to hire Andrews, a white man, to replace the school’s former schoolmaster, the black John Teasman, some historians see Andrews as an instrument of the Manumission Society’s mixed feelings towards African American students. Andrews did certainly offend some members of the black community. In 1831, he was forced to resign.”

Contemporary historians have noted that the schools were a potential tool of social control for freed blacks in New York City and noted that many graduates were unable to find jobs that utilized their education and skill set, but it is undeniable that they provided a positive educational opportunity for thousands of students.

In her book In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, Leslie M. Harris writes:

“The success of the schools was evident in its top graduates.  A small number of students whose parents were willing and able to allow them to remain at the school for the full array of courses received an education prepared them for college and other advanced degrees.  Many black leaders of the radical abolitionist movement of the 1830s and 1840s obtained their early education at the African Free Schools in the 1820s and 1830s.”

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Jay’s Treaty and the Camillus Letters

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.

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: The New York Manumission Society

Following the American Revolution, the issue of slavery came into focus for many Northerners.  The rhetoric of slavery and liberty had been used frequently during the Revolution, but in its aftermath, the protection property rights and the maintenance of existing state economies, particularly in the South, prevented any full-scale national movements towards abolition.  In this landscape, the state of slavery in the Northern states became more contentious.  Robin Blackburn describes the importance of New York in the slave landscape:

New York and New Jersey “together accounted for three quarters or all slaves outside of the South,” and slavery in both states “survived constitutional and legislative challenges in the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary period.”

On February 4, 1785, the New York Manumission Society was formed.  Historian Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan characterized the Society as “the site of concerted efforts to unite dreams of human perfectibility to the practical labor of effecting change.”  Hamilton was the first vice president and his friend and fellow Federalist John Jay was the first president, staying in that office for five years.  Hamilton served as president for one year in 1788 before moving to Philadelphia to take up his position as Secretary of the Treasury.

The Quaker Friends Society newsletter recounted a 1786 petition that Jay, Hamilton, and other members of the society sent to New York that began:

“Your memorialists being deeply affected by the situation of those, who, although free by the laws of God, are held in slavery by the laws of the state…”

The stated goals of the Society were noble, but they were also decidedly moderate- limited to the state of New York and reflecting the fact that many of the founders of the organization were slaveholders:

“1st to effect, if possible, the abolition of slavery in this state, by procuring gradual legislative enactments; 2dly to protect from a second slavery such persons as had been liberated in the state of New York, or elsewhere, and who were liable to be kidnapped, and sold to slave dealers in other places; and 3dly to provide means for educating children of color of all classes.”

While Hamilton consistently supported the Society and was an active member whenever he was living in New York, he also pushed its members to points of discomfort by proposing more radical plans for abolition than many of his fellow members were comfortable with.  For example, Ron Chernow describes the 1785 proposal of the Society’s ways-and-means committee headed by Hamilton to require members to commit to freeing some of their own slaves immediately, and younger slaves within 5 years.  Hamilton’s proposal would have caused financial harm to members, and was quickly rejected as being too sudden.

The 2004 Senate Concurrent Resolution 123– Recognizing and Honoring the Life and Legacy of Alexander Hamilton on the Bicentennial of His Death Because of His Standing as One of the Most Influential Founding Fathers of the United States notes:

“…as a private citizen Alexander Hamilton served many philanthropic causes and was a co-founder of the New York Manumission Society, the first abolitionist organization in New York and a major influence on the abolition of slavery from the State…Alexander Hamilton was a strong and consistent advocate against slavery and believed that Blacks and Whites were equal citizens and equal in their mental and physical faculties.”

Hamilton lived to see New York embark on a path of very slow, gradual abolition, as Pennsylvania had done earlier.  In 1788, the slave trade was abolished and aspects of the slave code were softened.  In 1799, the legislature passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,  which “allowed masters to keep their younger slaves in bondage for their most productive years, to recoup their investment. The law freed all children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, but only after they had reached their mid-twenties.  Hamilton’s bolder vision of emancipation was never reached, but the efforts of the New York Manumission Society were instrumental in building acceptance of a free, multicultural society to New York.

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Indian Policy and the Hamilton-Oneida Academy

In The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, Michael P. Federici writes:

“In 1793 a New York school designed by the Reverend Samuel Kirkland to teach Indian and white children was named after Hamilton (Hamilton-Oneida Academy), and he served as a trustee.  After his death, the school became Hamilton College.  His affiliation with a school for Indians was no accident.  Hamilton consistently supported peaceful relations with the various Indian tribes and he counseled Governor Clinton in New York and President Washington to reconcile with them.  Hamilton considered Indians and blacks to be equal members of the human race.”

The Hamilton-Oneida Academy in Clinton, New York was created with the idea of educating Indian and white children side by side to build cultural understanding.  The charter for the academy was granted on the January 29, 1793.  Hamilton was incorporated as a trustee and a namesake of the school soon after.

One description of Hamilton’s involvement states:

“Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Colonel Pickering, then Post-Master General, furnished substantial aid, and the former was one of the trustees named in the petition for incorporation.”

The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries reports:

“Mr. Kirkland met Alexander Hamilton, who took unusual interest in his efforts, and was of such assistance that Mr. Kirkland thought it but a fitting compliment to call the institution Hamilton Oneida Academy.”

In 1812, the Hamilton-Oneida Academy was chartered as Hamilton College, a liberal arts college.  The college recently celebrated its bicentennial.

The contemporary descriptions of Hamilton’s involvement with the Academy do not mention him having any substantial role in refining the Academy’s mission or determining what function it would have in the lives of the students attending.  However, Hamilton’s support of it may reflect his belief in the power of education and his progressive beliefs in racial equality.  Of course, to say that any founder, even Hamilton, was progressive with race relations in the modern sense would be an overstatement.  Hamilton’s father-in-law was involved with land grabs in New York that took substantial territory away from Indian tribes, and Hamilton firmly supported Washington’s policies that laid the groundwork for the forced migration of Indian tribes.  However, Hamilton’s support of the Academy suggests that he wanted to play a role in improving relationships with the Indians.

I generally feel ambivalent about the Indian boarding schools created by missionaries and later sponsored by the federal government.  In the late 1800s, these schools served as ground zero for the abuse of Native American children and the destruction of cultural history as the government attempted to forcibly assimilate these groups into mainstream American society.   Tim Giago states in Children left behind: dark legacy of Indian mission boarding schools that most of these school represented an “unholy alliance between church and state that tried to destroy the culture and spirituality of generations of Indian children.”


Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: The Haitian Revolution

Haiti has a tumultuous and fascinating history, and was the focus of a clash of opinions between Jefferson and the Federalists from 1799-1806. Hamilton supported the Haitian revolution and the government established under Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave. He helped draft Haiti’s constitution and advocated open trade with the new nation. On the other hand, Jefferson and his southern constituency were horrified by the idea of a free black republic.

Haiti was first discovered and conquered by Columbus and claimed for the Spanish as Hispaniola in 1492. The Spanish used it as a trading port and maintained control of the island until 1625, when the Spanish lost control due to Dutch resistance and retreated from most of the island. The French began establishing their presence on the island in the 1620s and in 1664, the French West India Company claimed the western part of the island. The French began to import large numbers of African slaves and set up a plantation economy focused on the production of sugar and coffee. Slave rebellions were frequent because of brutal conditions, so in 1685, King Louis XIV enacted the Code Noir, which served as the basis of the law of slavery in Saint- Domingue and the other French plantation colonies. Although the Code Noir legalized manumission of slaves and provided some rights for free blacks, it also created “a rigorously punitive scheme for the discipline of slave labor.” As time passed, the government began to pass laws restricting the rights of the large free black population, the gens de couleur. The combination of oppression towards slaves and towards the free black population created a tinderbox situation. In 1789, Vincent Ogé, a wealthy member of the gens de couleur petitioned the colonial government for equal rights for free people of color in Haiti. When his demands were rejected, he tried to lead an uprising, but was unsuccessful. In 1791, more slave rebellions occured, and successfully overthrew the government. Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the leader of the movement and the unofficial leader of the government. France officially ended slavery in its colonies in 1794, prompting L’Ouverture to support the French against the Spanish. Then, the British attempted to invade the island, but L’Ouverture drove them out in 1798 and took control of the government.

Now, the American government had to decide what to do with this new, unique political situation of slaves rebelling and actually controlling the government and military.

In Nation Among Nations, Thomas Bender describes the Haiti debate:

“Haiti heightened the partisan division. Much of the debate over American policy towards Haiti was framed within the larger debate between France and Britain, as Britain maneuvered to take advantage of troubles on the island. But, as Linda Kerber has observed, the debate about foreign policy “kept sliding into the subject of slavery.” When Federalists talked about the profits of trade, southern Republicans- Jefferson’s core constituency- saw only the question of American recognition of a black republic.”

Ted Widmer states: Under the Washington and Adams administrations, “a policy of quiet indifference [towards Haiti] gradually turned into commercial and even military support– support without which it would have been impossible for the experiment in black democracy to survive. ”

Hamilton understood the complicated political landscape surrounding the decision and on February 9, 1799 wrote:

…as in every thing else, we must unite caution with decision. The United States must not be committed on the independence of St. Domingo. No guaranty—no formal treaty—nothing that can rise up in judgment. It will be enough to let Toussaint be assured verbally, but explicitly, that upon his declaration of independence a commercial intercourse will be opened, and continue while he maintains it, and gives due protection to our vessels and property. I incline to think the declaration of independence ought to precede.

In June 1799, Adams issued a proclamation regarding Commerce with St. Domingo and allowed US ships to trade with Haiti. Hamilton worked closely with his friend and Adams’ Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering to develop this support. While some historians have inaccurately characterized this collaboration as occurring behind Adams’ back, Adams was in fact fully aware of these events and told Pickering that the negotiations with L’Ouverture “enjoyed his fullest approbation.” Hamilton was impressive in his “active sympathy for Haiti.” Hamilton and Pickering worked to have Hamilton’s close boyhood friend Edward Stevens deployed as Consul General of the United States at Cape-Francais in 1799. Hamilton also drafted the Haitian Constitution.

However, when Jefferson came to power, he immediately tried to recalled Stevens and embargoed trade with Haiti. As Bender states:

“Unlike Adams, [Jefferson] was widely recognized for his support of revolutions, even the French one. In defense of its turn to violence, he observed that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.’ But was what tolerable in Paris was not so in Cap Haitien. The revolution there terrified Jefferson.”

Jefferson’s complete resistance to the events in Haiti was a direct product of his racism and his desire to help his constituents maintain a slave system in the South. He feared that the example of a black republic would encourage resistance in the South. Ironically, the Louisiana Purchase was made possible only because Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti made a French empire in America pointless. Henry Adams described the acquisition of that territory and the prevention of French invasion as a debt owed by the American people “to the desperate courage of five hundred thousand Haytian negroes who would not be enslaved.” Clearly, Jefferson never saw it that way. After Hamilton’s death, American foreign policy became increasingly proslavery, and in 1806, a stiff embargo was placed on Haitian trade. Napoleon captured Toussaint L’Ouverture, who died in captivity. For a complete background of the Haitian revolution and the response of the Founding Fathers, see Gordon S. Brown’s Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution.

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.

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.