Hamilton on the Death of John Laurens

On August 27, 1782, John Laurens was killed while leading a party of American soldiers in a skirmish against the British.  Hamilton and Lauren had been extremely close, and Hamilton struggled with the news as he began his Congressional career.

Hamilton and Laurens became friends when both were aides-de-camp to Washington during the Revolution, and the two had an extremely close bond.

In April 1779, Hamilton wrote:

“Cold in my professions, warm in ⟨my⟩ friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m⟨ight⟩be in my power, by action rather than words, ⟨to⟩ convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ’till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent on the caprice of others. You sh⟨ould⟩ not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste⟨al⟩ into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into ⟨me⟩.”

 

In 1779, Laurens left Washington’s service when he was elected to the South Carolina state legislature.  In that position, he attempted to win support for his plan for the enlistment of Black troops in the Continental Army.  On July 14, 1779, Laurens wrote:

Ternant will relate to you how many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclination—how much my heart was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed here—but it appears to me that I shd be inexcusable in the light of a Citizen if I did not continue my utmost efforts for carrying the plan of black levies into execution, while there remains the smallest hope of success.

Image of John Laurens from Wikimedia

Just two weeks before Lauren died in South Carolina, Hamilton wrote him a letter on August 15, 1782 imploring him to join Congress and help him with the country’s next steps after the Revolution.

It requires all the virtue and all the abilities of the Country. Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each others sentiments, our views are the same: we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.

Unfortunately, they never had that chance.  After Laurens’ death Hamilton wrote to his friend Nathaniel Greeene on October 12, 1782:

“I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and ⟨inesti⟩mable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind, and America of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.”

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.