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.