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: 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.