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: 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: 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.