Alexander Hamilton and the
Institution of Slavery Revisited
Institution of Slavery Revisited
written by Frances Storey, '22
edited by Alex Jacobs '22 & George Labour '22
In a moment of historical reckoning on slavery and race in the United States, there have been calls to remove statutes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers whose contributions to the nation have been tainted by their involvement in the institution of slavery. Alexander Hamilton never oversaw an estate like Mount Vernon or Monticello, and for most of history he has managed to avoid the same level of scrutiny applied to his colleagues. He has been described and celebrated as a staunch abolitionist by a number of historians, including Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography inspired the 2015 hit musical Hamilton. This assertion has ingrained the image of Hamilton in popular culture as some kind of progressive Founding Father, but this is misleading. Hamilton benefited from, and was an active participant in, the institution of slavery.
As the only Founding Father to have immigrated from the Caribbean, Hamilton was exposed at an early age to the horrors of sugar plantation slavery up close. Those experiences complicated his views on slavery once he arrived in the United States in 1773. Some sources, including Joseph Murray in Alexander Hamilton: America’s Forgotten Founder, suggest that this experience turned him against the institution entirely and made him a staunch abolitionist, but that is not true. Hamilton’s Cash Books outline his role as a middleman in purchasing enslaved people for his family and friends, and new research even suggests that he owned enslaved people himself. Exploring Hamilton’s complicated relationship with slavery, it seems likely that his views on the issue depended more on what he could gain from it and the preservation of the Union than his moral values and experiences.
In the 1774 A Full Vindication of the Measure of the Congress, Hamilton compares the relationship between the American colonists and Great Britain to that of a master and an enslaved person, and he blames Great Britain for introducing the evil of slavery to the colonies. He writes, “The system of slavery, fabricated against America, cannot at this time be considered as the effect of inconsideration and rashness…. In common life, to retract an error even in the beginning, is no easy task. Perseverance confirms us in it, and rivets the difficulty; but in a public station, to have been in error, and to have persisted in it, when it is detected, ruins both reputation and fortune.” Here, Hamilton makes his views on American independence and slavery clear.
As one of the founders of the Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves in New York in 1785, Hamilton advocated for the emancipation of enslaved peoples in New York and, unsuccessfully, tried to pass a proposal that called on the members of the Society to free their enslaved peoples. However, when it came to organizing the new country’s federal government at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton favored preserving the union over the abolishment of slavery and didn’t object to a compromise that counted enslaved peoples as ⅗ a person for the purpose of determining population and representation in Congress. The framers of the Constitution even included a section that prohibited Congress from ending the Transatlantic Slave Trade until 1808, pushing the issue of abolition to the next generation of political leaders. Coincidentally, following the ratification of the Constitution and Hamilton’s swearing-in as the first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s commitment to the goals of the New York Manumission Society and the emancipation of enslaved peoples dimmed as he took public office.
Hamilton’s involvement in the transaction of enslaved peoples is well-documented in his personal records. In 1784, he recorded in his Cash Book that he was owed £90 from Malachi Treat, a New York physician, for a “Negro wench” named Peggy. One year later, he noted that he had received the money from Treat. Then, in 1797 he noted paying £90 “To ditto paid price of Negro Woman” in an account with John Barker Church, his brother-in-law.
These two incidents make clear Hamilton’s involvement as a middleman in the institution of slavery, but what is still unanswered is whether or not he personally owned slaves. Despite the dominant view held by historians, and insistence from Hamilton’s own kin that he did not, a new interpretation of Hamilton’s personal documents suggests that he did. Research done at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site at Albany, NY, focuses on a 1798 entry to Hamilton’s Cash Book that notes Hamilton paying his father-in-law Philip Schuyler $250 for “2 Negro servants purchased by him for me.” Unfortunately, the Cash Book does not elaborate any further on who these two individuals may be and what their status was in the Hamilton house. That Hamilton refers to the individuals as servants does not necessarily guarantee that their service was voluntary, as enslaved people were described by a variety of terms at the time. This research is consistent with the idea that Hamilton was not the abolitionist that he is celebrated to be, and, like most Americans of his time, he was caught up in the institution of slavery.
We may never know the truth about Hamilton’s personal ownership of slaves, but his direct involvement as a middleman in these arrangements cannot be ignored or overlooked. Fortunately, the literature is being developed to include this. Like Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton dedicated his life to public service and contributed a great deal to the founding and preservation of the United States during a time of uncertainty and unrest. This, and his involvement in the institution of slavery, can both be true. In order to really reconcile with this nation’s history and move forward, we must remove the Founders from the pedestals we have put them on and see them in a new light that encompasses both their enormous contribution for good and their engagement in practices that are reprehensible to us today.
 Joseph Murray, Alexander Hamilton: America’s Forgotten Founder (New York: Algora, 2007), 10.
 “A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, &c., [15 December] 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-01-02-0054. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 1, 1768–1778, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, pp. 45–78.]
 Ankeet Ball, “Ambition & Bondage: An Inquiry on Alexander Hamilton and Slavery,” Columbia University and Slavery, https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/content/ambition-bondage-inquiry-alexander-hamilton-and-slavery#/_ftn47 (Accessed Nov. 20, 2020).
 U.S. Constitution. art. 1. sec. 9, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.
 “Cash Book, [1 March 1782–1791],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-03-02-0007. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 3, 1782–1786, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 6–67.]
 “Account with John Barker Church, [15 June 1797],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0067. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 21, April 1797 – July 1798, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974, pp. 109–112
 Hamilton, Alexander. Alexander Hamilton Papers: Financial Papers; Cash books; Vol. II, 1795- Jan. term, 1801.https://www.loc.gov/item/mss246120766/.
 Jessie Serfilippi, “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” Schuyler Mansion State Historic Park (2020): 15-16. https://parks.ny.gov/documents/historic-sites/SchuylerMansionAlexanderHamiltonsHiddenHistoryasanEnslaver.pdf.