Alexander Hamilton has always been the one Founding Father that I didn’t like. There are many reasons for this. Two of my favorite Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, couldn’t stand Hamilton. Though I am to the left of the political spectrum, I’ve always felt that some of the Left’s criticism of the Founding Fathers are unfair. The criticism of the Left that the Founding Father’s were capitalistic and imperialistic seems to apply though to Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a supporter of a strong professional military and championed a strong federal government that supported the North’s merchant class, stock markets and banking system. While reading Ron Chernow’s book Alexander Hamilton, though, I found out that Hamilton was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. During the 1780s, Hamilton was one of the founders of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, which was instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the state of New York. After reading about Alexander Hamilton’s work for the New York Manumission Society, I gained a greater appreciation of Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis in the British West Indies in 1757, the illegitimate child of common-in-law couple James and Rachel Hamilton. James abandoned the family when Alexander was ten, and two years later, his mother Rachel died from an unspecified disease. After his mother died, Alexander Hamilton and his brother James were brought under the legal guardianship of their cousin Peter Lytton, who unfortunately committed suicide. During this chaotic childhood, Alexander Hamilton lived in poverty and was a social outcast due to his illegitimate birth. His intelligence was noticed though, and he soon was taken in by respected merchant, Thomas Stevens and his wife, Ann.
During his childhood, Hamilton was exposed to a wide variety of cultures that helped shaped his tolerance of different people. In Nevis, a thriving population of Sephardic Jews constituted one quarter of Charleston’s white population and their kindness to Hamilton instilled in him a lifelong reverence for Jews. The neighborhood that Hamilton lived in had many free blacks and mulattoes, and this impressed upon Hamilton the humanity and equality of blacks. The island had eight thousand captive blacks to the one thousand whites, and Hamilton observed the cruelties that the white population heaped upon the slave population. Barbarous whippings were common in the public square. Due to the ill treatment of slaves in the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton became a vociferous abolitionist.
This abolitionist sentiment first showed itself during during Hamilton’s service in the Revolutionary War. Alexander Hamilton was a member of George Washington’s military staff, and he supported the proposal of his close friend and fellow staff member John Laurens in which slaves would earn their freedom by joining the Continental Army. Laurens was the son of a prominent South Carolina slaveholder, but Laurens and Hamilton thought of abolition as part of the revolutionary ideas of freedom that led to America’s rebellion against England. While Laurens tried to get the South Carolina legislature to enact his emancipation proposals, Hamilton wrote several letters of support to various legislators.
After the war, slaveholders went to New York to steal fugitive slaves and to kidnap freed blacks to sell to slavery. Alexander Hamilton and several prominent New Yorkers were outraged by the injustices inflicted upon New York’s black population and this spurred them to action. In early 1785, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay joined several men in forming the The New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves to fight the institution of slavery in New York and to protect its black population. Ron Chernow wrote of the activities of the New York Manumission Society:
The New York Manumission Society, as it was known for short, conducted a wide-ranging campaign against slavery, sponsoring lectured, printing essays, and establishing a registry to prevent free blacks from being dragged back into slavery. It set up the African Free School to teach the basics to black students, drill discipline into them, and, paternalistically, keep them from “running into practices of immorality or sinking into habits of idleness.” The older boys were instructed in carpentry and navigation, the older girls in dressmaking and embroidery. At an early meeting, the society decided to petition the New York legislature for a gradual end to slavery; Aaron Burr, a member of the Assembly, agreed to help them. A pending bill proposed that alll blacks born after a certain future date would automatically be considered free. To toughen the measure, Burr introduced language that would terminate all slavery after a certain date. When this radical amendment was defeated, Burr backed the diluted version. In the end, the legislature enacted a toothless, purely voluntary measure that permitted slaveholders to free slaves between twenty-one and fifty years of age.
According to the first U.S. census in 1790, New York had 21,324 slaves. In 1786 the New York Manumission Society lobbied the New York legislature to halt the export of slaves from New York. In the Spring of that year, the Society flooded state and federal legislators with a pamphlet named “A Dialogue on the Slavery of the Africans”.
When George Washington was elected as the first President, Alexander Hamilton joined Washington’s government as his Secretary of the Treasury. During Washington’s presidency, Hamilton was not active with the New York Manumission Society. After Washington left office, Hamilton resumed his association with the New York Manumission Society in January 1798. The Society accomplished one of its greatest goals in 1799 when the New York Assembly voted for the gradual abolition of slavery in New York State by a vote of sixty-eight to twenty-three. Chernow wrote about the Society’s work in this phase of its history:
The Manumission Society’s work was far from over. It ran a school for one hundred black children, teaching them spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic. It also protested an increasingly common practice: New York slaveholders were circumventing state laws by exporting slaves to the south, from where they were transferred to the West Indian sugar plantations that Hamilton had known as a boy. Hamilton refused to drop his involvement in the Manumission Society even as his renown grew and his commitments vastly multiplied. He kept his connection as a legal advisor until his death. Was this perhaps his personal way of acknowledging the past by rectifying the injustice that had surrounded his early years?
Many of the other Founding Fathers were activists like Alexander Hamilton. In 1787 Benjamin Franklin agree to serve as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which set out to abolish slavery and set up programs to help freed slaves to become good citizens and improve the conditions of free African Americans. On February 12, 1790, Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society presented a petition to the House of Representatives calling for the federal government to take steps for the gradual abolition of slavery and end the slave trade. As a young lawyer, Thomas Jefferson represented a slave in court attempting to be set free and during the 1770s and 1780s, Jefferson had many several attempts to pass legislation to gradually abolish slavery and end the slave trade. John Jay was the first president of the New York Manumission Society and was active in Society’s efforts to abolish slavery. Dr. Benjamin Rush was an active member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, helping to write up a new constitution for the organization, and serving as its secretary. In his efforts to aid Philadelphia’s black community, Rush was heavily involved in promoting the African Church.
Hamilton’s and Franklin’s revulsion of slavery translated into joining civic groups, writing petitions, educating the public through pamphlets and newspaper essays, and lobbying legislators. This civic activism is something that I admire and wish to emulate. I think all Americans should be involved in the issues that they are passionate about and to take part in the political process to enact reform. I am a deep admirer of America’s history of reform, from the abolitionists, the women’s rights suffragists, the labor organizers, the civil rights activists, and the feminists. The protesters for the fight of workers’ collective bargaining rights, the fight for illegal immigrants and gay rights, the protests for bank and wall street regulation and the demonstrations for the middle class are following the road set from these earlier activists. They all are in keeping with the activism of Hamilton, Franklin and the early Founding Fathers.
Though my favorite Founding Fathers are still Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ron Chernow’s book gave me a greater appreciation of Alexander Hamilton. He was a more complex person than Jefferson and Adams gave him credit for. Hamilton’s fight against slavery was very honorable and courageous. If you are a fan of the Founding Fathers like I am, you may be interested in some of my other blogs on the Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin and His Fight to Abolish Slavery
The Founding Fathers Grapple With Slavery
The Founding Fathers Grapple With Slavery Part 2
Benjamin Banneker, Thomas Jefferson and the Question of Racial Equality
George Washington and the Freeing of His Slaves
The Friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams