Hamilton as Abolitionist, 1779-1785 (Hamilton 48)

In which Hamilton takes on the slave-owning population of New York.

Hamilton writes on slavery during the Revolutionary War

Hamilton’s earliest comments on slavery date to 1779. While the army was in winter quarters at Valley Forge in 1777-1778, fellow aide-de-camp John Laurens proposed that slaves be recruited for the Continental Army and given their freedom if they were willing to serve. (More here.) Congress agreed, with the proviso that the legislatures of South Carolina and Georgia had to concur in the plan.

In March 1779, Hamilton wrote to John Jay, introducing Laurens and describing Laurens’s project. As far as I know, this is the longest passage where Hamilton discusses race, so I’ll quote it at length.

Spoiler: Hamilton’s attitude toward blacks is far better than that of Thomas Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers – but to 21st-century ears, Hamilton hasn’t gone far enough. I could cut the wince-worthy bits, but isn’t it about time you learned to distinguish between judging a man in the context of his own time, and judging him in the context of yours? (Yes, you should do both.)

Col Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering you this letter, is on his way to South Carolina, on a project, which I think, in the present situation of affairs there, is a very good one and deserves every kind of support and encouragement. This is to raise two three or four batalions of negroes; with the assistance of the government of that state, by contributions from the owners in proportion to the number they possess. If you should think proper to enter upon the subject with him, he will give you a detail of his plan. He wishes to have it recommended by Congress to the state; and, as an inducement, that they would engage to take those batalions into Continental pay.

It appears to me, that an expedient of this kind, in the present state of Southern affairs, is the most rational, that can be adopted, and promises very important advantages. Indeed, I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected in that quarter without it; and the enemy’s operations there are growing infinitely serious and formidable. I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers, with proper management; and I will venture to pronounce, that they cannot be put in better hands than those of Mr. Laurens. He has all the zeal, intelligence, enterprise, and every other qualification requisite to succeed in such an undertaking. It is a maxim with some great military judges, that with sensible officers soldiers can hardly be too stupid; and on this principle it is thought that the Russians would make the best troops in the world, if they were under other officers than their own. The King of Prussia is among the number who maintain this doctrine and has a very emphatical saying on the occasion, which I do not exactly recollect. I mention this, because I frequently hear it objected to the scheme of embodying negroes that they are too stupid to make soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude, will make them sooner became soldiers than our White inhabitants. Let officers be men of sense and sentiment, and the nearer the soldiers approach to machines perhaps the better.

I foresee that this project will have to combat much opposition from prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men. (3/14/1779; more here)

Although Hamilton was in favor of Laurens’s proposal, he was pessimistic that Laurens’s home state, South Carolina, would pass it. On 9/11/1779 he wrote:

I think your black scheme would be the best resource the situation of your country will admit. I wish its success, but my hopes are very feeble. Prejudice and private interest will be antagonists too powerful for public spirit and public good. The favourable events in Europe will probably be a casting weight against you. Your sanguine politicians, will think the war at the end and imagine we have nothing to do, but to sit down quietly and see the destruction of British power. (More here)

Sure enough, the South Carolina legislature resoundingly defeated Laurens’s proposal – not once, but twice. In July 1782, a month before he was killed in a skirmish, Laurens reported to Hamilton:

I had, in fact, resumed the black project, as you were informed, and urged the matter very strenuously, both to our privy council and legislative body; but I was out-voted, having only reason on my side, and being opposed by a triple-headed monster that shed the baneful influence of Avarice, prejudice, and pusillanimity in all our Assemblies. It was some consolation to me, however, to find that philosophy and truth had made some little progress since my last effort, as I obtained twice as many suffrages as before. [That is: the number voting against Laurens’s proposal had not been quite so high the second time; more here.]

Slaves freed by the British flee from New York

The British were more moral and more practical. As early as 1775, they offered freedom to any slave or indentured servant who reached the British lines. Tens of thousands of slaves fled their masters. As the war was winding down in mid-1783, those refugees became yet another bone of contention between the Americans and the British. Slavery was still legal in every state except Massachusetts. In New York, one in five households owned at least one slave. Slave owners wanted the British to give their “property” back.

The Treaty of Paris, drafted in November 1782 and confirmed by Congress in April 1783, stated in Article 7:

There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Brittanic Majesty and the said states, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other, wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall from henceforth cease. All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States, and from every post, place, and harbor within the same … (More here)

On May 26, 1783, Congress ordered General Washington to relay a resolution to British Commander-in-Chief Guy Carleton:

And whereas a considerable of negroes belonging to the Citizens of these States have been carried off therefrom, contrary to the true intent and meaning of the said Article.

Resolved, That Copies of the Letters between the Commander in Chief & Sir Guy Carlton, and other papers on this subject be transmitted to the Ministers Plenipotentiary of these States for negotiating peace in Europe, and that they be directed to remonstrate thereon to the Court of Great Britain, and take proper measures for obtaining such reparation as the nature of the case will admit.

Ordered that a Copy of the foregoing Resolve be transmitted to the Commander in Chief, and that he be directed to continue his remonstrances, respecting the permitting negroes belonging to the Citizens of these States to leave New York and to insist on the discontinuance of that measure. (More here)

Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester (1724-1808), statue de la façade de l'hôtel du Parlement, Québec. Photo: Jean Gagnon / Wikipedia

Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester (1724-1808), statue on the façade of the Hôtel du Parlement, Québec. Photo: Jean Gagnon / Wikipedia

As part of their ongoing correspondence regarding the evacuation New York, Carleton wrote to Washington a few days later (5/31/1783). Carleton’s position was that blacks who had been freed by the British could not be returned to slavery.

I enclose the copy of a order which I have given out to prevent the carrying away any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants. I understand from the Gentlemen therein named that they visited the fleet bound to Nova Scotia, and ordered on shore whatever came clearly under the above description; there appeared to be little difference of opinion except in the case of the negroes who had been declared free previous to my arrival. As I had no right to deprive them of that liberty I found them possessed of, an accurate register was taken of every circumstance respecting them, so as to serve as a record of the name of the original proprietor of each negroe, and as a rule to judge of his value; By this open method of conducting the business, I hope to prevent all fraud and whatever might admit of different constructions is left open for future explanation or compensation. Had these negroes been denied permission to embark they would in spite of every means to prevent it, have found various methods of quitting this place, so that the former owner would have been no longer able to trace them and of course would have lost in every way all chance of compensation. …

I then however learned with concern that the embarcation which had already taken place, and in which a large number of negroes had been conveyed away, appeared to your Excellency as a measure totally different from the Letter and spirit of the treaty. The negroes in question I have already said, I found free when I arrived at New York, I had therefore no right as I thought, to prevent their going to any part of the World they thought proper.

I must confess that the mere supposition, that the King’s Ministers could deliberately stipulate in a Treaty and engagement to be guilty of a notorious breach of the public faith towards people of any complexion, seems to denote a less friendly disposition than I could wish, and I think less friendly than we might expect … (More here)

The “accurate record” that Carleton mentioned is the “Book of Negroes.” The 150-page document includes the names of 3,000 black loyalists who escaped to British lines during the war and were evacuated to Canada as free men, under British protection.

Book of Negroes title page. More here.

Book of Negroes title page. More here.

New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves

After the British under Sir Guy Carleton evacuated New York in November 1783 (pics here), slave owners roamed the city looking for fugitive slaves – and sometimes kidnapping free blacks as well. This spurred the establishment of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves (a.k.a. the “New York Manumission Society”). Nineteen men attended its first meeting, on January 25, 1785. Hamilton attended the second meeting, and soon became the Society’s secretary.

From the Society’s minutes in 1785:

The benevolent Creator and Father of men, having given to them all an equal right to life, liberty, and property, no Sovereign power on earth can justly deprive them of either; but in conformity to impartial government and laws to which they have expressly or tacitly consented.

It is our duty, therefore, both as free Citizens and Christians, not only to regard with compassion, the injustice done to those among us who are held as slaves; but to endeavour, by lawful ways and means, to enable them to share equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty, with which an indulgent providence has blessed these States, and to which these our brethren are, by nature, as much entitled to as ourselves.

The violent attempts lately made to seize and export for sale, several free Negroes, who were peaceably following their respective occupations, in this city must excite the indignation of every friend to humanity, and ought to receive exemplary punishment.

The hope of impunity is too often an invincible temptation to transgression; and as the helpless condition of the persons alluded to, doubtless exposed them to the outrage they experienced, so it is probable that the like circumstances may again expose them and others to similar violences. Destitute of friends and of knowledge, struggling with poverty, and accustomed to submission, they are under great disadvantages in asserting their rights.

These considerations induce us to form ourselves into a Society, to be stiled a Society for promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and protecting such of them as have been, or may be, liberated. (More here)

With a year of its establishment, the Society published a pamphlet addressed to the Continental Congress, which included the excerpt above and “A dialogue concerning the slavery of the Africans; shewing it to be the duty and interest of the American states to emancipate all their African slaves: With an address to the owners of such slaves.”

Among the most important issues faced by the Society was the fact that many of its members, including its president, John Jay, owned slaves. Hamilton was on the three-man committee assigned to find a solution. The committee proposed emancipation in stages, beginning with slaves over 39 years old, who would be freed immediately, and ranging to slaves who were under 28 years old, and would be freed when they turned 35.

The Society rejected this proposal for manumission, lest its members “withdraw their services and gradually fall off from the Society” (so say the minutes).

Yet the Society continued to work toward the abolition of slavery in New York State. In 1785, the slave trade was abolished, but with loopholes (details of this and other legislation here). In 1788, purchase of slaves for removal to another state was forbidden. The Society also promoted boycotts of slave traders and of merchants and newspaper owners who supported slavery.

In 1799, New York State passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The last slaves in New York were emancipated on July 4, 1827. By that time most states in the North had passed similar laws. New Jersey’s and New Hampshire’s laws made the schedule so gradual that a few residents still owned slaves in 1865.

Hamilton a slave-owner?

Did Alexander Hamilton own slaves? Short answer: I don’t think so. The positive evidence is scant and ambiguous. (See Chernow, pp. 210-211.) On the negative side, we have a fair amount of material about Hamilton’s home life: it seems extraordinary that the presence of slaves would not have been mentioned.

Also, Hamilton had dozens of enemies who were happy to hammer him over any inconsistency, real or imagined. If he’d been hypocritical enough to help run the New York Manumission Society while owning slaves, would the critics have been silent?

It’s risky, of course, to base conclusions on the absence of evidence; but I think Alexander’s in the clear on this one.


  • The Grolier Club in New York is showing “‘A True Friend of the Cause’: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement” through 2/4/2017. If you want to put Hamilton’s actions in context by learning about abolition movements in Europe and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this is a great place to start. A catalogue is also available.
  • As early as 1774, in “Vindication of the Measures of Congress,” Hamilton condemned slavery – but it’s slavery in the broader sense, not enslavement of blacks. “The most abject slavery, which comprehends almost every species of human misery, is what [Congress’s embargo of British imports] is designed to prevent. … No person, that has enjoyed the sweets of liberty, can be insensible of its infinite value, or can reflect on its reverse, without horror and detestation. No person, that is not lost to every generous feeling of humanity, or that is not stupidly blind to his own interest, could bear to offer himself and posterity as victims at the shrine of despotism, in preference to enduring the short lived inconveniencies that may result from an abridgment, or even entire suspension of commerce.” More here.
  • In Alexander Hamilton, pp. 211-13, Chernow gives a summary of the the views and actions on slavery of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. It’s a good place to start if you’re curious about the Founding Fathers’ attitudes toward slavery.
  • I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the forty-eighth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. If you’ve read this far and enjoyed it, why not sign up to hear about future installments? Follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook, or ask to be added to my mailing list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com), which will get you a weekly email with some bonus comments. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my Patreon page. You can also sign up for the RSS feed of this blog, follow me on Twitter @NYCsculpture, or friend the Forgotten Delights page on Facebook.
Posted in History, Music Tagged permalink

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

Comments are closed.