UPDATE: A new response in the Federalist (click on screenshot) says that Serfilippi’s interpretation is wrong, and that the evidence that Hamilton owned slaves is unconvincing. Click on screenshot to read:
I wondered why the conservative Federalist would publish this, as well as adding the slur about the NYT, but then I realized that part of this is an implicit attack on the contention of the Times‘s 1619 project about the Founding Fathers creating the Revolution to preserve slavery. Anyway, read and judge for yourself. I expect that Serfilippi will reply.
A new paper by Jessie Serfilippi, a 27-year-old interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion Historic Site in Albany, New York, begins this way:
In the 21st century, Alexander Hamilton is almost universally depicted as an abolitionist. From Ron Chernow’s Hamilton to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, there is little room in modern discourse for questioning the founder’s thoughts and feelings on slavery.
In fact, the article below, from the new Smithsonian Magazine (click on screenshot), notes that both Chernow’s book and Miranda’s play based on that book make a point of painting Hamilton as an abolitionist. While Hamilton was tangentially engaged in some abolitionist activities, Serfilippi’s extensive paper, published by the Schulyler Mansion Historic site, makes an almost airtight case that Hamilton not only owned slaves, but rented them out to others for a fee. In addition, he gave advice to others who wanted to promote slavery (often about maintaining ships for transporting slaves), and bought slaves to sell to others.
(The Schuyler mansion, built by Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler in 1761, is a National Historic site; the Hamilton connection involves Alexander H. marrying Schulyer’s daughter Elizabeth, or “Eliza”.)
If you want a short take, read the Smithsonian article, a good summary of the 28-page article by Serfilippi. But her original publication, which you can get free by clicking on the second screenshot below, is more useful in establishing Hamilton’s slave-owning and -trading activities, as well as his legal advice promoting slavery, with original historical records and documents. These documents include the ledgers of Philip Schuyler, of Hamilton himself, and of John Barker Church, who settled Hamilton’s estate after his death.
Serfilippi’s publication (free pdf at link)
I’ll give Serfilippi’s main take first, and then list the ways that Hamilton was involved with slavery. It was, as she says, a “complicated relationship”, but it clearly seems more pro- than anti-slavery.
A thorough study of the depths of Hamilton’s involvement in the institution of slavery has yet to be done through a close examination of Alexander Hamilton’s cash books, various letters to and from Hamilton, letters to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton from her father, Philip Schuyler, and other related primary accounts. When those sources are fully considered, a rarely acknowledged truth becomes inescapably apparent: not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally. The denial and obscuration of these facts in nearly every major biography written about him over the past two centuries has erased the people he enslaved from history. It has also created and perpetuated a false and incomplete picture of Hamilton as a man and Founding Father.
Here are Serfilippi’s arguments, some merely inferential, but the most damning ones based on historical documentation.
1.) Hamilton, who grew up in St. Croix, was part of a household that had at least seven slaves. After his dad abandoned the family, Alexander also worked as a clerk at a trading post involved in the slave trade. It is probable, says Serfilippi, that Hamilton was involved in the machinations of this trade. There is no historical record that Hamilton objected to the slavery on St. Croix during his entire life. As Serfillipi surmises,
As a teenager, Hamilton writes to his friend Ned Stevens that he “would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station,” showing that his major concern was improving his own situation, not the ones of the enslaved people around him.14 It is more likely that Hamilton’s exposure to slavery as a child caused him to internalize the lesson that enslavement was the symbol of success for a white man like himself and could lead to the higher station he sought. He would carry that lesson with him as he began a new life in New York, and its impact would much later be revealed on the pages of his cash books.
This is, of course, speculative, and is more biographical surmising than hard evidence. But let’s proceed:
2.) Hamilton was a middleman in the trading of slaves. The 1784 entry in Hamilton’s own ledger (“cash book”) below documents the sale of a woman named Peggy from Hamilton to physician Malachi Treat for ninety pounds. Apparently Hamilton bought Peggy and held her for Treat until the latter could pay for her. This makes Hamilton a slave trader. The sale of “regular” servants (the name “servant” was often used as a synonym for “slave” back then) did not occur; the only humans bought and sold this way were slaves.
In 1797, and not for the first time, Hamilton bought a “negro woman and child”, holding her for his brother-in-law John Church, who was arriving from England.
Twelve years later, the Churches again turned to Hamilton to purchase enslaved servants. On May 29, 1797—only a week after the Churches arrived in New York from England—Hamilton recorded in his cash book that he spent $225 purchasing a “negro woman and child” for John B. Church.24 (The “X” over the entry in the image below means the debt was paid.
Serfilippi says that Hamilton’s book makes it clear that Hamilton himself carried out this transaction “for himself”, meaning he purchased the slave to sell to Church. It’s clear that he was engaged in buying and selling slaves—acting as a slave trader.
3.) Hamilton was a “middleman for legal clients.” Serfilippi’s search showed that Hamilton was paid by slaveholding and possibly slave-trading clients to advise them on the slave trade (the “advice” was unrecorded), and records of some of these consultations show that he defended the right of Americans to own ships that had been fitted out to carry slaves. While these ships may not have been used later in the slave trade, Serfilippi argues—and this is speculative and not very hard evidence—that if he were an abolitionist, clients involved in the slave trade would not have sought and paid for his expertise.
4.) Hamilton owned slaves. There are several documented instances. In May, 1781, Hamilton wrote to George Clinton saying he “paid the value of a woman” for Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Eliza’s family had at least 13 slaves, and, says Serfilippi, Hamilton would have been expected to purchase slaves for his own family as part of a “lifestyle reflective of his status as part of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in New York.”
More telling is an entry in Hamilton’s cashbook from March 23, 1796, in which Hamilton paid $250 to his father in law for “2 Negro servants purchased by him for me”. Here’s the entry:
And there’s more:
On June 25, 1798, Hamilton recorded that he’d received $100.00 for the “term” of a “negro boy.” [JAC: probably one of the “two Negro servants” above]. He rented the boy to someone else––who that person was is not mentioned––and collected money for the child’s labor. The fact that he was able to lease the boy to another person absolutely indicates that Hamilton enslaved the child.
Serfilippis gives other evidence that these people were slaves, though the material above should be dispositive. There is other evidence that Hamilton had white “servants”, who, because they were paid wages, were not slaves. No wages were given to the slaves above. Read Serfilippi’s article for more detail.
4.) Hamilton’s slaves were part of his property valued after he died. The document below, probably by the hand of George Church, Hamilton’s executor, shows the value of his estate (1818 pounds) after Hamilton’s pre-mortem debts were paid off. The items valued were his house, his furniture and library, and his “servants”:
Paid servants do not have a value like this; these were slaves. As Serfilippi notes:
In the assessment likely drawn by Church, the “servants” are valued at £400. Monetary value ascribed to a human being as property is an inherent aspect of slavery. Valuing servants in such a way, as part of the estate on par with furniture, simply cannot refer to hired servants, such as the coachman, gardener, or “White Peggy,” who were hired, paid, and not considered to be the property of the Hamiltons.
In 1804, it is possible there were four servants at The Grange. The first would be the woman Hamilton purchased for Eliza in 1781, the woman and boy, and the maid for Angelica. It is known that a man or boy named Dick died, meaning it is more likely that there were three enslaved servants in 1804: the two women and the girl, who may have been a young woman by that point. There may also have been another maid, as multiple maids were mentioned in relation to the Hamilton children in Schuyler’s 1799 letter and who those maids were—whether they were one of the two women already purchased by Hamilton or not—is unclear.
The auditor does specifically write servants, using the plural of the word, implying there was more than one servant present. Who they were may never be known, but the presence of “servants” on the inventory of Hamilton’s estate is proof enslaved servants were present at The Grange when Alexander Hamilton died in 1804.
It is true that Hamilton occasionally espoused abolitionist views, but Serfilippi argues that these views, which changed over time, simply reflect his adherence to the political organizations with which he was affiliated. Her conclusion:
We may never know what became of the people the Hamiltons enslaved, but we know they existed. Alexander Hamilton’s cash books offer a history of his connections to and relationship with the institution of slavery. He was trusted by legal clients to know the ins and outs of the slave trade for certain cases. He was selected by friends and family to act as a financier and to purchase enslaved people for them. He purchased multiple enslaved people for his own family and did not leave instructions for them to be freed upon his death. The presence of these enslaved servants at his estate, The Grange, is confirmed by the value of Hamilton’s estate, calculated after his death, likely by John Barker Church.
In light of these primary sources, the majority of which are in Hamilton’s own hand, it is vital that the myth of Hamilton as the “Abolitionist Founding Father” end. These documents, especially when placed in context with each other, make it evident that Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver. The truth revealed in Hamilton’s cash books and letters must be acknowledged in order to honor the people he enslaved. Through understanding and accepting Hamilton’s status as an enslaver, the stories of the people he enslaved can finally take their rightful place in history.
Now you probably know why I’m putting up this post. Hamilton, seen as an colonial abolitionist by liberals, turns out to have been just another slaveholder—like many of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, and Madison. But because Hamilton was thought of as different, he’s been deified, by Chernow and especially by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose play Hamilton was a theatrical phenomenon.
Hamilton is now seen as a man of his time: a white person who owned slaves as a sign of social standing. That doesn’t make slavery right, of course, as it’s the most odious of practices in America. It’s just that because slavery is seen as an original sin in early Americans, and because those who owned or even just approved of slavery have been demonized and their statues torn down, in the name of consistency the antiracists must now tear down or deface the statues of Hamilton, as they have of Jefferson, and rename any monuments or buildings raised in his honor. One might expect that the play Hamilton would be picketed now, and that there would be calls to remove Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill. After all, Theodore Roosevelt’s statue was removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History simply because he was astride his horse, with an African and a Native American walking by his side.
That won’t happen, probably because Miranda’s play has put Hamilton, the star, beyond reproach (Miranda is a person of color, of Puerto Rican descent, and a left-wing activist). We shall see if this new research casts doubt on Hamilton’s legacy. I wouldn’t hold my breath, as consistency has never been a defining feature of woke ideology.
What are my views on Hamilton? Given the currents of abolitionism already about in his time, one can’t say that Hamilton is completely absolved of moral failure. He and other slaveholders knew that there were good arguments about the immorality of slavery, and nevertheless still held slaves.
Hamilton shouldn’t be considered as culpable as, say, someone who held slaves today, since morality has progressed substantially since the 18th century. Should Hamilton still be lionized? Yes, I think that the good he did outweighs the bad, though a calculus in a case like this is hard to perform. But any monuments celebrating the many good things that Hamilton did should stay up, for they are not celebrating his slaveholding.
Perhaps his monuments should be qualified with plaques, as statues of others have been qualified. I leave that to those who deal with the ethics of monuments. The only case I’m making here is that if you erase or demonize someone for merely approving of slavery, or of eugenics, then you must do more to fight against those who actually owned or traded slaves. In other words, whatever treatment was given to Confederates or Founding Fathers who owned slaves should also be meted out to Alexander Hamilton.
The Schuyler Mansion: