Commentary / News

Hamilton’s Economics Aimed to End Slavery

By Nancy Spannaus

October 23, 2019—Growing publicity for the off-Broadway play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” which seeks to rebut the presentation of Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist, has inspired me to write my own rebuttal. I assert that Alexander Hamilton’s economics aimed to end slavery, from the very beginning, because wiping out the slave system was a necessary step toward establishing a prosperous agro-industrial republic, as well as establishing justice. Hamilton acted to achieve this result by the policies he laid out in the Report on Manufactures. Those who seek to denigrate his efforts are not only mistaken, but are doing the nation a major disservice by ignoring the true economic policies on which our nation was founded.

Hamilton's Economics Aimed to End Slavery

An image of slavery in Kentucky. Under Hamilton’s full system, this oppression would end.

What pushed me into writing this was an Oct. 14 interview on WABC-TV in New York City, in which Sandra Bookman interviewed The Haunting’s author Ishmael Reed and his leading character Jesse Bueno. The mild-mannered Reed explained that his intent was to educate Lin-Manuel Miranda by confronting him with the alleged facts about Hamilton’s connection to slavery. He then went on to cite a number of those “facts” which were either unproven, or outrageously wrong.

I have not found the text of Reed’s play online, so I have to go by what he said in this interview and others. After dealing with his misstatements, I will summarize Hamilton’s actual outlook on slavery.

A Range of Errors

Reed asserts from the start that Hamilton was a slave owner himself, although he mostly seeks to tar him on the basis of his in-laws and associates’ open participation in the practice.  Yet, there is no hard-and-fast evidence that Hamilton did own slaves, although two of his letters indicate transactions for their purchase.[1] These could well have been for his in-laws, the Church family, and we will never know.

What we do know, for sure, is that at the time of his death, Hamilton listed no slaves among his personal “property.” We also have some evidence that his wife did not have the aid of slaves in her housekeeping during the later years. This leads some Hamilton scholars like Richard Sylla to conclude that if Hamilton did ever own slaves, he didn’t hold them for very long.[2]

Where Reed moves into clear untruths is in his attempt to characterize Hamilton’s general policies as racist. Hamilton and Washington’s policy toward Native Americans was “extermination,” Reed states in the ABC interview. This I know to be contrary to fact.  Hamilton and Washington were in constant conflict with state governments, such as those in Georgia, and frontier settlers, to get them to respect treaties with the “Indians.” I recall a series of letters from Hamilton to military officers in the Detroit area, urging them to control the frontiersmen. Unfortunately, the Federal government didn’t have the power to police these areas.

As for Hamilton personally, he took a special interest in providing educational opportunities for the Native American population, as shown in his sponsorship of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy in 1793.[3] And he was in fact opposed to the Jeffersonian drive for rapid Western (slave) expansion into Indian territory, preferring instead to first develop the lands already populated into economically thriving communities and states.

Hamilton's Economics Aimed to End Slavery

Touissant Louverture, the general who established the Haitian Republic

Equally at odds with the public record was Reed’s claim in this interview that Hamilton sided with the French government in its war against the Haitian ( then known as Saint-Domingue) slave revolt, led by Toussaint Louverture.  In response to demands by Secretary of State Jefferson, Treasury Secretary Hamilton did advance funds already due to France during the height of the fighting between France and the Haitians in the early 1790s. But later in the 1790s, as documented in the collected works, Hamilton worked with colleagues to try to establish U.S.-Haitian commercial ties, and even wrote a letter with thoughts for a draft Constitution for the world’s first Black republic. The outrage was that when the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson took over the government in 1801, he reversed this policy of support.

What Hamilton Did About Slavery

As usual, most historical distortions are carried out by omission. And what is omitted about Hamilton’s record on opposing slavery in the Reed narrative is substantial.

First, there is his support for Hamilton’s friend John Laurens’ proposal to enlist the enslaved in the Continental Army, in exchange for their freedom. Many dismiss this action as purely pragmatic (in response to the offers being made by the British to provide freedom if the enslaved deserted their masters), but that conclusion ignores one of the most stunning features of Hamilton’s support: his assertion – highly unusual in that day and age — in a letter to John Jay  that Blacks probably had mental facilities equal to those of whites.

Second, there is his role in the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and Protecting Such of These as Have been or May be Liberated. This society was established in 1785, and Hamilton was a leading member, serving as Secretary, and serving on a committee[4] which recommended that all members begin a process of liberating any slave they might own (Many of the prominent members, like John Jay, did own slaves). This recommendation was rejected.

The Society’s major effort was to ban the slave trade and slavery itself in New York State, an aim which brought limited success with the passage of a law for gradual manumission in 1799, but did not ultimately free all the enslaved until 1827. Members worked to prevent the kidnapping of former slaves in New York, including by representing them in court. According to historian Roger Kennedy, they also organized boycotts against merchants in the trade and pressured newspapers not to advertize slaves for sale.They also promoted education of the children of the enslaved, as reflected in their establishment of the African Free School, the first institution of public education in New York State.

Hamilton's Economics Aimed to End Slavery

The New York African Free School.

The African Free School was established in 1787. “Emancipation to the slave as the watchword of the Society, and Education was with equal zeal, imparted to as many of the objects of their solicitude, as could be brought within the compass of their means,” wrote Charles C. Andrews in his History of the New York African Free School in 1830. The school began with 40 students, and soon included both boys and girls, who learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Training in various trades was added later on, including sewing for the girls, and navigation and astronomy for the boys. It is acknowledged that many leaders of the Black community, among the hundreds enrolled, received their education in this institution, which merged with the New York City School system in 1834.

Some authors denigrate the Manumission Society for its narrow focus on New York State, but it did act nationally as well. Its members joined nine other abolition societies in a petition to Congress against the slave trade in 1791, and in 1794, organized an American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race, held in Philadelphia.[5]

While Hamilton did not actively participate in the Society while he was in government, he returned to active status in 1798 as legal counsel.

The third aspect worthy of mention was Hamilton’s role in the diplomacy around slavery with Great Britain.  Although the 1783 Treaty of Paris called for the British to return confiscated property (which, the Southerners insisted, included their emancipated slaves), the British had refused to do so, insisting that the Americans had violated the Treaty by failing to pay prewar debts. These issues were all on the table during negotiations on the Jay Treaty (1795), when Hamilton was still in the government, and actively consulting with Jay.

Hamilton's Economics Aimed to End Slavery

A revenue cutter from the 1790s, when Hamilton ran the operation. They also interdicted slave ships.

Hamilton vehemently opposed complying with a measure that would return liberated slaves to their American masters.  He outlined his argument publicly in the Philo Camillus No. 2 paper, written during the furious debate on the Jay treaty in 1795. The following sentence effectively summarizes his argument: “The abandonment of negroes, who had been promised freedom, to bondage and slavery, would be odious and immoral, and as such cannot be presumed to have been intended.”

Hamilton’s Economic Vision

Like Abraham Lincoln 70 years later, Alexander Hamilton did indeed put the issue of national unity ahead of the issue of the abolition of slavery. He believed that a strong national government, dedicated to policies of industrial development, was essential for ultimately ending slavery, whereas a “take it or leave it” confrontation with the Southern states would relegate the Continent to a bunch of squabbling mini-states, ripe for the picking by the European powers which surrounded the young nation. These arguments are clearly put forward in the Federalist Papers.

Some, like Columbia University’s Ankeet Ball, believe that Hamilton considered slavery an important source of wealth for the struggling young republic.  I don’t believe that is the case. As he laid out as early as 1774 in his paper on the Full Vindication of Congress’s embargo against Great Britain, Hamilton knew that a slave system was not only immoral, but also antithetical to a productive, progressing economy.

As to the moral question, Hamilton was unequivocal: “All men have one common original: they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right.” There is “no just reason that one man should have any power over others.”

Indeed, everything that Hamilton wrote in his charge that Britain sought to enslave the American people, fits with the enslavement of African-Americans by the British Americans. Two paragraphs will give you the gist:

Were not the disadvantages of slavery too obvious to stand in need of it, I might enumerate and describe the tedious train of calamities, inseparable from it. I might shew that it is fatal to religion and morality; that it tends to debase the mind, and corrupt its noblest springs of action. I might shew, that it relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape.

Under the auspices of tyranny, the life of the subject is often sported with; and the fruits of his daily toil are consumed in oppressive taxes, that serve to gratify the ambition, avarice and lusts of his superiors. Every court minion riots in the spoils of the honest labourer, and despises the hand by which he is fed. The page of history is replete with instances that loudly warn us to beware of slavery.

In other words, slavery is a net drag on an economy, because it destroys the most important source of wealth—the productive powers of labor. That Hamilton fully embraced this view is writ large in his magnum opus, the Report on Manufactures, where he elaborates his vision for a productive industrial-agricultural economy. Ball points out that his vision does not include slavery.

Hamilton's Economics Aimed to End Slavery

The industrial complex Alexander Hamilton began in Paterson, NJ in 1791.

Hamilton’s economic policies do, however, include measures to strengthen the Federal government’s role in the economy, from supporting necessary industries, providing uniform credit through national banking, and building infrastructure, to promoting scientific research. As Hamilton scholar Sylla points out, these centralizing measures were viewed by the slaveholders as a dangerous foot in the door for potential Federal action to abolish slavery.  And there is every reason to believe that that’s what Hamilton wanted to do.[6]

A Dangerous Turn

The bad news is that Reed’s argument, and play, are now getting expanded attention as a counter to Miranda’s Hamilton, the Musical. And in an apparent attempt to avoid “excesses,” certain Hamilton scholars are seeking to “balance” the picture by emphasizing what they see as his flaws. Emblematic was a statement by Dr. Joanne Freeman, the Hamilton scholar who consulted on the Hamilton Exhibition in Chicago this fall, that she has turned from aggressively promoting Hamilton, to saying “he’s not so great;  calm down about Hamilton.”

American System founder Alexander Hamilton, a new statue at the Coast Guard Academy (Dianne Durante)

To the contrary, I believe that Hamilton’s greatness has yet to be fully appreciated, and fuller understanding of his economic principles which built the country (the American System) is long overdue. 

[1] Hamilton to Gov. Clinton, May 22, 1781 and Philip Schuyler to Hamilton, Aug. 31, 1795. See the Papers of Alexander Hamilton.

[2] The conclusions I state here are all substantiated in detail in Chernow’s book, as well as the section on “Hamilton the Abolitionist” in Richard Sylla’s Hamilton, the Illustrated Biography. Insight is also provided in two essays: “Ambition and Bondage—An inquiry on Alexander Hamilton and Slavery” by Ankeet Ball, published by the Columbia University and Slavery Project, and “Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation,”  by James Oliver Horton, in the New York Journal of American History. Horton, now deceased, was a prominent African-American historian. His essay concludes that it is not unlikely that Hamilton envisioned a multi-racial industrial society, as he never endorsed colonization. These sources are in addition, of course, to Hamilton’s writings themselves, which have been studied by the author.

[3] See https://www.hamilton.edu/about/history/full

[4] See the New York Historical Society’s report on the Manumission Society.

[5] See americanabolitionists.com

[6] For a fuller picture, see my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street, available from Amazon and other electronic book sellers .

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