“President Hamilton” Tackles Slavery
President Hamilton, A Novel of Alternative History
by Lewis Ben Smith
Electio Publications, Little Elm, Texas,
653 pp, paperback $24.99, Kindle $8.99
A review by Nancy Spannaus, author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics
July 4, 2021—What if Alexander Hamilton had survived his duel with Aaron Burr, and proceeded to dedicate his life to ending slavery in the United States? That optimistic scenario sets the stage for author Lewis Smith’s latest novel, President Hamilton. While clearly a work of fiction, Smith’s suspenseful narrative thus tackles one of the most significant issues roiling American politics today. For that reason, this book deserves to be read far and wide.
It would be a disservice to the reader and author for me to present the entire story line of the book. Despite its considerable length, the story unfolds at a pace that holds your attention; I can’t think of any place where it drags. To “get it,” you have to read to the end.
What makes President Hamilton most useful is the fact that Smith’s presentation relies on two basic historical truths. The first is that, without the elimination of slavery by political leadership early in the Republic, the United States was doomed to be torn apart in a devastating Civil War. The second is that the real Hamilton’s aversion to slavery was based not only on revulsion to servitude, but also on the fact that slavery was destructive to the nation’s economy.
Slavery Would Lead to War
While hovering between death and life after being shot by Burr, Smith’s Hamilton has a vision of the coming of a deadly conflagration which would destroy the country. The cause, the vision makes clear, would be the irreconcilable conflict between the North and the South over the expansion, and very existence, of slavery.
According to my research, there is no evidence that the real Hamilton predicted such a disaster. However, those who followed his American System economic policies did. Among those were both Mathew Carey, who doesn’t make an appearance in the book, and John Quincy Adams, who shows up as Hamilton’s close collaborator.
But neither of these political leaders based on their arguments on the issue of slavery per se, you might counter. No, but they did insist that if the nation abandoned Hamilton’s policies of a national bank, internal improvements, and promotion of manufacturing, a great conflict would be coming. And in fact, those policies were all anathema to the diehard advocates for slavery, as the narrative of President Hamilton also elaborates.
John Quincy Adams, then serving as a congressman at the head of the Committee of Manufactures, explicitly warned of national dissolution in 1833, following President Jackson’s veto of the re-chartering of the Second National Bank of the United States. He said:
… However in one portion of the union, the independent farmers or planters, cultivating the soil by their slaves, may be considered, by one of themselves, as the basis of society, and the best part of the population, the assumption of such a principle, as a foundation of a system of national policy for the future government of these United States, is an occurrence of the most dangerous and alarming tendency; as threatening, at no remote period, not only the prosperity, but the peace of the country, and as directly leading to the most fatal of catastrophes—the dissolution of the union by a complicated, civil and servile war (emphasis added).
More could be said to buttress this point, in terms of the need of the slavocracy to continually expand its territory, its sponsorship by and alliances with foreign powers, and the like. But to far-seeing statesmen, it was obvious that the continuation of the slave system would be the death of the nation.
The Economic Solution
Smith portrays President Hamilton’s economic solution to the slavery question as based on the argument that enslaved people have no incentive to work to their fullest, whereas free labor would do so. As a result, productivity on slave plantations is low, and profits as well. Thus, Smith’s Hamilton begins to fulfill his mission by first convincing some slaveholders to free their slaves and pay them wages, as an experiment to see whether their productivity increased. And, of course, it did!
The fictional Hamilton recognizes that such a transition will initially be a financial burden on some planters (although others could well afford it). To deal with this, he proposes to, and does, set up a special low-interest loan program at the Bank of the United States (which has not been shut down, as it actually was in 1811), which would tide over the planters until their increased yields begin to come in. He then moves on to banning slavery in the territories.
So far, so good. But, in fact, the eradication of the slave system required an extensive program like that laid out in Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. Such a program would include Federal support for crucial manufactures, inventions, and internal improvements that would unite the country through new transportation networks and commerce. The result of such government intervention, if you will, into the economy would be to provide the basis for establishing factories, mines, and thriving cities in the slavocracy lands, thus bringing new prosperity to all sections of society and unifying the nation.
Smith has a brief mention of the spread of manufactures and internal improvement into the South near the book’s conclusion, but Hamilton’s overall vision for achieving a commercial republic is not discussed.
The other crucial omission, I would argue, is the opposition to the elimination of slavery from the “North” and London. It is no secret that the British, still chafing from the success of the American Revolution, bitterly opposed the growth of manufacturing in the United States. As Lord Brougham said to Parliament in 1815, in reference to trade policy toward the United States:
It is well worthwhile to incur a loss on English manufactures in order to stifle in the cradle the foreign manufactures.
This was not mere rhetoric. The British government consistently carried out trade war against the United States, and put its money where its mouth was, through financing the expansion of slavery to the West. And despite British popular opinion, the British government was involved in support for the slavocracy all the way up into the Civil War.
Those in Wall Street and New England who were financially close to the London bankers were right in sync with this thinking.
A President Hamilton committed to ending slavery would have to deal with this opposition as well.
Nonetheless, it is a fact, as I argued in my post “Hamilton’s Economics Aimed to End Slavery,” that the real Hamilton had devised an economic system whose principles dictated the end of slavery. And it was under Hamilton’s American System that the greatest progress against the national evil of slavery occurred.
Setting History Straight
Smith’s “alternative history” can play a valuable role in getting people to think differently about the actual reasons for the perpetuation of American slavery so far into our national existence. It is my hope to take this idea even farther in an upcoming book provisionally entitled “Why American Slavery Persisted: It’s Not for the Reasons You Think.”
The reality is that the American colonists, and the young United States, were the leading forces against slavery internationally in their time. Just a few facts: Georgia explicitly prevented slavery at its founding. It was in Pennsylvania that the first Abolition Society was established, well before that in England. Abolitionist activity spanned the colonies, and the practice was indeed, as Abraham Lincoln later said, expected to die out soon after the establishment of the Constitution.
But, as I believe can be proven, you cannot have a moral society without having a moral political economy. And a moral political economy required the principles of the American System which lay at the core of the economic thinking of Alexander Hamilton. That does not mean, in my view, that Hamilton’s murder necessarily had to lead to slavery’s perpetuation, and the consequences we all know. But it does pose the challenge we have to still take up today: that of restoring the American System.