The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery

A Report on my July 16 speech at Hamilton Grange

By Nancy Spannaus

Aug. 2, 2023—It was my honor to present the case for Alexander Hamilton’s opposition to slavery in a presentation at New York City’s Hamilton Grange sponsored by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society and the National Park Service on July 16. The event was part of CelebrateHamilton, a yearly commemoration spearheaded by the AHA Society of Founding Father Hamilton around the time of his death on July 12, 1804.

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
The statue of Alexander Hamilton, at the Coast Guard Academy (Dianne Durante)

My speech was followed by a presentation elaborating on Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, given by Professor Emeritus of Economics Richard Sylla,[1] and a reading of the letter exchange between Hamilton and his murderer Aaron Burr which led to the duel. AHA Society President Nicole Scholet contextualized the reading, which was then done by Hamilton re-enactor Scott MacScott and Kyle Jenks, a professional James Madison interpreter, taking the role of Burr. An extensive question and answer period followed.

A video of the entire program is in production and expected to be released soon. But, due to the importance of this topic and the raging on-going debate on the place of slavery in American history, I have chosen go ahead and publish the written version of my speech, which can be found below.

I dedicated my presentation to Rand Scholet, the deceased founder of the AHA Society. Rand fought tirelessly to rebut slanders against Hamilton, including the assertion that he was an “enslaver,” and encouraged me to “take the field,” so to speak, in that battle.  While I have done so for a number of years on this blog, with this speech I am officially throwing down the gauntlet on this matter.[2]

Hamilton Versus Slavery

Alexander Hamilton’s economics aimed to end slavery. That was the title of a blog post I wrote in October of 2019, and subsequent research by myself, and a number of colleagues from the AHA Society, has only strengthened my conviction of its truth. In my presentation today, I will identify some of the key pillars of my argument, on which more can be found in my upcoming book on Why American Slavery Persisted.

My speech falls into three parts. First, I’ll review Hamilton’s personal views and actions against that infernal institution. This is especially required due to recent, widely circulated spurious allegations branding Hamilton an “enslaver;” I’m indebted to the work of Hamilton scholar Michael Newton in debunking some of those charges.

Second, I’ll deal with how Hamilton’s core economic principles, especially as outlined in his Report on Manufactures, would move the nation toward the demise of slavery. While Hamilton himself did not explicitly discuss this matter, key economic thinkers in later generations, especially Abraham Lincoln’s chief economic adviser Henry Carey, spelled out the connection. Carey asserted that it was the sabotage of the Hamiltonian economic perspective of industrialization which led to the deepening of the South’s commitment to slavery, and thus the Civil War.

Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures

Third, I want to address the significance of my topic for today. It is not a question of establishing that Hamilton was a “good guy,” and certainly not that he was perfect in his views or actions on race relations, or anything else. What’s absolutely critical, in my view, is to bring to light the nature of Hamilton’s economic principles, which are as relevant today as they were 230 years ago, and must be restored, if we are to achieve a prosperous, unified, and just society.

A moral, racially just society requires a moral political-economic system. Alexander Hamilton and his economic principles represented that and are a crucial foundation for what we must do to improve our economy and national unity today.

Hamilton’s Record on Slavery

As is often emphasized, Hamilton grew up in a slave-dominated society, and his own family not only possessed but possibly traded in slaves. To my knowledge, he never publicly commented on that aspect of his background.

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
A depiction of slavery in the West Indies, most likely Barbados

However, his very first major political intervention into the Revolutionary ferment in the American colonies included a sharp attack on slavery from both a moral and economic point of view. In this 1774 document, entitled, in part, A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, from the Calumnies of their Enemies; In Answer to A Letter, Under the Signature of A.W. Farmer. Whereby His Sophistry is exposed, his Cavils confuted, his Artifices detected, and his Wit ridiculed; …, Hamilton asserted:

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. …

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.” (emphasis added)

A few years later, when Hamilton was General Washington’s chief aide-de-camp, he took one of his more publicized steps toward opposing slavery. This came in his support for the 1778 proposal of Col. John Laurens for creating a black battalion in South Carolina, in which blacks could join the Revolutionary Army and thus gain their freedom. Hamilton wrote a letter to John Jay, then head of the Continental Congress, in 1779 in which he endorsed Laurens’ proposal in the following terms:

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
An artist’s rendition of the all-black regiment founded in Rhode Island in 1779.

I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers, with proper management…. 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….

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 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 temptation they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves.

An essential part of the plan is to give them 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…. (emphasis added)

The third major initiative by Hamilton to act against slavery came with his membership and activity in the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated. The Manumission Society was established by John Jay in 1785, and, despite its name, did not confine itself to liberalizing the laws permitting manumission. It also advocated laws for the gradual abolition of slavery, was instrumental in educating and saving from re-enslavement thousands of black Americans, and was the key force in the eventual passage of New York’s 1799 law for gradual emancipation.

One of its lasting contributions was the creation of the African Free School, which in its more than 40-year history (1785-1834) educated thousands of free and enslaved black children.

The New York African Free School, established by the NY Manumission Society in 1785.

Hamilton was an early member of the Manumission Society, and briefly served as its President in 1790. He served on a committee which advocated that all members manumit their slaves (that was turned down), and in the late ‘90s, after leaving the government, served as lead counsel in court actions to prevent re-enslavements and kidnappings. The Society also made its voice heard in Congress, and spearheaded the establishment of the highly influential American Convention of Abolition Societies.

Recent scholarship has emphasized that these societies played a crucial role in building support for emancipation – contrary to the idea that the abolition movement didn’t really begin until William Lloyd Garrison’s efforts in the early 1830s.

While he served as Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s actions vis-à-vis slavery were largely indirect. His Revenue Cutter service did interdict illegal slave traffic, as mandated by laws passed by the Congress in 1793-4. And he was constantly called on for advice by President Washington, Supreme Court Justice John Jay, and President John Adams’ cabinet, among others, on matters related to slavery.

Two elements of that advice are relevant to my point here. First was Hamilton’s stance on American compliance with the Treaty of Paris’s provision that Britain return their stolen “property” (i.e., the slaves). As documented by Michael Newton, as well as Marianne Als in her 2021 video The Evidence for Hamilton against Slavery, Hamilton consistently opposed complying with this article of the treaty. He put that in writing in his third Defence essay supporting the Jay Treaty, published in July of 1795.

First, Hamilton argued that the enslaved no longer had the character of “property.”  “The negroes in question by the laws of war had lost that character. They were therefore not within the stipulation.”  Second, he made the following more general argument:

In the interpretation of Treaties things odious or immoral are not to be presumed. The abandonment of negroes, who had been induced to quit their Masters on the faith of Official proclamations promising them liberty, to fall again under the yoke of their masters and into slavery is as odious and immoral a thing as can be conceived. It is odious not only as it imposes an act of perfidy on one of the contracting parties; but as it tends to bring back to servitude men once made free.

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolutionary army

The final action that I will mention involves Hamilton’s advice to Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy Pickering vis-à-vis the slave revolt in Haiti. Hamilton gave his whole-hearted support to the informal recognition of the insurgent leader Toussiant L’Ouverture forces by approving the establishment of commercial ties, by which the United States began supplying much needed weapons and other goods to the slave rebellion. And when L’Ouverture asked for ideas on forming a new government, Hamilton complied by writing a letter outlining the principles he thought would permit a successful state to be established.

It speaks volumes that the Jefferson administration reversed this policy in the early period of his presidency.

Now, you might ask, what about the evidence that the young docent from the Schuyler Mansion, Jessie Serfilippi, has compiled to accuse Hamilton of being an “enslaver.” Michael Newton, writing in collaboration with Douglas Hamilton under the name Philo Hamilton, summarizes it as “riddled with errors, omissions, assumptions, speculations, and misrepresentations.”  It is full of tendentious presumptions, such as the claim that Hamilton had to have seen slaveholding as a desirable element of advancing himself in society, since that was the case in the island culture where he was raised. It denigrates the importance of written evidence in the form of Hamilton’s will (which showed no slave ownership) and the biography by his son, in favor of secondary documents of questionable meaning.

The two actual documents in Hamilton’s cash books indicating that he might be involved in slave purchase, raise more questions than they answer. Newton concludes that it appears Hamilton was only acting as a banker for his relatives, and that “there is no indication he had any involvement in conducting the transactions themselves or in the physical transfer of ownership of the enslaved persons.”

Serfilippi’s clear desire to prove that Hamilton was tainted by slavery, rather than objectively evaluate the facts, is shown repeatedly by her dismissing Hamilton’s anti-slavery actions as insincere or “politically motivated,” whereas every reference to an enslaved person or servant is construed as showing his guilt.

Anti-Slavery Economic Principles

The fullest expression of Hamilton’s economic principles is laid out in his Report on Manufactures, which my friend Dick Sylla will be discussing in his presentation. In that official paper, delivered to Congress in December 1791, Hamilton discusses the essential elements and benefits of what could today be called a “diverse” economy, an agro-industrial republic. Slavery as such is never mentioned in this 30,000-word document, but many characteristics of a thriving economy which are incompatible with a slave-based system, are put forth.

You may be aware that this Report is the central feature of my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics. Rest assured that I will not summarize that entire book here, but the book is for sale at a discount here.

A partial picture of the book Hamilton Versus Wall Street, available from iuniverse

Whereas the slave system results in misery and indolence in the economy (as Hamilton put it back in 1774), Hamilton’s vision of the United States as a manufacturing nation saw a population energized in mind and spirit, increasing productivity through new inventions and generating overall prosperity.

The crucial question is: What generates wealth? Is it owning gold and silver, or vast tracts of land?  Is it the ability to dictate terms of trade, buying cheap and selling dear?  Or is it the constant improvement of the productive powers of labor, accomplished through inventions of the human mind?

Hamilton comes down squarely in support of the third option.  He expresses this in his enumeration of the benefits of introducing manufactures as follows:

To cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted.

Hamilton proposed to carry out this objective in many ways. One crucial one was the establishment of a source of credit for industry, commerce, and agriculture, the Bank of the United States (BUS).  Rather than have to wait to accumulate a cache of specie to invest in improving one’s farming equipment, for example, or to establish a machine shop, one could obtain bank credit.

The first Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (Nancy Spannaus)

He puts it this way in his 1795 Report on a Plan for the Support of Public Credit:

But Credit is not only one of the main pillars of the public safety—it is among the principal engines of useful interprise and internal improvement. As a substitute for Capital it is little less useful than Gold or silver, in Agriculture, in Commerce, in the Manufacturing and mechanic arts.

The proof of this needs no laboured deduction. It is matter of daily experience in the most familiar pursuits. One man wishes to take up and Cultivate a piece of land—he purchases upon Credit, and in time pays the purchase money out of the produce of the soil improved by his labour. Another sets up in trade; in the Credit founded upon a fair character, he seeks and often finds the means of becoming at length a wealthy Merchant. A third commences business as a manufacturer or Mechanic, with skill, but without Money. Tis by Credit that he is enabled to procure the tools the materials and even the subsistence of which he stands in need, ’till his industry has supplied him with Capital; and even then, he derives from an established and increased credit the means of extending his undertakings.

Due to its large size and function as a depository of government funds, the BUS was also in a position to supply a de facto national currency, and to play a quasi-regulatory function against speculative excesses of the state banks.

Politicians tied to the slave plantation economy virulently opposed Hamilton’s Bank as a threat to their system. They feared the power it gave the Federal government to act for the “general welfare.” In a memo dated July 1792, shown here on the screen, Thomas Jefferson called for abolishing the Bank, as well as condemning the Report on Manufactures. Later, in a 1792 letter to James Madison, Jefferson proposed that if the Bank of the United States became active in Virginia, anyone who aided it “by signing notes, issuing or passing them, acting as director, cashier or in any other office relating to it shall be adjudged guilty of high treason & suffer death accordingly.”

Hamilton’s stated purpose in outlining a program of tariffs and bounties to support vital manufactures was to ensure that the United States produced all the necessities of life, rather than be dependent upon trade with other nations. “Not only wealth, but the independence and security of a Country, appear to be materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures,” he wrote.  “Every nation, with a view to these great objects, ought to endeavor to possess within itself all the essentials of national supply. These comprise the means of Subsistence, habitation, clothing, and defence.” [emphasis in the original]

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
The site of Hamilton’s Society for Useful Manufactures at Passaic Falls, New Jersey

Such a policy would vastly expand the domestic market, he argued, which is a far more reliable source of revenue for the nation’s farmers than foreign ones. The only way to produce such a market is to develop manufactures, which will be the primary consumers of the surplus of the soil. While this will lead to a section of the workforce leaving agriculture to participate in the manufacturing sector, the more reliable demand for agricultural products will be beneficial in improving the prosperity of the farm sector as well.

In the 1850s, Hamiltonian economist Henry Carey picked up on this argument in his discussion of how to end the slave trade and slavery itself. He argued that the development of manufacturing, and the infrastructure that is needed to support it, in the South would expand the local market, which under the slave system was kept to a minimum. It would also increase the demand for and value of labor, and thus create the conditions for weakening the slave system and spurring the growth of freedom. “Raise the value of man,” Carey insisted, by investing in the improvement of his living standard. Carey’s argument is supported by the fact that the use of slave labor in factories in the South created greater bargaining power for the enslaved – and thus was shunned by the large majority of Southern slave-owners.

The core of the contradiction between Hamilton’s economic vision and the continuation of the slave system, however, lies in his view of the role of the creative powers of the human mind in galvanizing the economy.  Hamilton based his perspective explicitly on the need for increased mechanization and innovation in production, a process that depends upon the inventive powers of human beings.  Such powers are enhanced by education, a comfortable living standard, and the freedom to think.

Frederick Douglass as a young man. He stated that “knowledge unfits a man to be a slave.”

Yet, these essential human qualities are precisely what the slave system sought to literally beat out of most of its slave labor force. Freedom to think about how to improve productivity and innovate, could also lead to thinking about how to escape bondage. As the leading 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it in his Autobiography, “knowledge unfits a man to be a slave.” Access to education could open up minds to alternatives to the daily drudgery of most slave laborers.

It is not surprising then that Hamiltonians over the decades tended to promote expanded educational opportunities as a social policy, whereas the anti-manufacturing Jeffersonians committed themselves to restricting education, and even making it a crime to teach slaves to read and write.

Even the cruelest slave masters could not totally destroy the mental powers of their enslaved captives, of course.  It is in the nature of human beings to resist being treated like animals, or, as South Carolinian Senator James Hammond later put it, the “mudsill” of society. People will use their minds, even when their bodies are viciously abused. But their pathway to improvement was suppressed, as long as the economy was based on producing raw materials for export, and dependent upon foreign powers to provide the market and their necessary manufactured goods, and opportunities for experimenting with new enterprises were out of reach.

Hamilton’s manufacturing perspective represented a way out of the slave system. He explicitly rejected dependence on Europe for vital manufactures as a pathway to the impoverishment of the nation, directly contradicting Adam Smith on this issue. As we know, this is an issue that is still with us today.

While Hamilton made sterling progress in bringing the nation out of bankruptcy and establishing a sound financial architecture for economic growth during his tenure, his success was limited. He faced significant opposition from the start for his manufacturing perspective, even within his “own” Federalist party.

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
President Andrew Jackson, the chief saboteur of Hamilton’s program

The tragedy is that the sabotage of his perspective, begun in earnest under the Jefferson presidency and lasting until the early 1820s, cut off an essential element for the success of the ongoing abolition movement. Then the decisive blow was delivered by President Andrew Jackson, when he killed the Second Bank of the United States in 1833, sabotaged the Quincy Adams administration’s program of internal improvement, and reversed protection for industrialization.

From that time forward, as Henry Carey argued, the slave power grew.  The 1830s is the period where the cotton trade, which was largely financed by Great Britain, took off, and the American beneficiaries of that trade fought to ensure that Hamilton’s policies of Federal support for vital infrastructure, national banking, and industrialization were dumped in favor of state autonomy. The internal slave trade, heavily funded by the British, spread rapidly westward, and tensions within the Union brought us to the breaking point. It took a bloody Civil War waged by Hamiltonian Abraham Lincoln to end slavery—and even then, the economic policies required for a unified, thriving industrial nation were sabotaged.

As I argued in Hamilton Versus Wall Street, progress toward “a more perfect Union” depended upon national adoption of the American System which Hamilton had initiated. That did not happen.

Why Does It Matter?

History has lasting effects. Our nation is suffering grievously today from the defeat of Hamilton’s economic thinking in the early 19th century. The scars of the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction still feed racial tensions. The denigration of the anti-slavery movement in the early United States, and of the essential role the proper economic system must play in banning slavery, has demoralized and further divided our population. And Hamiltonian policies on credit, speculation, and infrastructure and industrial development have been largely abandoned for decades.

Thus, while some historians, like Gordon Wood, still have the guts to assert that the American “Revolution created the first antislavery movement in the world,” many of our most prominent institutions aren’t even sure we should celebrate the birth of our nation on its July 4, 2026 anniversary.

Americans need to know not only that there was a constant fight against slavery, but that there was a political economic system on the scene which would support its elimination. That political economic system was what Alexander Hamilton represented, and promoted during his entire life; yet most Americans today don’t have a clue of its core principles.

This is not surprising. In the early 20th century, for example, some of the most notorious promoters of financial speculation at the expense of labor and necessary government investments promoted themselves as champions of Hamilton. Even Franklin Roosevelt, whom I believe carried out Hamiltonian policies on credit, infrastructure, and national sovereignty, chose to lavish praise on Hamilton’s archenemy and saboteur of his policies, Thomas Jefferson.

The Case for Hamilton Versus Slavery
The Ruins of Detroit, photographed by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. This was the predictable result of abandoning Hamilton’s policies.

It was not until the wages of the policies of the de-industrialization and financial deregulation which took off in the 1970s began to hit home in the 1990s, that a Hamilton revival began. That this revival has been weak should be obvious from the state of our infrastructure and vital industries today.

Our hope, as in earlier times, lies in restoring the core principles of Hamilton’s economics: the recognition of the creative powers of the human mind as the key driver of economic progress, and an active role for the Federal government in providing the credit, regulation, and guidelines for this to occur. Where those policies prevail, slavery and its enduring legacy ends.

[1] Richard Sylla is the author of Hamilton, The Illustrated Biography, published by the Sterling Publishing Company, Canada, 2016.

[2] A more comprehensive treatment will appear in my upcoming book on why American slavery persisted, in which I argue that it was the rejection of Hamilton’s economic principles that played a critical role in sabotaging the world’s most active and promising anti-slavery movement here in the United-States-to-be.