Gentle Readers, for the past few months yours truly has affirmed a certain stereotype of his people by obsessing over a musical. The Ten Dollar Founding Father without a Father charmed me sufficiently that I spent a fair portion of that time listening to the Ron Chernow biography that inspired the show. I don’t normally care for biographies. The author has to have so much sympathy for the subject that it frequently comes at the expense of a balanced understanding. This goes double for any subject generally revered. Double it again for anybody called a founding father. I expected that I would give up on Alexander Hamilton within a few hours. Maybe the musical primed me for it, and I certainly enjoyed picking out turns of phrase that became lyrics, but I ended up listening to every word and enjoying almost every moment. In the course of writing this I stopped and looked at the prices for a used copy of the book so I could have the footnotes.
Chernow wrote a really good, sometimes even funny, book. His affection for the Hamiltons, husband and wife alike, comes across from the first pages. Probably on some points a student of the founding era, or a Jefferson partisan, would have cause to complain. I lack either of those credentials, but I have spent a small amount of my time studying slavery politics. There Chernow roused my skepticism. Whenever slavery comes up, he calls Alexander Hamilton an abolitionist. The facts he cites to support that claim don’t really do the job, by late Antebellum standards.
That set me to thinking. Hamilton clearly opposed slavery. Chernow makes that case quite well. Furthermore, his opposition went beyond personal sentiment. When negotiating with British representatives as Washington’s ex officio Secretary of State before Thomas Jefferson returned from France, Hamilton essentially ignored one of the pressing issues between the countries: compensation for slaves lost during the Revolution. I haven’t written much about this issue in the past, but between the Revolution and the War of 1812, American diplomats demanded cash for slaves from the United Kingdom for decades. Even latter-day antislavery heroes like John Quincy Adams pressed the issue as a matter of policy. Hamilton, to my knowledge uniquely, did not and specifically cast his opposition in terms of moral abhorrence to bondage. One might pass over that as a partisan dig at Hamilton’s southern opponents. Federalists did take up antislavery in part to score points against Jefferson’s Republicans, especially once they largely gave up on building a party in the South. But Hamilton took his stand before the parties developed.
Opposition to slavery doesn’t necessarily turn one into an abolitionist, though. While no Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton married into a slaveholding family and dealt personally in slaves. Specifically, it seems that he bought and traded them on behalf of his in-laws. When Angelica Church (Elizabeth Hamilton’s sister) and her husband returned from Britain, he bought real estate and slaves on their behalf. Chernow doesn’t think that Hamilton ever bought a slave for himself, but it seems likely that he owned slaves on paper while waiting on his sister-in-law’s return.
You could join the New York Manumission Society, and Hamilton did, and still do all that. The Society’s program called for gradual emancipation, nothing at all like the immediate end to slavery preached by later generations of abolitionists. If Chernow ever has Hamilton advocate the immediate course, I missed it. By any reasonable standard, calling him an abolitionist seems in outright defiance of the facts.
By this I don’t mean to argue that we should necessarily consider Hamilton especially proslavery. Rather he seems like a fairly normal antislavery American. He makes his compromises, usually to the detriment or enslaved Americans, but also preferred and enacted policies that he understood as injurious to slavery and looking to its ultimate end. He didn’t publicize his views on the subject at length, a conspicuous rarity for Hamilton, but he did more than make excuses and fret impotently. He probably benefited from, and might directly have used, slave labor himself. But he didn’t organize his entire economic life around it as any number of famous founders did.
We can stop here and declare Chernow’s argument a specimen of the hagiographer’s craft. Hamilton did not advocate anything like what the abolitionists did and so doesn’t warrant the title. However, this requires us to read late Antebellum distinctions back into the eighteenth century. In more stark cases, like Jefferson’s, that makes some sense. The Sage of Monticello’s policies amounted to slavery forever and must stand in the context of his hundreds of slaves. Hamilton occupies a more ambiguous space. In light of that, we ought to consider just how few people argued for immediate abolition in Hamilton’s time. To my admittedly incomplete knowledge, that position didn’t become politically significant until the 1830s. While this doesn’t make Hamilton into an antislavery radical, even by period standards, it does suggest a political spectrum more tilted toward slavery and with less conceptual space for abolition than would exist in later decades. Even John Adams, generally considered a fairly strong antislavery founder, preached against immediate abolition on the grounds that it might spark a slave revolt. Hamilton surely belongs closer to him, for all that the two men would dislike one another’s company, than to Jefferson.
Considering all of that, Chernow still exaggerated Hamilton’s antislavery credentials. Hamilton advocated no abolitionism, but he did preach and practice at least moderate antislavery politics. They didn’t occupy a central position in his agenda. He often compromised in slavery’s favor. He traded in slaves on behalf of others. But, unlike others, his scruples served as more than a vehicle to salve his conscience while advocating the practical extension of human bondage in perpetuity. Hamilton’s record doesn’t invite easy explanation, admitting many complexities and contradictions, but he deserves some credit for it.