How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Ten

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Nathaniel Jennison believed he owned Quock Walker, fair and square. He married Walker’s owner and that made all her property his. For Walker to run off to live with the sons of his prior owner and call himself free simply would not do. As soon as Jennison found out that Walker took shelter with the Campbell boys, he went over and seized Walker. Some kind of altercation ensued, where Jennison knocked Walker to the ground, beat him, and then imprisoned him. All that transpired on April 13, 1781. It doesn’t seem like Walker remained in Jennison’s custody too long after that since the complaint, dated May 5, doesn’t ask for his release. Instead Walker sought damages to the tune of three hundred pounds. The affair went to trial on June 12.

Jennison, as one would expect, argued that Walker’s complaint “ought not to be answered” on the grounds that his wife inherited Walker from her deceased first husband. He acquired Walker by marrying her, thus

the said Quork at the time of his suing out the said Writ & long before & ever since was the proper negro slave of him the said Nathaniel

Walker’s lawyers, Caleb Strong and Levi Lincoln -I know of no relation of his to the more famous Lincoln- argued that Walker had his freedom, so Jennison had no case for dismissal. It appears they didn’t argue at all about the facts of the assault. The jury deemed Walker free and awarded fifty poundsand court costs, a large sum of money then but far less than the asked three hundred. Jennison appealed.

Come September, the Supreme Judicial Court took up the appeal. Jennison failed to appear, so the court ruled for Walker by default and added nine pounds, ten shillings, and seven pence to the bill for another round of court costs. The necessary court orders to execute the judgment came down in February, 1782. However, Jennison got ahead of them by petitioning the Massachusetts House to let him re-appeal because, he argued, his lawyer screwed up by not showing back in September. At the start of March, the House obliged temporarily, pending further action. A joint committee of the General Court then resolved that everything should wait until Jennison could produce some evidence of his lawyer’s laxity.

The House got enough evidence to move forward around June 4, 1784, two years after the fact. The chamber voted to give Jennison a stay pending a new trial and kicked the matter upstairs. The Massachusetts Senate either failed to act or did nothing that left a surviving paper trail. There ended one legal challenge to Quock Walker’s personal freedom. Jennison had another proceeding simultaneously.



How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Nine

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Elizabeth Freeman lived with the Sedgwicks for the rest of her life and they wrote down a version of her travails. Quock Walker had no such dedicated biographer. Documents refer to him as Quok, Quarco, Quack, Quork, Quaco, and Quarko. His parents may have called him Kwaku or something similar. He first appears in our records courtesy of this document:

Rutland District, May 4th, 1754

Sold this day to a Mr. James Caldwell of said District, the County of Worcester, & Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, a certain negro man named Mingo, about twenty Years of Age, and also one negro wench named Dinah, about nineteen years of age, with child Quaco, about nine months old-all sound and well for the Sum of One hundred & eight pounds, lawful money, recd. to my full satisfaction: which Negroes, I the subscriber to warrant and defend against all claims whatsoever as witness my hand

Zedekiah Stone.

If the enslavers of the eighteenth century trafficked in lives the same as those of the nineteenth, and I don’t know a reason to think otherwise, then baby Quock likely changed hands with his mother. Their enslaver died in 1763. He didn’t leave a will behind, so the court divided his estate between Caldwell’s widow, Isabell, and John Murray. Murray also served as a witness on the bill of sale above and had guardianship of the Caldwell children. The estate inventory worked up for the division included a ten-year-old enslaved boy, Quock. He went with the third of the worldly goods transmitted to the Isabell. She remarried, to a Nathan Jennison who acquired property rights to Quock and all the other things his wife owned as a consequence of their marriage. The Enlightenment era patriarchy had scarce patience for such modern notions as married women possessing rights independent of their husbands.

In April of 1781, twenty-eight-year-old Quock stole himself from Jennison and went to John and Seth Caldwell, for whom he began to work. We don’t know for sure, but probably he knew them from growing up under the same roof. In that event, the younger Caldwells may have remembered a promise that their father and mother made to Quock to free him at a certain point, now passed. They might also have disputed the settlement of their father’s estate back in the day and thought they had rights to Quock rather than their mother. Either way, Walker went to them and received shelter.

There Jennison found him ten days later, on April 13. That day, according to a legal summons that resulted:

the said Nathaniel [Jennison] … with force & arms on the said Quok, then and there in our presence being, did make an assault, and then and there with force & arms aforesaid, seized the said Quok and threw him down and struck him several violent blows upon his back and arm with the handle of a whip, and did him then and there imprison-and other enormities the said Quok the said Nathaniel did then and there against the peace of the law.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Eight

John Adams

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Chief Justice Parsons of Massachusetts wrote in 1806 that some case he declined to name then held that slavery could not square with John Adams’ Declaration of Rights in the state constitution of 1780. Therefore, the Bay State had abolished it. This would have surprised Adams, as well as all the people who kept buying and selling other people after that date. Parson’s failure to cite a case further raises questions. As a judge on a high court, he ought to know his precedents. That he refused to cite one might mean that he didn’t know himself and repeated only accepted legal wisdom of the time, or may point to an awareness of the ambiguity in how Massachusetts came to report zero enslaved people in the 1790 census. By keeping things vague, he could immunize himself from criticism that referring to a specific authority might invite.

That said, we have two possible cases that Parsons might have had in mind and which subsequent historians have guessed either did the job or, much more likely, opened the legal floodgates that then accomplished abolition. We usually cite Quock Walker first, so let’s give pride of place this time to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. Much of her life story comes down to us as family reminiscences written down well after the events in question, but like most enslaved people Freeman left few other traces of herself in the record. A Dutchman enslaved her and her sister in New York, later making wedding presents of them John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts. Ashley married his daughter.

They remained with the Ashleys for around forty years before the woman of the house, Annetje Ashley, took it on herself to beat Freeman’s sister with a shovel. Elizabeth objected and got in the way of the blow, suffering permanent disability to her arm for the trouble. Or maybe she heard a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and got inspired. The latter story comes from Freeman’s white advocates, but also neatly flatters the noble whites who get to both tell the ignorant black woman of this thing called freedom and then give it to her. Maybe it happened that way, but probably Elizabeth and her sister suffered a long series of abuses that culminated in the attack with the shovel. At best, the changed political environment of the Bay State might have helped make freedom seem a more realistic hope once that happened.

Freeman sought help from Theodore Sedgwick, who brought a freedom suit on behalf of her and an enslaved man named Brom. Sedgwick got a court order for Ashley to surrender property he had come into illegally. Ashley refused to comply and the fight was on. Sedgwick argued that he held illegal property in the form of Freeman and Brom and pointed to the Declaration of Rights as the proof. A jury -not the judge- agreed with him and awarded Freeman and Brom their freedom plus trial costs and damages.

Receiving that verdict didn’t end things for John Ashley. In 1781, he thought he had a chance still and appealed to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. He later withdrew the appeal without having a trial. He didn’t leave us any explicit reason why, but obviously he thought his chances much worse on further consideration. The only clear signpost we have for changing times in this front comes in the form of Quock Walker’s case.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Seven

John Adams

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The failed constitution of 1778 doesn’t seem to have done so much as slow down discussion of the slavery question in Massachusetts. Black Bay Staters kept petitioning for their rights. Whites argued against the constitution in part because it denied those rights. But continued debate did not lead to an easy or straightforward resolution. As late as 1795 whites did not agree whether their laws permitted black men to hold office or vote. It seems that some may have, but the number who could meet the property qualification remained so small that they left only tenuous evidence behind.

That takes us far beyond Quock Walker and the issue of slavery, though. Returning to that, we must go back to 1778. The failed constitution meant that the Bay State needed to have another go-around, electing a convention in summer of the next year. They got to work in Cambridge at the start of September, and soon decided they needed a bill of rights. At least one town, Pittsfield, told the man it elected that he could not accept any constitution that didn’t have a bill of rights which prohibited slavery.

The convention tasked writing their bill of rights to a committee, then voted themselves a vacation from September 6 to October 28 while that committee did its work. The thirty-member committee adjourned to Boston and promptly voted most of themselves a vacation, tasking the job to Samuel and John Adams and James Bowdoin. They in turn agreed that John Adams should do the main draft. He consulted with some clergymen on the article he wrote concerning religion, but otherwise did it all himself. The part that concerns us now comes right at the start:

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights: among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting their property; in fine; that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The convention accepted Adams’ draft with only stylistic changes:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The Massachusetts constitution with Adams’ bill of rights went to the voters, who ratified it. At the end of October, 1780, it went into effect.

In theory, that might settle it. If all men were born free and equal, none could be born into slavery. The convention wrote it into the constitution and the voters agreed. So did a series of Bay State legal minds in later years, though none of them could say so with complete certainty. Late in life, Daniel Webster admitted that he couldn’t put a date on the end of slavery. Nor could judges in the 1830s. The convention debates, so far as we know, don’t address the issue. John Adams, while opposed to slavery, also opposed immediate emancipation. Neither he nor the men who wrote the rest of the constitution seem to think they freed anyone at the time.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part One

I’m sorry for the lack of posts, Gentle Readers. I felt a bit ill over the weekend and then my mother had cataract surgery on Monday. That’s put me behind on several things but has given me occasion to revisit something I meant to do more of and fell away from. Welcome back to Deep Dives, where we go back in time far past the usual late Antebellum to look at the history of American slavery.

In those later decades, we think of Massachusetts as resolutely antislavery. The state practiced slavery at one point and conservative elements within it always remained inclined to make excuses, but we can reasonably call it a state that aligns firmly on the antislavery left. How it got from a state which enslaved people to one that did not receives little scholarly attention, even though we believe that it did so with an instantaneous, uncompensated abolition much like enacted in 1865. Some of that comes down to slavery lasting longer in the American South and the vastly larger scale of the institution there. We should also probably grant that the Revolution draws a tremendous amount of scholarly attention away from anything near to it. But that still leaves us with a remarkable story.

John Adams

In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a new constitution which included a bill of rights written by John Adams. His draft received some style tweaks by a committee and the convention accepted it. Article I reads:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

An enslaved man named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under that provision in 1783. The Massachusetts courts agreed with him. The 1790 census shows no slaves in Massachusetts. Therefore Walker killed slavery in the Bay State and, retroactively, it was abolished with the adoption of the new constitution in 1780. Thereafter, Massachusetts assumed its place as the leading bastion of freedom. The records indicate a more complicated story and ambiguous story, as usual.

As soon as revolutionary rhetoric with its talk of natural rights began to circulate, black Americans insisted it ought to apply to them as well. White antislavery men agreed, but the flurry of speeches and petitions generated only limited action. The state House formed a committee to look into the conditions facing black Bay Staters in the fall of 1776. Spring brought about a few bills for abolition, with a gradual emancipation proposal gaining some steam. We don’t know how it would have gone down because the House drew up short of a final vote, instead asking Congress for an opinion:

from an apprehension that our brethren in the Other Colonies should conceive there was an impropriety in our determining on a question which may … be of extensive influence, without previously consulting your Honors

Congress, which had a war to run and absolutely no inclination to touch such an explosive issue if it meant to keep the South fighting the British, refused to answer. With no approval forthcoming, the Massachusetts House approved a petition asking for abolition and went no farther.

“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Seven

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner moved on from distinguishing between moral duties to reject evil at home and political duties to oppose it from afar with a standard repudiation of designs to interfere with slavery in the slave states. He positioned himself on the antislavery left, but not so far over as to talk himself out of politics. He repeated the normal demands of late 1850: the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolition for the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, no new slave states admitted to the Union, and then flirted with more. Sumner declared himself and his free soil party for abolition of the domestic slave trade, especially at sea where the US flag often sheltered it but also, by implication, between states.

But Charles Sumner had a wider vision still, one shared then by few in the North but which would grow in popularity as the 1850s wore on:

The Slave Power must be overturned, -so that the National Government may be openly, actively, and perpetually on the side of Freedom.

That did not, Sumner stressed, mean the overthrow of slavery. He wanted the institution’s political influence gone. That power

having its origin in Slavery, which has been more potent, sinister, and mischievous than any in our long history. This Power, though unknown to the Constitution, and existing in defiance of its true spirit, now predominates over Congress, gives the tone to its proceedings, seeks to control all our public affairs, and humbles both the great political parties to its will.

He had the Constitution wrong, but American politicians routinely do that. Sumner hadn’t missed the true situation, though. Slavery created a powerful “common interest” among enslavers. They themselves would agree, though couching it in terms of the special needs of their institution for security. Sumner lacked the time to trace its full history

the undue share of offices it has enjoyed, and the succession of its evil deeds. Suffice it to say, that, for a long period, the real principle of this union was not observed by the Free States. In the game of office and legislation the South has always won. It has played with loaded dice, –loaded with Slavery.

That got a good laugh out of the crowd, but Sumner had facts and laughs on his side. At the time of his speech, a total of three men who never owned slaves had occupied the Presidency, two Adamses and Martin Van Buren. None had won re-election and no northern president would until the slave states opted out of the election of 1864. The South had an effective veto on all national legislation courtesy of the Senate. The slave states dominated Cabinet after Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and exercised decisive influence in both national parties. Sumner likened it to the workings of a fake automaton playing chess, with a man behind the curtain actually doing the work. The Slave Power occupied the spot behind the curtain, a “living force” that, now unmasked, they must defeat to restore the nation to its original design.


Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Gentle Readers, we followed David Rice Atchison out of Kansas and back in time to meet his friend and messmate, Andrew Butler. Now comes time wind the clock back a little farther and introduce another important figure in the Kansas struggle. On November 6, 1850, Charles Sumner addressed (PDF page 140) a Free Soil meeting in Faneuil Hall. Sumner began by disclaiming any interest in the Massachusetts election a few days hence, as a candidate for office should in the fashion of the time. Sumner presented himself as a man concerned with “Freedom above all else.” The various coalitions his Free Soil party had made with antislavery Democrats and Whigs warranted a favorable mention all the same. Sumner turned then to the Congress.

For things have been done, and measures passed into laws, which, to my mind, fill the day itself with blackness.

Sumner held the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as chief among those measures, “a most cruel, unchristian, devilish” thing. Sumner refused to call it a law, instead referring to it always as “The Fugitive Slave Bill.” The “Heaven-defying Bill” afflicted not only black slaves, but the liberty of white men by holding out the possibility of imprisonment and levying fines against them for aiding slaves who dared steal themselves. Sumner then proceeded through what he considered the law’s many constitutional defects. In considering the law, Sumner’s “soul sickens.”

what act of shame, what ordinance of monarch, what law, can compare in atrocity with this enactment of an American Congress? […] Into the immortal catalogue of national crimes it has now passed, drawing, by inexorable necessity, its authors also, and chiefly him who, as President of the United States, set his name to the bill, and breathed into it that final breath without which it would bear no life.

Millard Fillmore

Sumner spoke of Millard Fillmore, who he thought would live forever in infamy. Posterity has instead remembered Fillmore as the president most notable for his obscurity, but posterity only lived with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 for a decade before the Civil War intervened. That said, one struggles to disagree with Sumner as he lays into the Whigs’ second, and last, accidental president:

Better for him had he never been born! Better for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been President!

We talk about polarization and hostile rhetoric today, but our opposition party rarely declares a sitting president ought never have existed. Even hot under the collar proslavery rhetoric rarely goes that way, though veiled threats of violence make a fair equivalent.

Sumner looked to the Bay State’s past for examples of right conduct against such enormities, imposed by so vile a president and so tyrannical a Slave Power. He found them in John Adams, writing against the Stamp Act. Adams declared that any man who spoke up in favor of Parliament’s law, however rich, well-liked, and virtuous “has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.” Someone in the crowd yelled back “Ditto for the Slave-Hunter!”

If Adams didn’t get the Puritan blood flowing, then Sumner added John Winthrop on top. He quoted the first Governor of Massachusetts:

This Liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard not only of your goods, but of  your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority, but a distemper thereof.

“Surely,” Sumner said, the passions of Massachusetts had “not so far cooled” to let the submit to the Fugitive Slave Act. That old “unconquerable rage” at the stamp enforcers had not left Massachusetts yet.

Alexander Hamilton and Slavery

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

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[1], 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.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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[2], 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.

[1] Seriously, go read the Republican responses to the Reynolds Pamphlet and try to keep a straight face.
[2]Adams’ insults? Also hilarious.