Alexander Hamilton: A young Alexander Hamilton arrived at King’s College, Columbia University today, in New York City during a time of fervor and unrest that sounds a lot like it is today.
Bostonians had just squeezed their tea into the harbor in 1773. Even New York, a more crown-friendly city, was cracking at thinking about revolution. Eighteen-year – old Hamilton ditched his plans to study medicine and threw himself into reading the philosophers of Enlightenment, arguing with friends and hustling at rallies in town.
It is this atmosphere that launches “Hamilton,” the musical, and casts the main character as a different kind of Founding Father — immigrant, outsider, activist.
Alexander Hamilton: The Broadway show’s July 4 weekend debut on TV — streaming on Disney Plus, starting Friday — is putting a new focus on the most patriotic holiday at a time when American ideals are under harsh scrutiny.
With Black Lives Matter rising, and statues of white slave owners falling, watching “Hamilton” and thinking of an ethnically diverse, hip-hop past might feel good. Of course the reality was a lot more complicated.
Slavery was “a system where every character in our show is complicit in some way or other,” this week creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda told Terry Gross of NPR. “Hamilton remained complicit in the scheme while he expressed anti-slavery views.”
Hamilton certainly never owned any enslaved people directly. He grew up working class on Nevis and St. Croix’s Caribbean islands, where black people outnumbered white people by more than 10 to 1. His mother died when he was no more than 13 years old (His birth date is unknown, 1755 or 1757) and left two enslaved workers to him and his uncle. But since the boys were born out of wedlock they did not receive property.
Hamilton had been in America only for a year when he arrived at King’s College, sent by island businessmen who had taken up a collection for him after being impressed by his intelligence and drive.
He was surrounded in New York by posh classmates — including a nephew of George Washington — who owned slaves in their families, or brought with them enslaved servants. Hamilton was known to despise slavery but he liked influential friends as well.
When he addressed the subject in his fiery early writings, it was to condemn British loyalists as “enemies of the natural rights of mankind … because they want to see one part of their race enslaved by another.” In other words, the colonists were handled in the worst possible way — like slaves.
Hamilton left school to join the upstart Continental Army, before graduating. There the charismatic networker made his ultimate connection to Washington, becoming an aide and a surrogate son. That alone required Hamilton to put aside his feelings about slavery, because in Virginia, Washington owned over 100 people back home.
Alexander Hamilton: But as the British began offering liberty to any enslaved people who would join the royal cause, Hamilton saw a chance. He urged Washington to allow the black soldiers to fight for liberty. In an extraordinary letter to John Jay in 1779 Hamilton proclaimed the theory.
I have no doubt that the Negroes would make very good soldiers, with good management, “he wrote. Some claim black people are inferior, he added, but “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.” And he emphasized that “giving them their independence with their muskets is an integral part of the strategy. This will secure their fidelity, enliven their courage, and I believe that by opening a door to their emancipation, it will have a good influence on those who remain.
For the time being it has been a strikingly progressive stance. The line about “natural faculties” is often compared to his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, who denigrated black intelligence in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian who has written extensively on Jefferson and his relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings, has argued that painting Hamilton as the good guy on the race question is not entirely fair. In a Harvard interview in 2016, Hamilton, she noted, oversaw slave sales for his wife’s family. He also kept the books for a Caribbean trading company which engaged in the slave trade when he was very young.
“He wasn’t an abolitionist,” the Harvard Gazette told her. “Opposition to slavery never stood at the center of his policy.”
Alexander Hamilton: No, scaling the ladder was still high on the agenda for Hamilton. His friendship with Washington, his marriage to the rich Schuyler family, his slaveholding friends — all advanced him socially and allowed him to turn his head from the hardest problem of the day.
When war turned to statecraft, Hamilton abandoned his views on slavery in favor of two other priorities: property rights that had been sacrosanctly held by the once poor orphan and the need to create a united nation. In the new Constitution, Hamilton accepted the notion of counting black people as three-fifths of a person to ensure that the Southern states would join the Union.
But author Ankeet Ball, writing for the online project “Columbia University & Slavery,” detects a change once Washington had been followed by Hamilton into the new government.
“While Hamilton had spent the latter part of his life conceding on the issue of slavery to further his personal ambitions and the interests of the early American republic, his work as the eventual US Treasury Secretary allowed him to lay the foundations of an American economy independent of slavery,” Ball wrote.
Alexander Hamilton: In his seminal “Study on the Subject of Manufactures,” Hamilton presented a vision for a manufacturing-based economy, with trade barriers and federal subsidies intended to stimulate growth and attract immigrants. His economic strategy was a “slaveless roadmap,” Ball wrote.
It was in the last years of his cut-short life — after Washington left office — that Hamilton eventually started actively working on the issue. He devoted his time to the New York Manumission Society, which he founded shortly after the Revolution, together with several friends, but which he let languish. Now Hamilton introduced a New York emancipation law passed in 1799 and called for the Haitian revolution that saw black people casting off French rule and establishing their own democracy.
Jefferson agreed with Hamilton that slavery should end, and that the slaveholder should be belittled as much as the enslaved. But even though he penned the words of independence that keep inspiring every Fourth of July, Jefferson left the hard work for generations to come. He predicted that when black people gained their freedom, they would never be able to live with white people without killing each other’s two races.
Hamilton figured they were all going to become fellow Americans.
“Their assumptions about America’s racial future were perhaps most telling of all the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson,” historian James Oliver Horton wrote in the New York Journal of American History. “A multiracial New York or multiracial America wasn’t impossible for a man who had grown up in a black community in the West Indies.”
And at least in that context, Hamilton the guy lives up to the show’s “Hamilton.”
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