March 14, 1779—A marginalized product of a slaveholding society, Col. Alexander Hamilton, wrote to the new president of the Continental Congress, John Jay, enthusiastically backing a proposal for freeing black slaves who fought in the Continental Army.
The idea had been pushed by Hamilton’s friend John Laurens. Hamilton’s fellow aide-de-camp to George Washington was in a real position to influence the future American republic’s attitude toward slavery—his father, the outgoing President of the Continental Congress, was also a major slaveholder in South Carolina. Now young Laurens—who matched Hamilton in his impetuosity and vehement abolitionism—was returning to his native state, hoping for congressional approval to raise two to four black battalions.
It might surprise some to discover that the man that Ron Chernow, in his epic biography Alexander Hamilton, called a “capitalist prophet” came so strongly to oppose slavery. Maybe the views of the future Secretary of the Treasury were aroused so strongly because in his way, he was as much an outcast as the slaves.
In his biography The Young Hamilton, James Thomas Flexner explored at great length the role of illegitimacy in spurring Hamilton’s quest for glory. Another spur—not too far removed from that—was the persistent rumor that Hamilton was a mulatto or quadroon.
No documentary evidence exists to support the latter notion. But the fact so many children in Hamilton’s West Indies were the products of miscegenation lent a credence to the rumor that the fiercely ambitious young man may have decided it was time to stop—by striking at the institution itself.
Moreover, the teenage Hamilton’s attitudes were crucially affected by his work in the St. Croix trading firm of Beekman and Cruger, where he not only saw for himself the pitiful physical condition of slaves, but also heard stories from sailors about the slaves’ harrowing transatlantic crossing.
The third strain in Hamilton’s thinking stemmed from a characteristic that he shared with the most important father figure in his life, George Washington: a realism born from fighting a difficult war. The daily struggles of provisioning an army without the benefit of sound currency or a strong central government had already impressed itself upon Washington’s aide. But now, he saw, the British were using slavery as a dagger aimed at the heart of the revolution.
Back in 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had given notice of Britain’s line of attack by promising freedom for any slave or indentured servant who fought for the crown. The impact was much like Abraham Lincoln’s similar but more famous “emancipation proclamation” in the Civil War: slaves escaped plantations in droves, depriving the southern economy of a crucial source of labor where slaveholding masters were waging war in defense of “freedom.”
By the time Hamilton wrote his letter in 1779, the British were bringing that war home in a far more devastating way to the South. Gen. Henry Clinton had decided to cut off the Southern colonies. In short order, the British took Savannah and Augusta, and South Carolina was coming within their sights.
Given all of this, Hamilton’s letter to Jay supports Laurens’ position with the same argument that President Lincoln would use for emancipation during the Civil War: the doctrine of military necessity. “I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected without it; and the enemy’s operations there are growing infinitely serious and formidable.”
Lest Jay miss the point, Hamilton struck harder with it a few sentences later: “If we do not make use of them, the enemy will…and the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves.” Hamilton was even prepared to use the slaves’ condition as an argument for their potential: their ingrained “habit of subordination” would make them ideal soldiers.
But Hamilton could not help traces of humane thinking creep into his analysis. He strenuously objected to the idea that they would be “too stupid to make soldiers,” and he argued that such thinking “makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.”
One of those people who would disseminate such notions was Hamilton’s future rival in political philosophy, Thomas Jefferson. In Notes on the State of Virginia, the Sage of Monticello reeled off a whole slew of pseudoscientific notions, down to the quality of their skins, arguing for their basic inequality with whites, concluding with:
“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
Southern attitudes toward slavery turned out to be closer to Jefferson’s than Hamilton’s. Laurens’ proposal not only could not overcome their opposition to a full battalion on their home soil (though Washington, coming around to the Hamilton-Laurens notion, eventually brought 5,000 slaves in his army, who, provided much of the so-called "ditch-digging" duties that made it easy for Washington to assign soldiers as needed).
Within 15 years, however, a couple of developments made it more unlikely that it would never happen without resort to arms.
First, Southern abolitionism lost its most effective advocate when Laurens himself died in 1782, in a senseless skirmish fought after Yorktown, when American victory had been essentially secured.
Second, 15 years to the day Hamilton wrote his letter to Jay, Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin. Before, Southern planters would be lucky to wrest a pound of cotton a day from their crop; now, they could harvest 50 times that amount. The invention revived a Southern economy that had been battered by the war and still, in many cases, hadn’t recovered.
Yet Hamilton’s opposition did not go for naught. If Laurens was no longer around to push abolitionism on the Southern front, Hamilton could do so in his home state of New York. In the mid-1780s, he and Jay helped found the New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. In 1799, the state passed legislation freeing slaves gradually. By July 4, 1827, slavery finally ended in the Empire State.
That fact should not be allowed to just sit there. Remember that, when Hamilton came to New York as a King’s College (later Columbia University) student in the 1770s, more than three thousand slaves lived in New York City and more than 15,000 throughout the colony.
Here’s another way to put those numbers in perspective: next to Charleston, New York was the largest slaveholding city in British North America. Yet 50 years later, while slavery had become far more entrenched in the South, its moral legitimacy had eroded in the Empire State—in no small measure attributable to Hamilton.
Perhaps more tellingly, Hamilton’s doctrine of military necessity came to be practiced not only by Lincoln (another young man revolted by the practice of slavery) but by Robert E. Lee. In January 1865, Robert E. Lee had adopted Hamilton’s position for the South in the Civil War. Two months after Lee’s letter, in its final desperate days, the Confederate Congress authorized Jefferson Davis to recruit slaves as soldiers, with the permission of their owners.
Too little, too late, of course--as John Laurens and his great and good friend, Colonel Hamilton, could have told them.
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