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Though slavery is often connected with the Civil War, it was also a topic of great interest during the Revolutionary period. Many people had strong opinions on the morality of slavery, and they were not afraid to voice them. There are countless writings that, if nothing else, at least touch on the subject briefly. As one might imagine, there were people on both sides of the fence – those who took offense and those who did not. A new country was about to be born, and slavery provided just one of the tensions that was in existence at the time. When so many other issues were at hand, slavery was often placed on the back burner and ignored by many people.
At this same time in history, a young Alexander Hamilton was just cutting his teeth in the political world. Hamilton is perhaps best known for having had his face on the ten dollar bill, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, and his close proximity to George Washington. Hamilton represented the well-known ‘rags to riches’ life story, providing himself with a successful career in the military, politics, and law. Having met an early end in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s life was in no way lacking accomplishments.
A lesser discussed area of Hamilton’s life was his personal stance on slavery in the American colonies. His upbringing on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and St. Kitts deeply influenced his reasoning about slavery. His childhood put him into close quarters with the truths of slavery and the slave trade which followed him into his adult life and helped him to develop his opinions against slavery. His opinions were both shared and countered by other citizens during the Revolutionary period and there were countless discussions and writings regarding the topic. In any event, historian John Smith observed that
Hamilton achieved his success by the profound influence which he exerted on the public mind. No statesman in our history has ever swayed so many of the leading men among his contemporaries as Hamilton, and at the same time he appealed by his pen to the largest popular audience of any man of his time.
This means that Hamilton had to be very conscious of what he said because of the influence he had among his contemporaries. It is most likely that he was also aware that he held such an influence, meaning that he could have used it to his advantage, both in terms of slavery and in general. How Hamilton manipulated his influence could determine entire policies, as his reach was so great at the time. But did he do this to push his agenda with slavery? Were his views commonplace during the Revolutionary era? How many others shared his opinion? To what extent did his childhood influence his position on slavery? Was his class status more important to him than his morals were?
The accepted view of Hamilton’s opinion of slavery is that he was an abolitionist and in opposition to slavery. This viewpoint helps to further elevate his somewhat saintly position as one of America’s founding fathers. After all, the founding fathers are exalted for their sense of justice and beliefs in freedom for all. Hamilton warned that “The page of history is replete with instances that loudly warn us to beware of slavery”. The question begs to be answered of if Hamilton’s contemporaries were willing to heed this warning or if they would sweep it under the rug. Historian Michelle DuRoss argues, however, that not only was Hamilton not openly against slavery, but that it would have stifled his personal agenda. It is, of course, possible that portions of both of these opinions are true and that while Hamilton may have had personal qualms about slavery, he probably was not always openly declaring it in the public sector. An evaluation of DuRoss’s claims and a closer examination of Hamilton’s writings as well as behavior may resolve this mystery. Understanding Hamilton’s opinions about slavery would help to clarify the reputation and character of one of America’s beloved founding fathers. In order to understand Hamilton’s thoughts on slavery, however, one must also understand the views and actions of the common population in order to provide some context, and possibly reveal some of the influences upon Hamilton’s opinions. While his opinions are the focus, a lot of insight can be shed by looking at the overwhelming view of the populace.
In the years leading up to and including the American Revolution, words such as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ were commonly spoken and written. The colonists were seeking freedom from taxation and from what they believed to be the oppression of the mother country, England. How could a group of people so sensitive to the concept of liberty be able and willing to hold about twenty percent of their population in slavery? The answer is not so different than in the years leading up to the Civil War. Most of the southern colonies, especially the Deep South like South Carolina and Georgia, relied heavily upon slavery for the economy to remain stable and profitable. Slavery provided cheap and efficient work on the many plantations that were spread across the land. It is to be noted that “it was … the political problem with the deepest social and economic roots in the new nation, so that removing it threatened to disrupt the fragile union just as it was congealing.” Many in the North were opposed to slavery and wanted to see it abolished, but there was far more concern for solidifying the ties between colonies than there was ending slavery. The abolition of slavery threatened to turn all hopes of a new country on its head by upsetting the balance that existed between the North and the South and producing new tensions that were not really necessary at the time, in a practical sense.
This is not to say that nobody was speaking about slavery in personal correspondence and in casual encounters. Though many found it to be a touchy subject politically and professionally, they were often willing to openly discuss their views with the people they were closest to. For instance, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me — to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” What Adams wrote mirrored the feelings of many people during the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, especially in the northern colonies.
Both Adams and Hamilton were politically active individuals, both often associated with the anti-slavery movement. It is generally accepted that Alexander Hamilton was in opposition to slavery and led the life of an abolitionist. While his actions may not have always reflected this, his writings often did. In writing to John Jay, Hamilton recognized that “The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.” Hamilton openly acknowledged, as many did, that the beliefs that society had about African-Americans were not based on anything that had actually happened and were, in fact, not even validated by any sort of logical process. Many scholars agree that this was the common view which Hamilton held. However, Michelle DuRoss argues just the opposite of many scholars, and with compelling evidence. Her arguments rely on the workings of social classes during the years around and including the American Revolution and how Hamilton may have manipulated his beliefs in order to establish himself in social circles. An evaluation of her views, along with independent research on the subject, will permit a more careful evaluation of Hamilton’s views on the topic of slavery.
 Henry Cabot Lodge, “Preface” in The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge Federal Edition, 12 volumes. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), Vol. 1.
 Alexander Hamilton, “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress” In Ibid, Vol. 1.
 Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books 2000).
 Abigail Adams, Abigail Adams to John Adams, September 24, 1774.
 Alexander Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, March 14, 1779.
 More on DuRoss’ studies will follow in later paragraphs where more attention can be paid to the details.
Weyenberg, Sara, "Alexander Hamilton: Slavery, Politics, and Class Status" (2014). Honors Theses. 2471.
Honors Thesis-Open Access