Before the our summer of Covid-19 confinement, there was a musical on Broadway called Hamilton. This was very popular - and then it was taken up by Disney for broadcast over the weekend of the Fourth of July. This broadcast annoyed many people who asserted that Alexander Hamilton was a racist in fvor of slavery in America.
This was disturbing to me as it clashed with much that I knew of Hamilton from secondary school history. Now I am well aware of the limitiations of the high school curriculum, but the accusations were so wide of the mark that I felt the need, motivated by an urge to rant on Facebook, to look a little deeper. This turned into the following short essay, which did not get posted to FB because it would arguably satisfy no-one.
Ok, First of all, I have not seen the musical, so I have non idea what falsehoods may be in the dramatization of his story. But these accusations are genuinely unfair to the man's history and legacy. Just as a thumbnail sketch: he was orphaned at the age of 13 in St Croix, a Danish colony at the time, and was denied the inheritance of his mother's two slaves because he was also born out of wedlock due to complicated injustices surrounding marriage in the 18th century. He took work at a local trading company which also dealt in slaves, and eventually (at age 17!) was given management responsibilities for five months. This is the time that people refer to when he genuinely *did* what he is accused of - trafficking in slaves.
At the end of this time, there was a hurricane which hit his home in St Croix. In surveying the aftermath of this storm, he a letter to a local paper which contains the text:
Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou incapable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. See desolation and ruin where'er thou turnest thine eye! See thy fellow-creatures pale and lifeless; their bodies mangled, their souls snatched into eternity, unexpecting. Alas! perhaps unprepared! Hark the bitter groans of distress. See sickness and infirmities exposed to the inclemencies of wind and water! See tender infancy pinched with hunger and hanging on the mothers knee for food! See the unhappy mothers anxiety. Her poverty denies relief, her breast heaves with pangs of maternal pity, her heart is bursting, the tears gush down her cheeks. Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely.
At the least, we can be fairly sure that he would have *supported* Puerto Rico in its ongoing troubles with a federal government that continually oppresses the island by neither granting it full sovereignty nor full membership in the United States.
This letter also drew attention to him as something of a prodigy. As a bastard child of a single working-class mother, and as a mid-level clerk in a trading company, he was noticed and sent to New York by charity for his further education. By the time he was 21 and participating in the beginnings of the American Revolution he was arguing *against* slavery as being antithetical to the values that the nation was fighting for. He went on to join (deep breath) "The New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated" at it's second meeting. It's constitution read:
The benevolent Creator and Father of Men having given to them all, an equal Right to Life, Liberty, and Property; no Sovereign Power, on Earth, can justly deprive them of either; but in Conformity to impartial Government and laws to which they have expressly or tacitly consented. It is our Duty, therefore, both as free citizens and Christians, not only to regard, with compassion and Injustice done to those, among us, who are held as Slaves, but to endeavor by lawful ways and means, to enable them to Share, equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty with which an indulgent Providence has blessed these States...
In short, Hamilton became an *active* opponent to slavery. This opposition is nuanced in a way which might not be pleasant to modern ears, as he held the view that slaveholders should be compensated by the government for freeing their slaves. If it weren't for the fact that the rest of his writings make it clear that he opposed the institution and found it immoral and antithetical to the American project, as well as the fact that he was clearly ahead of many (not all) of his contemporaries on the issue, it would be possible to see him as acquiescent, but in fact he was very progressive for his day.
Was he perfect in his opposition to the horrors of slavery? No. There is evidence that, as a lawyer, he was involved in slave transactions on the behalf of some of his relatives. Most authors (in fairness, they are probably motivated to think this) think Hamilton did not own slaves; however, and his public stance was firmly opposed to slavery. The same writing where he opposed slavery, also make it clear that he was no racist (although one could argue that he was an apologist for the hegemony of European social mores).
Maybe that's not good enough for today's, entirely justified, rage. I'm sure a Broadway musical doesn't convey this kind of nuance, and that is the ultimate point. Broadway entertainment is not the place to expect anything more than an outline of history. If it sparks engaged discussion about real history, then I think it can be said that it has done as much as anyone could hope.
http://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/about/Horton%20-%20Hamiltsvery_Race.pdf https://columbiaandslavery.columbia.edu/content/ambition-bondage-inquiry-alexander-hamilton-and-slavery https://www.varsitytutors.com/earlyamerica/early-america-review/volume-15/hamilton-and-slavery https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Hamilton#On_slavery https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S003467050003727X https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Founding-Fathers-and-Slavery-1269536