Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Mansion Mythbusters: Hamilton and Slavery Part I

by Danielle Funiciello

Last week we introduced our new series on the Schuyler Mansion blog, Mansion Mythbusters where we will be examining some of the popular mythology associated with the 18th-century in general and with Schuyler Mansion and the people who called it home specifically. Today we will be starting on the topic of Hamilton and Slaves, but due to the intricacies of the topic, it will be a multi-post series.

The Myth: Hamilton was a staunch abolitionist who did not condone the practice of slavery and never had enslaved servants himself.

The Sources: Often, on tours, we encounter this myth in the form of surprise when we discuss Hamilton’s father-in-law and mentor Philip Schuyler’s enslavement of the people working at both of his properties. Hamilton fans ask; “How did Hamilton feel about that since he was such a passionate abolitionist?”

Certainly, this concept is well established in Hamilton biographies. From Forrest McDonald in 1982: "Hamilton was an abolitionist, and on that subject he never wavered", to Ron Chernow in 2005: “Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton”. The myth is perhaps most commonly brought up in forum debates where arguments use Hamilton’s abolition as the moral opposition to Jefferson’s – saying that Hamilton refused to participate in the system and believed in the equality of all men, while Jefferson enslaved hundreds on his plantation and believed that those of African descent were biologically inferior to those of European descent. In reality, the answer to this myth is far more nuanced.

The Break Down: To cover that nuance, we are going to break this myth down into three questions, to be answered over the course of several articles: Did Hamilton own slaves? Did he participate in the institution of slavery? Was his level of abolition an outlier compared to other founding fathers?

We will start with the easiest: Did Hamilton participate in the institution of slavery? Yes, yes and yes. Even though Hamilton’s mother Rachel Fawcett left her husband David Levine, was accused of adultery, lost her modest fortune in divorce, was abandoned by her common law husband James Hamilton, and lived in relative squalor as she died of an unknown illness, she was still in possession of at least two enslaved servants at her death. In her will, she bequeathed one of these men to each of her sons – a man named Ajax to ten year old Hamilton. There is no contemporary evidence to suggest that young Hamilton was opposed the bequest, but we cannot know because his mother’s property – including Ajax – was seized by her former husband on Levine’s claims of adultery.

Four years later, Alexander Hamilton was hired on as a clerk at the Beekman and Cruger import-export firm. Though only 14, Hamilton seems to have been involved rather heavily in the daily proceedings of the firm, including personally handling the accounts when his employers were away. While Beekman and Cruger traded in just about everything, shipment of human cargo became a profitable staple of their trade. Documents in his hand suggest that Hamilton was responsible for recording the results of the inspections as the enslaved people were brought off of the ships, and later for overseeing the transactions when those people were sold at auction.

Given that Hamilton never himself writes about those experiences, historians can only make assumptions as to what Hamilton learned through this process. The first assumption would be that Hamilton grew distaste for the system of slavery by seeing the way the enslaved men, women, and children were treated. The second is that the way that the slave trade permeated the Caribbean culture, slavery was normalized and even idolized by Hamilton as it was normalized for most other founding fathers that grew up with systemized racism. Just as easily as we can assume that Hamilton’s abolition was born while working for Beekman and Cruger, we can also assume that the respect and admiration for wealth and property rights that littered Hamilton’s later abolition writings was born there. That respect and admiration tainted Hamilton’s slavery writings with hesitations. These assumptions are not exclusive. Both can be true, and likely both were, meaning that Hamilton shared the same complicated feelings that other white men of station did at this time.

It is almost certain that from his arrival in America in 1772 until his marriage in 1780, Hamilton did not keep enslaved workers himself. The certainty comes however, from his economic standing rather than his moral one.

When he married Elizabeth Schuyler on December 14th, 1780, he married into one of Albany’s largest slave-holding families. No matter what his personal feelings on slavery, Hamilton clearly felt that the social position this put him in was worth the attachment to his bride’s slave-owning family. Hamilton rapidly became a treasured member of the Schuyler family. Not only was he socially close with Philip, Catharine and their children, but he helped manage accounts for members of the family. Particularly, he managed accounts for Margaret (Peggy) Schuyler Van Rensselaer and Angelica Schuyler Church. For both women, financial records and letters show that Hamilton bought and sold enslaved servants for their benefit.

So yes, unfortunately Alexander Hamilton was inextricably linked to slavery and the slave trade. Whether he owned slaves and how his abolition compared with his peers is a bit more complicated. Keep watching the blog as we dig deeper into this myth in coming weeks. 

Additionally, if there is a history myth or story you’ve heard that you would like us to get to the bottom of, post it here or on Facebook and we will add it to our Mansion Mythbusters list.


  1. Hi Danielle:
    Excellent blog. I am working on an article on the Idea of Honor in relation to Classical Architecture, with particular reference to the architectural expression -- or lack of it -- of dependence on servants and, in an American context, on slaves. The Hudson Valley of P Schuyler and Hamilton is esp interesting. What do you know about how PS housed his servants, presumably slaves, in or perhaps near either of his houses? Thanks, Charles Burroughs

    1. Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the excellent question! This is Ian Mumpton replying since Danielle is out of the office, Danielle and I have actually spent a lot of time discussing this very topic. Philip Schuyler leaves no clear record of where any of the enslaved servants or laborers lived, (with one or two possible exceptions, all of the family’s servants were enslaved), but there are a few spaces that are strong candidates.

      The mansion had a large, enclosed, courtyard attached to the rear of the building (so as to be largely invisible from the river). The kitchen, a nursery, an office space, necessary house, chicken coops, and other working buildings were located back here. The kitchen in particular is believed to have had a garret above it that may have served as sleeping quarters for some of the enslaved people, possibly women tasked with work in the kitchen as cooks or laborers.

      The attic is another possible candidate. While there are no openings in either of the two chimneys that could have been used as a hearth, there are small, enclosed spaces built around each chimney. At least one has been dated to the 18th century, and metal coat-hooks indicate that it was likely used as servants’ quarters at some point in the 19th century. Radiated heat from the chimney would have kept the enclosed space warm in cold weather, but it would have been extremely warm in the Summer months. Again, there is not a direct reference to anyone living there in the 18th century, but it is a strong candidate.

      Prince, Philip’s personal attendant, seems to have had a room of his own towards the end of his life. He is believed to have been in his 70’s when Philip was in his late 60’s (Philip died three days before his 71st birthday), and like Philip seems to have had mobility issues. Philip is recorded as giving Prince a room near to his own to enable Prince to continue to wait on him. If Philip was still using his bedchamber upstairs at this, this may refer to a back bedchamber near the attic stairs. If Philip was using one of the downstairs chambers, this may have referred to a space in the brick buildings of the courtyard, which were connected by passageways to the main house.

      I hope that helps. Please let us know if there is anything else that we can try to answer for you!