Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mansion Mythbusters: Hamilton and Slavery Part II

by Danielle Funiciello

A couple weeks ago, we began a Mansion Mythbusters post about the myths surrounding Alexander Hamilton and slavery. We addressed the question “Did Hamilton participate in the institution of slavery?” If you missed that article, you can catch up here.

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

The Breakdown: Today’s article will focus on the question: “Did Hamilton own slaves?” It will also answer the question: “Why do historians disagree on whether or not Hamilton owned slaves?”

This question – ‘did Hamilton own slaves?’ -  is a lot more complicated than the previous, and may not have a definitive conclusion. Later in this article, I will argue that he did, but other historians may argue otherwise. Both interpretation may be able to provide compelling reasoning.  Historians have worried at the topic for well over a hundred years. Visitors, understandably, wonder why historians are hesitant to give a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Hamilton’s as an enslaver – with all of our research, wouldn’t it be obvious if he owned people? For many historians, this hesitance is an issue of historiography (the history of how history is recorded and told).

So today, in order to answer this question, we will be putting on our historiographer hat. Questions a historiographer looks at include:
  •         Who is writing the history?
  •         What are their beliefs?
  •         What are their intentions?
  •         What sources are they using or not using?
  •         What sources are available to the writer and which have been lost?
In order to investigate these questions, a historiographer must go all the way back to the time the history was happening, and look even at the motivations of the people writing and saving the primary sources.

Alexander Hamilton was a prolific writer. He produced a LOT of primary sources during his lifetime, both official paperwork and personal letters. Luckily for historians, many of these writings have been preserved, in large part due to the efforts of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, his wife. Hamilton’s writings on slavery, however, are limited, and the passionate abolitionist he is known to be has to be read between the lines. With this in mind, we could, envision a whole slew of possibilities with this information:
  1. Hamilton did not write passionately about slavery/abolition because he was not passionate about slavery/abolition.
  2. Hamilton did not write about slavery/abolition because, despite his passion, he did not want to get in trouble for an unpopular opinion (in which case, one would think that personal letters to those who shared his passion would show the passion that his public writings did not).
  3. Elizabeth Hamilton, or another family member to whom the papers were passed, did not save Hamilton’s writings on slavery/abolition because they were deemed unimportant (unlikely, as America was then headed towards the Civil War and slavery was a clear and building issue from the start of the Revolution) or because they were lost.
  4. Elizabeth Hamilton, or another family member to whom the papers were passed, intentionally discarded or destroyed Hamilton’s writings on slavery in order to alter the historical narrative.


Number four may sound like a rather shocking accusation, but within the 18th-century, people showed a keen understanding that their letters and writings would be used to tell the history of the Revolution. Then, during the 19th-century, people favored a nostalgic history of the Revolution - which not only saved face for the idolized founding fathers, but attempted to ignore the nation’s biggest issue- the continuation of slavery- in hopes of reconciling two sides of a country spiraling towards Civil War.

In the Hamilton family in particular, many historians already believe that Elizabeth intentionally removed a number of her own letters from the Hamilton narrative – some believe this was done to save Hamilton’s reputation from repercussions of his affair with Maria Reynolds. Other historians have pointed out that Elizabeth showed a certain discomfort with her writing in comparison to her husband’s, and perhaps sought to shield herself from potential public criticism (imagined or otherwise). Either way, it shows an effort on Elizabeth’s part to control public perception by altering what sources were available to future historians. The deliberateness in Elizabeth’s actions is confirmed by the fact that within her (very long) lifetime, she sought out historians to turn her husband’s papers, which she had meticulously collected, into a biographical work.

John Church Hamilton
by Alfred Thomas Agate
Beyond Elizabeth’s documented efforts to control what documents were preserved, some of those which have survived have been severely altered. Elizabeth was determined to see the work completed within her lifetime. When several historians that she commissioned failed to meet her rigorous deadlines, Elizabeth turned the papers over to her son, John Church Hamilton, who had studied history. It is unknown if Elizabeth gave all of the same papers to the other historians as she gave to her son, but it is widely believed to be John C.’s handwriting which strikes large chunks of Hamilton’s letters from history forever. In fact, there are a number of letters which can best be described as “mutilated” by his hand – chunks of the page blacked out with ink, or even specific words cut out of the paper. Given the zealousness with which he altered the evidence that has survived, it is extremely likely that John C. may have destroyed letters in their entirety as well.

So what was so important to delete from Hamilton’s papers? Given the context, many have pointed to the likelihood of homoerotic implication in letters to John Laurens being part of the cover-up. This is likely true – whether Hamilton actually had a homoerotic relationship, or whether John C. was just worried that the language would be interpreted that way. Either way, we now have a secondary confirmed effort to alter Hamilton’s historical reputation.


John Laurens (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right) both miniatures by Charles Wilson Peale.
John Laurens is also the person with whom Hamilton most frequently discussed slavery and abolition.

All this is to say; we know for certain that some elements of Hamilton’s writings were removed on moral grounds. Therefore, as slavery was highly unpopular on moral grounds by the time Elizabeth and John C. got ahold of Hamilton’s writings, it is possible that Hamilton’s surprising lack of writings on the subject stem from intentional removal.

Now, of course, a lack of passion in Hamilton’s private writing about slaves is not in itself evidence that he enslaved people, but it does begin to call into question the image of absolute moral opposition so often applied to him, opening the door for serious questions. There are some suspicious moments in Hamilton’s surviving writings and records that can be interpreted as evidence of slave-holding which require us to switch from historiographer into our linguistic analyst hat. In our last post on Hamilton and slavery, we have already established that Hamilton was involved in the purchase of enslaved servants for family members and clients. This time we will jump right into more explicit references, like Hamilton’s repeated references to his and his wife’s servants. Here are a few of many examples:
“I leave [my horse] in charge of Mr. Wallace as my servant will be too much employed while we stay to carry her to your Quarters.” - Alexander Hamilton to Clement Biddle, June 3rd, 1779.
 "I wish to hire a couple of horses one for myself and one for my servant to cross the river at West Point with a guide to conduct us across the Mountain.”-  Hamilton to George Fisher, January 9th, 1781
 “Cash paid for passages of yourself & servant […]” - Hamilton’s cash books, for Elizabeth’s travel, 1789
Linguistically, the word servant could be used in several ways during the late 18th-Century. Firstly, it could be used to humble one’s self when signing a letter, as in “your Obed. servant, A.Ham”. This was done even when the person ranked below you. This was probably referential to the second use, which would have been for a public employee, as in “he was a servant of Congress” meaning he served in congress. Hamilton could have correctly used it in this way to refer to his position as a “servant of Washington” while he was aide-de-camp. Thirdly, servant could be used as a euphemism for an enslaved worker. It is extremely rare to see a free, white worker, or even a black freeman referred to using the general term “servant” at the time. Typically, such a worker would be referred to by a title – “miller”, “carter”, “courier”, etc – referring to the work they were doing at the time of hire. It was also, as mentioned earlier, exceedingly rare to hire free, white domestic workers – domestic workers being the type of people who would accompany upper-class people in their travels.

George Washington with some of his aides
-de-camp (LaFayette & Tench Tilghman).
While the men might have referred to
themselves as "waiters" or "servants" of
Washington, likely Washington did not.
It is possible that the first two references could be using “servant” in the second context, referring to a lower ranking person in the military who was assigned to serve Hamilton. However, the examples that we found of this within Washington's camps used the term "waiter", and it would have been uncommon (and in most cases a social faux-pas unlikely of Hamilton) to use this in reference to someone else. Calling one’s self a servant was deferential when done towards a superior, and humble when done towards someone of lower rank. Calling someone else a servant was pointing out the person’s relative station and degrading them. Unfortunately, enslaved people were not given the same considerations. While calling a free person a servant rather than by a job title was degrading, calling an enslaved person a servant was a step up from the less attractive truth of using the word “slave”. It is almost certain that the servant referenced travelling with Elizabeth was enslaved, as no other contemporary use of the word servant applies here.

More condemning still is this letter to George Clinton in 1781:

“For some time past I have had a bill on France lying in Philadelphia the sale of which has been delayed on account of the excessive lowness of the exchange. I am told it has lately risen something, and I expect by Col Hay’s return to receive a sufficient sum to pay the value of the woman Mrs. H had of Mrs. Clinton. I hope the delay may be attended with no inconvenience to you.

Sarah Cornelia Tappen Clinton,
wife of Albany Mayor, later Vice-
President George Clinton, from
whom Eliza Hamilton may have
purchased an enslaved person.
The “bill on France” mentioned here is not a political bill. It refers to a bill of sale bought by Hamilton – that is, someone likely owed Hamilton money and instead of paying him with US currency, they paid him with an owed debt from someone in France. Since French currency was not doing well, Hamilton sat on the amount until he could take advantage of a better exchange rate, likely hoping to make an additional profit on the initial sum owed him. It must be assumed that what Hamilton owes Clinton was a significant sum of money since he needed to wait until the bill was sold rather than paying from his military stipend. He will use the money to pay Clinton for “the value of the woman Mrs. H had of Mrs. Clinton”. “[H]ad of Mrs. Clinton” implies claim or ownership - that he took the person away from Mrs. Clinton. Since ‘in-house’ white servants as full-time employees were unlikely (if not unheard of) at the time, it is almost certain that this refers to an enslaved servant. If Elizabeth had only rented the labor of one of the Clinton’s slaves - a common source of additional income for those who owned skilled enslaved laborers – the common wording would have been “the wage of the woman” or “the services of the woman”. Instead he used “value”, implying all out purchase. The substantial sum requiring the bill further makes temporary labor or rental of services unlikely.

Though I am wary to rely on 19th-century sources for 18th-century history, there is one anecdotal comment worth considering here - Alexander Hamilton’s grandson Allan McLane Hamilton wrote in his biography of his grandfather that:

It has been stated that Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue. We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.”

He is referencing, in addition to some of the family purchases mentioned last week, a popularly cited cash book entry where Hamilton writes in “1796. Cash to N. Low 2 negro servants purchased by him for me, $250”. While I have not seen this particular document - “Cash Book, 1795–1804”- myself, there are several other references within Hamilton’s accounts and letters that refer to Nicholas Low, a merchant and co-founder of the city of Ballston Spa, making such purchases for Hamilton and those around him. Included in these is the slave purchased for Margaret (Peggy) Schuyler Van Rensselaer mentioned in our last article on the topic. Low is also, albeit coincidentally, mentioned in a 1795 letter from Philip Schuyler to Hamilton in which Schuyler writes: 


The Negro boy & woman are engaged for you. I understand Mr. Witbeck has written you on the Subject and that he waits Your Answer finally to conclude the bargain.”

Thomas L. Witbeck was a landholder in Watervliet and an attorney for Stephen Van Rensselaer. From census records and other letters, we know that Witbeck both owned and sold slaves to other people throughout the 1790s. The second line in this letter makes it clear that Schuyler is asking Hamilton to confirm a purchase of two enslaved workers that had been arranged for him in the Albany area. Other payments discussed in this August letter (for a land purchase arranged through Low) do not make it into account books until December of 1795. Assuming that “Cash to N. Low 2 negro servants” is quoted correctly as coming directly after the year – 1796 - it is likely that this was an early submission to that year – perhaps payments finally being entered for these arrangements made in August.

Whether or not Hamilton owned slaves, it is certain that he was active as an abolitionist. If for no other reason, he saw abolition as militarily or politically advantageous over the years. Certainly if he owned slaves, as I believe these sources prove, this would put him more on par with his fellow founding fathers, many of whom walked the crooked line between owning slaves and supporting abolition to a variety of extents. We will delve into how radical (or not) Hamilton’s writings on abolition were in comparison with his peers next time, but in the meantime, since this topic is one still debated by historians – what do you think, readers? Is this evidence enough? Have you seen other references that help or hinder the argument? Comment here or on Facebook to let us know.

As always, keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for blog updates, special events, and tour information. Schuyler Mansion will reopen for public tours mid-May, but we hope to give you lots to think about in the meantime!

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