Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 11. GHOSTS
After the dreary saga of his own childhood, Hamilton wanted a large, buoyant clan, and Dr. Samuel Bard, the family physician, was kept in constant motion with Eliza bringing one little Hamilton after another into the world. On September 25, 1784, the Hamiltons had their first daughter, named Angelica in honor of Eliza’s sister. Not until Hamilton’s fourth and favorite child, James Alexander, came along in 1788 did they christen a baby in homage to the absentee grandfather in the Caribbean. Hamilton never named a child after his mother, Rachel, perhaps hinting at some residual bitterness toward her. In all, Alexander and Eliza produced eight children in a twenty-year span. As a result, Eliza was either pregnant or consumed with child rearing throughout their marriage, which may have encouraged Hamilton’s womanizing.
After their third child, Alexander, was born on May 16, 1786, the Hamiltons performed an exceptional act of kindness that has long been overlooked: they added an orphan child to their burgeoning brood. Colonel Edward Antill, a King’s College graduate and Revolutionary War veteran, had foundered as a lawyer and farmer after the war. When his wife died in 1785, he was grief-stricken and encumbered with six children. By 1787, after suffering a breakdown, he committed his two-year-old daughter, Fanny, to the Hamiltons, who took the bright, cheerful girl into their home. Edward Antill died two years later, so Alexander and Eliza kept the child until she was twelve, when she went to live with a married sister. “She was educated and treated in all respects as [Hamilton’s] own daughter and married Mr. [Arthur] Tappan, an eminent philanthropist of New York,” said son James.1 From London, Angelica Church cheered on her saintly sister, telling Hamilton, “All the graces you have been pleased to adorn me with fade before the generous and benevolent action of my sister in taking the orphan Antle [sic] under her protection.”2 That Eliza married one orphan, adopted another, and cofounded an orphanage points up a special compassion for abandoned children that might explain, beyond his obvious merits, her initial attraction to Hamilton.
For ten years, the Hamiltons had a home at 57 (then 58) Wall Street. A sketch of this bygone Wall Street shows a prosperous thoroughfare lined with three-story brick buildings. Well-dressed people saunter down brick sidewalks and roll in carriages over cobblestones at a time when many lanes were still unpaved. The young couple lived comfortably enough and entertained often, although Hamilton’s business records reveal numerous small loans from friends to tide them over. One of his first purchases after leaving the army bespoke the convivial host: he bought decanters, two ale glasses, and a dozen wineglasses. The vivacious Hamiltons stood high on the “supper and dinner list” compiled by Sarah and John Jay when they settled at 8 Broadway after returning from France in 1784. Very fond of drama, Alexander and Eliza were also frequently habitués of the Park Theater on lower Broadway.
Like her husband, Eliza was frugal and industrious, even if often appareled in the rich clothes of a society lady. Skilled in many domestic arts, she made handbags and pot holders, arranged flowers and wove table mats, designed patterns for furniture, cooked sweetmeats and pastry, and sewed undergarments for the children. She served plentiful meals of mutton, fowl, and veal, garnished with generous portions of potatoes and turnips and topped off with fresh apples and pears. The Hamiltons were treated to fresh produce shipped regularly from Albany by the Schuylers, and there were always demijohns of good wine on hand.
An acute disappointment of the Hamiltons’ early married life was their constant separation from Angelica by the Atlantic Ocean. From 1783 to 1785, John Barker Church lingered in Paris while winding up his business affairs with the French government. Angelica never met a famous, intelligent man she didn’t enchant, and she had soon befriended Benjamin Franklin. She prayed that Hamilton might someday sail to Europe and succeed him as American minister. Angelica was chagrined when her husband bought a town house on Sackville Street in London, then a regal country house near Windsor. During the summer of 1785, the Churches returned briefly to America and visited Hamilton, who was in Philadelphia on business, before returning to live in England. Afterward, Hamilton wrote forlornly to Angelica:
You have, I fear, taken a final leave of America and of those that love you here. I saw you depart from Philadelphia with peculiar uneasiness, as if foreboding you were not to return. My apprehensions are confirmed and, unless I see you in Europe, I expect not to see you again. This is the impression we all have. Judge the bitterness it gives to those who love you with the love of nature and to me who feel an attachment for you not less lively…. Your good and affectionate sister Betsey feels more than I can say on this subject.3
Outwardly, Angelica thrived in the tony salons of London and Paris and seemed a natural denizen of that risqué, rarefied world, yet she never overcame a certain homesick longing to get back to Eliza, Alexander, and her American roots.
With a perpetually busy husband, Eliza ran the household and supervised the education of the children when they were small. James Hamilton left a delightful vignette of how she taught them each morning. He remembered her “seated, as was her wont, at the head of the table with a napkin in her lap, cutting slices of bread and spreading them with butter for the younger boys, who, standing at her side, read in turn a chapter in the Bible or a portion of Goldsmith’s Rome. When the lessons were finished, the father and the elder children were called to breakfast, after which the boys were packed off to school.”4 Like Martha Washington, Eliza was never politically outspoken and did not spur her husband’s ambitions. At the same time, she never deviated from his beliefs, identified implicitly with his causes, and came to regard his political enemies as her own.
As a woman of deep spirituality, Eliza believed firmly in religious instruction for her children. On October 12, 1788, she and Alexander strolled with their children to the west end of Wall Street and had the three eldest—Philip, Angelica, and Alexander—baptized simultaneously at Trinity Church in the presence of the Schuylers, Baron von Steuben, and Angelica Church, who was visiting. After 1790, the Hamiltons rented pew ninety-two, and Alexander performed free legal work for the church, then the meeting ground for the city’s Episcopalian blue bloods. He was now quite changed from the young man who had knelt twice daily in fervent prayer at King’s College. Nominally Episcopalian, he was not clearly affiliated with the denomination and did not seem to attend church regularly or take communion. Like Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, Hamilton had probably fallen under the sway of deism, which sought to substitute reason for revelation and dropped the notion of an active God who intervened in human affairs. At the same time, he never doubted God’s existence, embracing Christianity as a system of morality and cosmic justice.
Hamilton’s dark view of human nature never dampened his home life but only enhanced it. His eight children never appeared to utter a single unkind word about their father. Admittedly, his early death made such carping distasteful, but complaints don’t even surface in private letters. The second he got home, he shed his office cares and entered into his children’s imaginative world. Son James said, “His gentle nature rendered his house a most joyous one to his children and friends. He accompanied his daughter Angelica when she played and sang at the piano. His intercourse with his children was always affectionate and confiding, which excited in them a corresponding confidence and devotion.”5
Hamilton read widely and accumulated books insatiably. The self-education of this autodidact never stopped. He preferred wits, satirists, philosophers, historians, and novelists from the British Isles: Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Lord Chesterfield, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Hobbes, Horace Walpole, and David Hume. Among his most prized possessions was an eight-volume set of The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; he frequently recommended these essays to young people to purify their writing style and inculcate virtue. He never stopped pondering the ancients, from Pliny to Cicero to his beloved Plutarch, and always had lots of literature in French on his creaking shelves: Voltaire and Montaigne’s essays, Diderot’s Encyclopedia, and Molière’s plays. The politician who provoked a national furor with his fire-breathing denunciations of the French Revolution paid tutors so that all his children could speak French.
From the outset of his New York residence, Hamilton contributed to many local institutions. In a quest to improve education in the state, he worked to create the Board of Regents and served on it from 1784 to 1787. In this capacity, he was also a trustee of his alma mater, now renamed Columbia College to banish any royal remnants, and received from it an honorary master-of-arts degree. He was involved in countless neighborhood projects, petitioning the Common Council to relocate a statue of William Pitt that obstructed Wall Street traffic or working to improve sanitation on the street by asking the council to raise “the pavements of the said street in the middle thereof so as to throw the water on each side of the street.”6
Hamilton also performed innumerable small acts of benevolence for friends. One special recipient was Baron von Steuben, who had received a verbal pledge from Congress that he would be paid if the patriots won the Revolution. When Congress reneged on this promise, Hamilton took Steuben into his home and helped him to craft petitions to the legislature; Hamilton’s papers are replete with entries for unpaid loans to the spendthrift baron, who was finally granted sixteen thousand acres in upstate New York. Alexander and Eliza also rescued a thirty-five-year-old painter, Ralph Earl, who had painted battle scenes of the Revolution and studied under Benjamin West in London. Upon returning to New York in 1786, Earl lost his money in dissolute habits and was tossed into debtors’ prison. Moved by his plight, Hamilton induced Eliza “to go to the debtors’ jail to sit for her portrait and she induced other ladies to do the same,” wrote James Hamilton. “By this means, the artist made a sufficient sum to pay his debts.”7 To this thoughtful patronage we owe Earl’s lifelike portrait of Eliza in a cushioned chair with gilded arms, which superbly captures the “earnest, energetic, and intelligent woman” that her son James evoked in his memoirs.8
By age thirty, Alexander Hamilton was a New York luminary and a stalwart member of the continental elite. He had traveled an almost inconceivable distance from his West Indian youth. Occasionally, his troubled past burst in upon him unexpectedly. After Yorktown, Hamilton was informed that his half brother Peter Lavien had died in South Carolina, leaving token bequests of one hundred pounds apiece to Hamilton and his brother, James. Lavien had been so estranged from his two illegitimate half brothers that in his will he referred to them as “Alexander & Robert [sic] Hamilton…now or late residents of the island of Santa Cruz in the West Indies.”9 Had Hamilton simply been the more vivid brother or had Lavien’s memory been refreshed by reports that his bastard half brother was, miraculously, aide-decamp to George Washington? Instead of being touched by this belated penance, such as it was, Hamilton noted scornfully that Peter Lavien had left the bulk of his assets—properties in South Carolina, Georgia, and St. Croix—to three close friends. From the way Hamilton broke the news to Eliza, we can see that she had long known the story of his being cheated of his inheritance. “You know the circumstances that abate my distress,” he told her, “yet my heart acknowledges the rights of a brother. He dies rich, but has disposed of the bulk of his fortune to strangers. I am told he has left me a legacy. I did not inquire how much.”10 We can also learn much about Hamilton’s attitude toward this bequest by legal work he performed on the will of Sir William Johnson, who, by coincidence, had a legitimate son named Peter and eight illegitimate children. Hamilton turned in an unsparing verdict: “I am of opinion that the survivors of the eight children were entitled” as well to the inheritance originally given to Peter alone.11
It must have distressed Hamilton to gaze backward, and he retained few acquaintances from his past. During the war, he had corresponded with his old St. Croix mentor, Hugh Knox, who doted proudly on his success, marveled at his proximity to Washington, and implored him to draft a history of the American Revolution. Then, in 1783, Knox sent Hamilton a plaintive letter, complaining that his former disciple had greeted his letters with silence for three years. He admitted to bruised feelings: “When you were covered with the dust of the camp and had cannonballs whistling thick about your ears, you used to steal an hour’s converse with an old friend every 5 or 6 months; and now in a time of profound peace and tranquillity you cannot, it seems, find two minutes for this kind of office…. [A]re you grown too rich and proud to have a good memory?…Pray make haste to explain this strange mystery!”12
Hamilton rushed to mollify Knox, explaining that he had never received the letters. Knox then replied in ecstatic tones that “you have not only answered, but even far exceeded our most sanguine hopes and expectations.”13 He conjured up the frail but persistent adolescent he had befriended and beseeched Hamilton not to exhaust himself through overwork. Though Hamilton patched things up with Knox, the anomaly remains that he had not sent him a letter in three years. He displayed not the slightest interest in revisiting St. Croix or showing Eliza the scenes of his upbringing. Did he need some psychic distance from the West Indies to reinvent himself in America? When Knox died seven years later, Hamilton must have regretted that he had not seen his fond old mentor again. Knox was eulogized as a “universal lover of mankind” in Hamilton’s old paper, the Royal Danish American Gazette.14 He certainly had shown a special and abiding love for Hamilton.
In May 1785, Hamilton’s brother, James, resurfaced with a letter begging for money. The envelope that Hamilton sent in reply shows that James had migrated to St. Thomas. (He probably died there the following year, from causes unknown.) Hamilton’s reply is a shocking revelation of just how estranged he had grown from his carpenter brother and their father, notwithstanding his earlier efforts to stay in touch with them. Hamilton expressed surprise that James had not received a letter he sent him six months before and reproached him gently, saying this was only the second letter he had gotten from him in many years. We do not know what James thought of his wondrous brother, but how could he not have been envious? Forgiving his brother’s failure to write, Hamilton addressed him with an affecting eagerness to help: “The situation you describe yourself to be in gives me much pain and nothing will make me happier than, as far as may be in my power, to contribute to your relief.”15 While Hamilton said that his own prospects were “flattering”—his sole, discreet reference to his own spectacular good fortune—he also said that he could not afford to lend him more at the moment, though he wanted in time to help settle him on a farm in America.
My affection for you, however, will not permit me to be inattentive to your welfare and I hope time will prove to you that I feel all the sentiment of a brother. Let me only request of you to exert your industry for a year or two more where you are and at the end of that time, I promise myself to be able to invite you to a more comfortable settlement in this country. Allow me only to give you one caution, which is to avoid if possible getting in debt. Are you married or single? If the latter, it is my wish for many reasons it may be agreeable to you to continue in that state.16
That Hamilton didn’t have the slightest notion of whether his brother was married or not and didn’t assume that he would have been invited to any wedding suggests the wide gulf separating the two brothers. When Hamilton turned to the subject of their feckless father, his poignant letter grew more heartbreaking:
But what has become of our dear father? It is an age since I have heard from him or of him, though I have written him several letters. Perhaps, alas! he is no more and I shall not have the pleasing opportunity of contributing to render the close of his life more happy than the progress of it. My heart bleeds at the recollection of his misfortunes and embarrassments. Sometimes I flatter myself his brothers have extended their support to him and that he now enjoys tranquillity and ease. At other times, I fear he is suffering in indigence. I entreat you, if you can, to relieve me from my doubts and let me know how or where he is, if alive; if dead, how and where he died. Should he be alive, inform him of my inquiries, beg him to write to me, and tell him how ready I shall be to devote myself and all I have to his accommodation and happiness.17
This letter confirms that Hamilton lacked any clear grasp of his wayward father’s situation or even whether he was still alive. He did suspect, however, that his brother had maintained contact with him. The letter also makes manifest that he felt more tenderness and sorrow than anger toward his father.
There were only two figures from St. Croix with whom Hamilton remained in touch throughout his life. Hamilton’s cousin Ann Lytton Venton, who had helped to bankroll his education at King’s College, escaped a wretched marriage when her husband died in 1776. Four years later, she married a Scot, George Mitchell, who filed for bankruptcy the next year, forcing them to flee St. Croix. Three years after that, they moved to Burlington, New Jersey. It was a ghastly time for Ann Mitchell, who complained in 1796 that she and her daughter “have suffered and still suffer every hardship incident to poverty.”18 Hamilton sometimes met Mitchell in Philadelphia and tried to prop her up with financial and legal help, but he was later bothered by a nagging conscience that he had not done more to alleviate her struggles.
The only truly happy relationship that Hamilton sustained from boyhood was with his best friend, Edward Stevens. In 1777, Stevens had completed his medical studies in Edinburgh, publishing a dissertation in Latin on stomach digestion, inspired by the peculiar case of a man who made a living by swallowing stones to amuse street crowds. The following year, at age twenty-four, Stevens became the first junior president of the Royal Medical Society. Like Hugh Knox, he was thrilled by Hamilton’s exploits under Washington, even slightly agog. “Who would have imagined, my friend,” he wrote to Hamilton in French in 1778, “that a man of your size, of your delicacy of constitution, and your tranquillity would have shone so much and in such a short time on the Field of Mars, as you have done.”19 (The emphasis on Hamilton’s “size” may well have been a bawdy allusion.) In 1783, Stevens returned to St. Croix, married, and started a medical practice. Like Hamilton, he seemed to succeed readily at everything he tried. “The doctor has an extensive and lucrative practice and is much and deservedly esteemed in his profession,” Hugh Knox reported from the island. “He sometimes talks much of going to America and I believe would do exceedingly well there in one of the capitals, as he has a fine address and great merit and cleverness.”20 Hamilton and Stevens remained united by an indissoluble bond that seems conspicuously missing in Hamilton’s relationships with his father and brother.
The memories of his West Indian childhood left Hamilton with a settled antipathy to slavery. During the war, Hamilton had supported John Laurens’s futile effort to emancipate southern slaves who fought for independence. He had expressed an unwavering belief in the genetic equality of blacks and whites—unlike Jefferson, for instance, who regarded blacks as innately inferior—that was enlightened for his day. And he knew this from his personal boyhood experience.
Among many Americans, the Revolution had generated a backlash against slavery as a horrifying practice incompatible with republican ideals. In one abolitionist pamphlet, Samuel Hopkins had written, “Oh, the shocking, the intolerable inconsistence!…This gross, barefaced inconsistence.”21 As early as 1775, Philadelphia Quakers had launched the world’s first antislavery society, followed by others in the north and south. Unfortunately, slavery itself had expanded in tandem with the rousing rhetoric of freedom that seemed to undercut its legitimacy.
Hamilton’s marriage into the Schuyler family may have created complications in his stand on slavery. At times Philip Schuyler had as many as twenty-seven slaves tending his Albany mansion and his fields and mills near Saratoga. They labored at every branch of household work: cooking, cultivating gardens, grooming horses, mending shoes, as well as doing carpentry and laundry, and fishing. Eliza had direct contact with these domestic slaves, to the extent that her grandson surmised that she was “probably her mother’s chief assistant in the management of the house and slaves.”22 The image is terribly jarring, for we know Eliza was a confirmed foe of slavery. There is no definite proof, but three oblique hints in Hamilton’s papers suggest that he and Eliza may have owned one or two household slaves as well. Five months after his wedding, Hamilton wrote to Governor George Clinton that “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.”23 Arguing that this transaction involved the hiring of a domestic servant, not the purchase of a slave, biographer Forrest McDonald has pointed out that the “sufficient sum” referred to back pay that Hamilton was slated to receive from Lieutenant Colonel Udny Hay, deputy quartermaster general—a sum that would have fallen far short of the money then requisite to buy a slave.24 In 1795, Philip Schuyler informed Hamilton that “the Negro boy & woman are engaged for you.” Apparently in payment, Hamilton debited his cashbook the next spring for $250 to his father-in-law “for 2 Negro servants purchased by him for me.”25 As we shall see, this purchase may have been made for John and Angelica Church and undertaken reluctantly by Hamilton. Ditto for the purchase of a Negro woman and child on May 29, 1797, which was explicitly charged to John B. Church. In 1804, Angelica noted regretfully that Eliza did not have slaves to assist with a large party that the Hamiltons were planning.
By no means confined to the south, slavery was well entrenched in much of the north. By 1784, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had outlawed slavery or passed laws for its gradual extinction—at the very least, New England’s soil did not lend itself to large plantations—but New York and New Jersey retained significant slave populations. New York City, in particular, was identified with slavery: it still held slave auctions in the 1750s and was also linked through its sugar refineries to the West Indies. Even in the 1790s, one in five New York City households kept domestic slaves, a practice ubiquitous among well-to-do merchants who wanted cooks, maids, and butlers and regarded slaves as status symbols. (After the Revolution, few Americans cared to work as servile bonded servants in this new, more egalitarian society.) Slaves tilled the farms of many Hudson River estates along with tenant farmers, one English visitor noting that “many of the old Dutch farmers…have 20 to 30 slaves[, and] to their care and management everything is left.”26
The north never relied on slavery as much as the south, where it was inescapably embedded in the tobacco and cotton economies. When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, slaves constituted 40 percent of the population of his home state, Virginia. Slaves in South Carolina outnumbered whites. The magnitude of southern slavery was to have far-reaching repercussions in Hamilton’s career. The most damning and hypocritical critiques of his allegedly aristocratic economic system emanated from the most aristocratic southern slaveholders, who deflected attention from their own nefarious deeds by posing as populist champions and assailing the northern financial and mercantile interests aligned with Hamilton. As will be seen, the national consensus that the slavery issue should be tabled to preserve the union meant that the southern plantation economy was effectively ruled off-limits to political discussion, while Hamilton’s system, by default, underwent the most searching scrutiny.
Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton—a fact that belies the historical stereotype that he cared only for the rich and privileged. To be sure, John Adams never owned a slave and had a good record on slavery, which he denounced as a “foul contagion in the human character.”27 Yet he did not always translate his beliefs into practice. According to biographer John Ferling, “As a lawyer he occasionally defended slaves, but as a politician he made no effort to loosen the shackles of those in bondage.”28 Fearing southern dissension, Adams opposed plans to emancipate slaves joining the Continental Army, contested the use of black soldiers, and opposed a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to abolish slavery. “There is no evidence that he ever spoke out on the issue of slavery in any national forum or that he ever entered into a dialogue on the subject with any of his southern friends,” Ferling concluded.29
In his more radical later years, Benjamin Franklin was a courageous, outspoken president of Pennsylvania’s abolition society. As a young and middle-aged man, however, he brokered slave sales from his Philadelphia print shop, ran ads for slaves, and bought and sold them for himself and others. At many times, he kept one or two household slaves. Biographer Edmund Morgan has noted of Franklin’s involvement with slavery, “Not until late in life did it begin to trouble his conscience.”30
The Virginia founders came to see the problem as intractable, since their economic security was so interwoven with slavery. By the time of the Revolution, George Washington was a mostly benevolent master of more than one hundred slaves at Mount Vernon, though he could be a stickler for reclaiming runaway slaves. While he did not criticize slavery publicly, he had an uneasy conscience and belatedly acted on his views. In 1786, when he owned more than two hundred slaves, he refused to break up families and swore not to buy another slave. “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition” of slavery, he told Robert Morris.31Washington emancipated his slaves in his will and even set aside money to assist the freed slaves and their children.
As owner of about two hundred slaves at Monticello and other properties, Thomas Jefferson was acutely conscious of the discrepancy between high-minded revolutionary words and the bloody reality of slavery. Early in the Revolution, he endorsed a plan to stop importing slaves and was dismayed when Congress expunged a passage from the Declaration of Independence in which he blamed George III for the slave trade. In Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, he laid out a gradual scheme for ending slavery, with emancipated blacks relocated to the continent’s interior. (As president, he preferred sending them to the West Indies.) In 1784, he proposed blocking slavery in the Northwest Territory, albeit with a sixteen-year grace period. Over time Jefferson yielded to a craven policy of postponing action on slavery indefinitely, constantly foisting the problem onto future generations, hoping vaguely that it would wither away. Unlike Washington, Jefferson freed only a handful of his slaves, including the brothers of his apparent mistress, Sally Hemings.
Madison’s views on slavery followed a pattern similar to Jefferson’s. He was a relatively humane master for the nearly 120 slaves that he inherited, once instructing an overseer to “treat the Negroes with all the humanity and kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work.”32 In the mid-1780s, he supported a bill in the Virginia Assembly to abolish slavery slowly but then began to duck the issue as a severe political liability. Madison never tried to defend the morality of slavery—at the Constitutional Convention, he called it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man”—but neither did he distinguish himself in trying to eliminate it.33 In the last analysis, biographer Jack Rakove has concluded, Madison “was no better prepared to live without slaves than [were] the other members of the great planter class to which his family belonged.”34 In his final years, he belonged to the American Colonization Society, which favored emancipation and resettlement of the former slaves in Africa. In the end, Madison’s political survival in Virginia and national politics required endless prevarication on the slavery issue.
The issue surged to the fore with the peace treaty that ended the Revolution. At the prompting of Henry Laurens, article 7 placed a ban on the British “carrying away any Negroes or other property” after the war. This nebulous phrase was construed by slaveholders to mean that the British should return runaway slaves who had defected to the British lines or else pay compensation. The British, in turn, claimed that the former slaves had been freed when they crossed behind British lines. Conceding that Britain may have violated article 7 on technical grounds, Hamilton nevertheless refused to stand up for the slaveholders and invoked a higher moral authority:
In the interpretation of treaties, things odious or immoral are not to be presumed. The abandonment of negroes, who had been induced to quit their masters on the faith of official proclamations, promising them liberty, to fall again under the yoke of their masters and into slavery is as odious and immoral a thing as can be conceived. It is odious not only as it imposes an act of perfidy on one of the contracting parties, but as it tends to bring back to servitude men once made free.35
This fierce defender of private property—this man for whom contracts were to be sacred covenants—expressly denied the sanctity of any agreement that stripped people of their freedom.
In New York, the dispute over article 7 had immediate practical repercussions. After the war, slave owners from other states prowled New York’s streets, hoping to spot and steal off with their fugitive slaves. Therefore, on January 25, 1785, nineteen people gathered at the home of innkeeper John Simmons to form a society that would safeguard blacks who had already secured their freedom and try to win freedom for those still held in bondage. The group was called the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. Its members were especially roiled by the rampant kidnapping of free blacks on New York streets, who were then sold into slavery. Robert Troup and Melancton Smith, a Poughkeepsie merchant and land speculator, were appointed to draw up the society’s rules. Ten days later, an expanded group met at the Merchant’s Coffee House, this time joined by Hamilton and Alexander McDougall. Though he owned five slaves, John Jay was voted chairman. Unless America adopted gradual abolition, Jay believed, “her prayers to heaven for liberty will be impious.”36 Robert Troup, who owned two slaves, read aloud a statement embellished with echoes of the Declaration of Independence:
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. The violent attempts lately made to seize and export for sale several free Negroes, who were peaceably following their respective occupations in this city, must excite the indignation of every friend to humanity and ought to receive exemplary punishment.37
The New York Manumission Society, as it was known for short, conducted a wide-ranging campaign against slavery, sponsoring lectures, printing essays, and establishing a registry to prevent free blacks from being dragged back into slavery. It set up the African Free School to teach the basics to black students, drill discipline into them, and, paternalistically, keep them from “running into practices of immorality or sinking into habits of idleness.”38 The older boys were instructed in carpentry and navigation, the older girls in dressmaking and embroidery. At an early meeting, the society decided to petition the New York legislature for a gradual end to slavery; Aaron Burr, a member of the Assembly, agreed to help them. A pending bill proposed that all blacks born after a certain future date would automatically be considered free. To toughen the measure, Burr introduced language that would terminate all slavery after a certain date. When this radical amendment was defeated, Burr backed the diluted version. In the end, the legislature enacted a toothless, purely voluntary measure that permitted slaveholders to free slaves between twenty-one and fifty years of age.
Burr was no angel when it came to slavery: he always kept an entourage of four or five household slaves. Although he wrote about them with wry affection, his letters reflect no interest in freeing them. As he drifted into the Jeffersonian camp, Burr found it politically expedient to drop any pretense of being an abolitionist. As late as 1831 he tried to discourage William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator, from persisting in his antislavery crusade. Garrison recalled of Burr, “His manner was patronizing…. As he revealed himself to my moral sense, I saw he was destitute of any fixed principles.”39
Burr was not the only abolition advocate in the mid-1780s who held slaves. In fact, the New York Manumission Society had to deal with the awkward fact that this contradiction was commonplace and that more than half of its own members owned slaves. As members of the society, these people wanted to cleanse themselves of this moral corruption, but how to do so and at what pace? At the February 4 meeting, Hamilton, Troup, and White Matlack were recruited as a ways-and-means committee to produce answers. The society minutes make clear that Hamilton was more than just a celebrity lending his prestige to a worthy cause. An activist by nature, he scorned timid measures and wanted to make a bold, unequivocal statement.
On November 10, 1785, Hamilton’s committee presented its proposals on what members should do with their slaves. For many members, these suggestions were frighteningly abrupt and specific in their timetable. The plan proposed that slaves under twenty-eight should gain their freedom on their thirty-fifth birthday; those between twenty-eight and thirty-eight should be freed seven years hence; and those above forty-five should be freed immediately. It is hard to imagine that Hamilton would have advocated this uncompromising plan had he not contemplated releasing any house slaves he and Eliza might have owned. The members were also urged to emancipate their slaves, not to sell them, lest they be transported to harsher climes than New York.
Hamilton’s committee threw down a gauntlet to the society, cleverly balancing immediate and future emancipation. Melancton Smith—who later emerged as a major proponent of states’ rights and Hamilton’s antagonist in the battle over the U.S. Constitution in New York—balked at such a precise timetable for freeing slaves. Instead, he scrapped Hamilton’s plan by pushing a motion to defer the matter until the next quarterly meeting. Hamilton, Troup, and Matlack had produced a document too strong to be swallowed by their peers, and their committee was summarily disbanded. The successor committee faulted the earlier plan as likely to cause members to “withdraw their services and gradually fall off from the Society.”40 They recommended instead that members should remain free to emancipate their slaves as they saw fit, without any bothersome prompting from the society.
Despite this setback, Hamilton did not stride off in a huff. Three months later, in February 1786, he was added to the society’s standing committee when it lobbied the state legislature to halt the export of slaves from New York. The committee deluged state and federal legislators with a pamphlet entitled “A Dialogue on the Slavery of the Africans etc.” That March, Hamilton’s name appeared on a petition that called upon the state legislature to end the New York slave trade and that deplored the plight of blacks exported “like cattle and other articles of commerce to the West Indies and the southern states.” The petition demanded the termination of a practice “so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.”41
This petition was signed by an illustrious cavalcade of dignitaries who would shortly be divided by bitter partisan wrangling over the Constitution and other issues. At this juncture, Hamilton, John Jay, and James Duane could still join hands in political amity with Robert R. Livingston, Melancton Smith, and Brockholst Livingston. In glancing at the signers of this petition, one is struck by how many would join the Federalist ranks in the 1790s and be roundly vilified as “aristocrats” by southern planters. One is further impressed by the sheer number of people in the Manumission Society who had been close to Hamilton since his arrival in America, among them Robert Troup, Nicholas Fish, Hercules Mulligan, William Livingston, John Rodgers, John Mason, James Duane, John Jay, and William Duer. The founding of the Manumission Society and antislavery societies in other states in the 1780s represented a hopeful moment in American race relations, right before the Constitutional Convention and the new federal government created such an overriding need for concord that even debating the divisive slavery issue could no longer be tolerated.
Even as Hamilton’s involvement in the Manumission Society threw into relief his sympathy for the oppressed, his engagement in another society prompted accusations that he was conniving to foist a hereditary aristocracy on America. In the spring of 1783, General Henry Knox proposed creation of the Society of the Cincinnati for officers who had served with honor for at least three years. The fraternal society’s name was a tribute to Cincinnatus, the general of ancient Rome who twice relinquished his sword after defending the republic and returned to his humble plow. The group had overriding political objectives (promoting liberty, a strong union of the states), charitable aims (providing for families of impoverished officers), and a social agenda (maintaining camaraderie among dispersed officers)—all of which seemed commendable enough, and George Washington was appointed the first president general. Having already left the army, Hamilton was not among the original signers, yet he soon became, with characteristic gusto, active in the New York branch headed by his friend Baron von Steuben.
The society stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy because of a provision that eldest sons could inherit their fathers’ memberships, as if they were receiving titles of nobility. For Americans still fuming against anything that smacked of decadent European courts, the Society of the Cincinnati raised the dreaded specter of a military cabal or a hereditary aristocracy. Samuel Adams, the Boston firebrand of the Revolution’s early days and a second cousin of John Adams, was quick to declare that the society embodied “as rapid a stride toward a hereditary military nobility as was ever made in so short a time.”42 Reactions to the society exposed deep fissures among men who had cooperated to win the war and prefigured sharp cleavages in coming years. Franklin, Jay, Jefferson, and John Adams inveighed against the scheme as dangerous and preposterous.
Washington was so stung by the uproar that at the society’s first general meeting in Philadelphia in May 1784 he prevailed upon the members to delete the provision for hereditary membership. The states balked at this and Hamilton was deputized by the New York chapter to formulate a response to these ideas. In December 1785, Washington wrote to him from Mount Vernon and pleaded “that if the Society of the Cincinnati mean to live in peace with the rest of their fellow citizens, they must subscribe to the alterations” adopted in Philadelphia.43 The ever conciliatory Washington feared an outbreak of virulent partisanship and wanted to elevate the new society above political strife. Hamilton, by contrast, viewed the Cincinnati as a potentially useful tool for meshing the states into a stable union.
In July 1786, Baron von Steuben, president of the New York branch, and Philip Schuyler, its vice president, presided over two meetings. The first inducted new members and contained an extraordinary amount of nonsensical pomp. Baron von Steuben strutted into the room to a fanfare of kettledrums and trumpets. The treasurer and deputy treasurer stepped forth, bearing two white satin cushions, the first holding golden eagle insignias and the second parchments for new members. In his opening oration, Hamilton challenged the society’s critics: “To heaven and our own bosoms, we recur for vindication from any misrepresentations of our intentions.”44 He insisted that the society existed only to maintain bonds of friendship and aid the families of fallen comrades. In the style of the day, innumerable toasts were raised and bumpers drained to honor the U.S. Congress, Louis XVI, and George Washington, while thirteen cannon boomed their approval after each toast. Toast number eight bore Hamilton’s special imprint and showed that he had weightier political intentions in mind: “May the powers of Congress be adequate to preserve the general Union.”45
At a second meeting at the City Tavern two days later, Hamilton delivered his report on the society’s proposed changes. His speech contained remarks that would have surprised those who regarded him as a simpleminded agent of aristocracy or any form of favoritism. He admitted that he did not see how the society could survive without the hereditary feature. On the other hand, he opposed the use of primogeniture since it was “liable to this objection—that it refers to birth what ought to belong to merit only, a principle inconsistent with the genius of a society founded on friendship and patriotism.”46 As the second-born son in his family, Hamilton knew that the eldest son might not be the most able and was all too well acquainted with his father’s sorry tale of being the fourth son of a Scottish laird. Somewhat paradoxically, he explicitly endorsed merit, not birth, as the motive force of the hereditary society and wanted to apply this operating principle to the larger society as well. As would often occur in the future, his avowed preference for an elite based on merit was misconstrued by enemies into a secret adoration of aristocracy.