This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
One of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, has recently become a pop culture icon, with long waits to see his namesake play on Broadway. The musical being recorded and put up on Disney+ was a cause for celebration for so many around the world, with people memorising the lyrics to the famous raps. The musical portrays Hamilton as an individual who welcomed people of all cultures and ethnicities. However, should we not question the history behind Hamilton? Was he actually an abolitionist?
Today, people around the world are taking a stance against the exploitation of black people. Should we really be celebrating a man who helped write the US constitution; allowing for the subjugation that today we want to eradicate from society?
Let’s first go through a quick biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton was born in Charlestown, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and lived in St. Croix – both in the West Indies. St. Croix was an island town with 22,000 slaves and 2000 white families. During this time, the Transatlantic slave trade was in full force, and Hamilton was working to assist the importation of slaves. However, he felt like an outcast since his mother was a sex worker in St. Croix, meaning he identified more with the slaves than the slave owners. Furthermore, Hamilton despised the institution of slavery, despite he himself being a part of it. Seeing this, the slaves in the island pooled together money to send Hamilton to New York and receive an education at the King’s College (today known as Columbia University).
In 1773, Hamilton had made it to New York. During his period of education, the slave population in New York had nearly doubled, and many of his classmates in King’s themselves had slaves. He came up with the idea that:
“All men have one common origin, have one common nature and consequently have one common right […] and there is no just reason one man should exercise any power over his fellow creatures…”Alexander Hamilton
However, he never acted —–on these beliefs. This could be a direct consequence of the fact that during his time in King’s he was influenced by William Livingston, who was a part of a slave owning and trading family and one of the signatories of the American constitution. Through Livingston, Hamilton was able to become a part of the American Revolution and ended up working for George Washington.
During the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton did want to not be on the wrong side of George Washington. He had left King’s in 1775 to work under Washington, who was a slave owner himself, and had started drafting up Washington’s speeches. It is important to note that during this time Hamilton never spoke up against slavery in front of Washington, and the speeches of Washington written by Hamilton barely ever mention slavery or show any partisan stance on the subject.
Yet another nail against the idea of Hamilton being anti-slavery was that he ended up marrying Elizabeth Schuyler. The Schuyler family were known for shaping New York and New Jersey and were prominent traders. In recent years their name has re-appeared in journalistic articles, and not for positive reasons. The family were one of New York’s most prominent slave owners, and recently the bodies of a man, five women and two infants were found, buried nameless, all of whom are believed to have been owned by the Schuyler family.
However, there is a counter argument that during his time at King’s, Hamilton had also been influenced by Elias Boudinot, a prominent abolitionist of his time. In 1785, Hamilton was one of the founders of the society of promotion of manumission of slaves in New York. Although he did participate in this society, there is not much evidence to suggest that he played a dominant role, so much so that he didn’t even attend the inauguration meeting of the society.
Furthermore, while drafting the constitution Alexander Hamilton voted for the 3/5th doctrine. This doctrine essentially allowed the upper class to be more dominant over the rest of American society. However, the final nail in the coffin came when Hamilton allowed for the protection of slavery whilst writing the constitution. He defended this by saying that this was to protect the union of the north and the south.
It is believed that Hamilton was against slavery from a moral standpoint, but it was never his focus. He spoke against slavery when it was to his advantage (like getting the money to go to America from St. Croix), but not otherwise. His primary focus was on the agenda of property rights, promotion of America and personal ambition – none of which was deterred by his abolitionist thinking.
Hence, I come back to my main question and leave it up to you to decide. Should we celebrate this man through a musical promoted for racial inclusion, when in reality his story may suggest the opposite? To what extent should we talk about Alexander Hamilton with the pride in which we do? In today’s climate, with the BLM protests, should we even turn our attention to Disney+ to watch this man and rap with him?
By Shikhar Talwar