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Alexander Hamilton on Slavery

  • Michael D. Chan

This article seeks to refute the prevailing scholarly view that Hamilton, like the Founders generally, lacked a deep concern about slavery. The first part examines Hamilton's political principles and shows that they were not Hobbesian but consistent with the views of more traditional natural law theorists. Accordingly, Hamilton understood that the natural rights of man imposed a corresponding duty to end slavery. The second part examines Hamilton's endorsement of a compensated emancipation, his opinions of the Constitution, his conduct of American foreign policy, his involvement in the state abolition societies, and his economic policies to demonstrate that ending slavery was in fact one of his abiding concerns.

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1. Jefferson's doctrine of nullification and his opposition to the North's attempt to ban slavery from Missouri as a condition of entry into the Union (which he regarded as a Northern Federalist plot aimed at “consolidation”) did not comport with Lincoln's own views.

2. Lincoln, Abraham, “Address at Cooper Institute,” 27 02 1860, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865, ed. Fhrenbacher, Donald E.(New York: The Library of America, 1989), p. 117 (emphasis added).

3. McDonald, Forrest, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979), pp. 121, 212–13; West, Thomas G., Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1997), pp. 5, 8, 12; Finkelman, Paul, Slavery and the Founders, 2nd ed. (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2001), pp. 105128; Elkins, Stanley and McKitrick, Eric, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 99.

4. Cooke, Jacob Ernest, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1982), p. 45; “Neither Hamilton Nor Jay boldly championed the cause [of abolition].” Davis, David Brion, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 172.

5. Jaffa, Harry V., Crisis of the House Divided (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 324. See also Storing, Herbert J., “Slavery and the Moral Foundations of the American Republic,” in Toward a More Perfect Union: The Writings of Herbert J. Storing, ed. Bessette, Joseph M. (Washington D.C.: The AEI Press, 1995), pp. 142–44.

6. Davis, , Problem of Slavery, pp. 260–69; Finkelman, , Slavery and the Founders, pp. 3940; Huston, James L., Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 723; Kammen, Michael, “The Rights of Property, and the Property in Rights': The Problematic Nature of ‘Property’ in the Political Thought of the Founders and the Early Republic,” in Liberty, Property, and the Foundations of the American Constitution, ed. Paul, Ellen Frankel and Dickman, Howard (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 8–11, 14; McDonald, Forrest, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985), pp. 53–5.

7. Hamilton, Alexander, “A Full Vindication,” in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Syrett, Harold C. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 1: 51. Hereafter cited as PAH, volume and page number.

9. Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, Peter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), II, ¶ 4, 6–8, 17, 22–3, 25–7, pp. 269–88.

10. Jaffa, , Crisis of the House Divided, pp. 323–27; Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 202–51; MacPherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 194262. There are, of course, other interpretations of Locke, but the Hobbesian or bourgeois interpretation of both Locke and the principles of the Revolution dovetails with the allegation that many founders were more concerned about the rights of property (self-preservation) than the rights of slaves (justice). Davis (Problem of Slavery, pp. 268–9), for example, explicitly draws on C. B. Macpherson. Nevertheless, my interpretation of Hamilton is broadly consistent with the interpretations of Locke found in: Dworetz, Steven M., The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990); Zuckert, Michael P., Natural Rights and the New Republicanism(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), Launching Liberalism (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002).

11. Locke, , Two Treatises of Government, II,¶ 6, p. 271.

12. Hamilton, , “A Full Vindication,” PAH, 1:51.

13. Jaffa, , Crisis of the House Divided, p. 326.

14. Hamilton, , “A Full Vindication,” PAH, 1:51.

15. Ibid., p. 53 (emphasis added).

16. Hamilton, , “The Farmer Refuted,” PAH, 1:156.

17. Hamilton, , “A Full Vindication,” PAH, 1:64.

18. Hamilton, , “Second Letter From Phocion,” PAH, 3:545 (emphasis added).

19. Hamilton, , “The Farmer Refuted,” PAH, 1:87.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid (emphasis added).

22. Ibid., p. 88 (emphasis added).

23. Ibid., p. 122.

24. Ibid., p. 104.

25. lbid. (emphasis added).

26. lbid., p. 122.

27. At the time of Hamilton's writing, “moral” causes or power referred to both ethics as well as the realm of man as distinct from nature (i.e., moral or “man-made” causes had not yet been drained of ethical content).

28. lbid., p. 134 (emphasis added).

29. Notably, Hamilton uses “sacred” and natural interchangeably when referring to man's natural rights, a convention which Hobbes and Locke do not adopt. Compare Pufendorf, Samuel, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), bk. 1, chap. 3, ¶ 9–12, pp. 3537.

30. New-York Historical Society, New York Manumission Society Records, 6:34, 9. Hereafter cited as NYMS Records, volume and page number. The overtly religious language probably reflects the significant presence of Quakers in the society.

31. Hamilton, , “The Vindication No. III,” PAH, 11:472.

32. Ibid.

33. Hamilton, , Letter to John Jay, 14 03 1779, PAH, 2:1719.

34. Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, 1 Jan.-22 04 1779 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), 13:387–8.

35. Hamilton, , Letter to John Jay, 14 03 1779, PAH, 2:18.

36. Ibid. (emphasis added).

37. Ibid. (emphasis added). 38

38. Ibid.

39. Hamilton, , Eulogy on Nathanael Greene, 4 07 1789, PAH, 5:351.

40. Hamilton, , 1777 Pay Book, PAH, 1:403404.

41. Hamilton, , Letter to William Loughton Smith, 10 04 1797, PAH, 21:33,39. Hamilton did not submit a plan similar to Laurens's during the Quasi-War with France presumably because of the Deep South's opposition to one during the Revolution, the Constitution's explicit protection of slavery until 1808, and especially the “probable” loyalty of slaves to France. See Letter to Pinckey, Charles Cotesworth, 21 04 1800, PAH, 24:418; Letter from Bentley, William C., 19 09 1799, p.438n1. It is also notable that the New York Manumission Society helped to procure the freedom of black slaves of French immigrants from the West Indies who entered the United States after the 1794 French decree (with Hamilton sitting on a committee to establish the society's procedure for doing so). See NYMS Records, 7:172,196–200; 9:69.

42. Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America: From the Introduction of African Slaves to the Prohibition of the Slave Trade (1619–1808) (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1901), pp. 8283.

43. Hamilton, Alexander, Madison, James, and Jay, John, The Federalist Papers, ed. Rossiter, Clinton, intro. Kesler, Charles R. (New York: Mentor, 1999), No. 30, p. 159.

44. Hamilton, , Remarks in the N.Y. Ratifying Convention, 20 06 1788, PAH, 5:24. During the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton proposed that representation in the national legislature be based solely on the number of free inhabitants. Farrand, Max, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 1:36.

45. The Federalist Papers Nos. 6–8, 11, pp. 21–39, 59.

46. See also Robinson, Donald L., Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 1765–1820 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 425.

47. Hamilton, , “Opinion On the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a National Bank,” PAH, 8:105.

48. Ogden, Gibbons v., 9 Wheat 1, 6 L. Ed. 23 (1824). An inlet for the federal government to interfere with slavery within the states comes from Marshall's reservation to the states only such commerce that is “completely internal” to a state. Since the products of slave labor did cross state lines, they, and therefore slavery, might be eligible for regulation by the federal government. Compare Wickard v. Filburn (1942).

49. Hamilton, , “Opinion On the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a National Bank,” PAH, 8:102103, 98.

50. Madison, James, Letter to Robert Walsh, 27 11 1819, in James Madison: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1999), p. 740.

51. Hamilton, , “Opinion On the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a National Bank,” PAH, 8:129.

52. Hamilton, , Letter to Theodore Sedgwick, 2 02 1799, PAH, 22:452.

53. Finkelman, , Slavery and the Founders, p. 121; Robinson, , Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, pp. 347–77.

54. Hamilton, , Letter to George Washington, 19 11. 1792, PAH, 13:171. The French government was likewise unstable. Hendrickson, Robert A., The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1981), pp. 504505.

55. Hamilton, , Letters to Timothy Pickering, 9 & 21 02 1799, PAH, 22:475, 492–93. Historians frequently fail to mention that Pickering received his instructions in this matter (as in most matters) from Hamilton.

56. Finkelman, , Slavery and the Founders, pp. 121–23.

57. Bemis, Samuel F., Jay's Treaty (New York: Macmillan, 1923), pp. 96102; Combs, Jerald A., The Jay Treaty (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), p. 83; Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America, p. 84.

58. Hamilton, , “Remarks on the Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation lately made between the United States and Great Britain,” PAH, 18:417; “The Defence,” No. III, PAH, 18:513–23.

59. Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America, pp. 9798.

60. Census figures for 1790 show New York with 21, 193 slaves, or 6 percent of its population. While certainly not on the scale of the South, New York's relatively large slave population undermines the view that slavery would inevitably be extinguished there. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, Study 00003: Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: U.S., 1790–1970 (Ann Arbor: ICPSR),

61. “Attendance at a Meeting of the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves,” 4 02 1785, PAH, 3:597. For a history of the society, see Moseley, Thomas R., “A History of the New-York Manumission Society, 1785–1849” (Ph.D. diss., Nwy York University, 1963).

62. NYMS Records, 6:2931.

63. Ibid., 6:61.

64. McDonald, , Alexander Hamilton, p. 373n12.

65. Fogel, Robert William and Engerman, Stanley L., Time on the Cross (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1974), pp. 3536; Ballagh, James Curtis, A History of Slavery in Virginia (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1902), pp. 130–31.

66. NYMS Records, 6:124, 142; 9:4, 7, 30, 53, 75, 95, 113.

67. Ibid., 6:121.

68. Ibid.,6:17,19.

69. Ibid., 6:37,44; “Memorial to Abolish the Slave Trade,” 13 03 1786, PAH, 3:654.

70. Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America, p. 121–22. Manumission acts did not free slaves, but eased the restrictions and requirements for manumission. The most onerous of these was requiring a slaveholder to post a bond before manumitting a slave in order to prevent the freed slave from becoming a public charge.

71. NYMS Records, 6:9495.

72. Ibid., 6:240.

73. Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America, 123–24, 128; Monaghan, Frank, John Jay: Defender of Liberty (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1935), p. 422.

74. NYMS Records, 6:8091. See also Andrews, Charles C., The History of the New York African Free-Schools (New York: Mahlon Day, 1830; reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969).

75. NYMS Records, 6:123; The Federalist Papers, No. 11, pp. 5859.

76. Andrews, , The History of the New York African Free-Schools, pp. 34–35, 38–39, 4449.

77. NYMS Records, 6:813.

78. Ibid., 6:239, 264; 9:13, 39, 65, 80–81.

79. Ibid., 6:72–74.

80. Locke, Mary Stoughton, Anti-Slavery in America, p. 101.

81. The Federalist Papers, No. 51, p. 290; No. 9, p. 40.

82. Ibid., No. 10, p. 46.

83. “Minutes of the Proceedings of the Seventh Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in different parts of the United States, Assembled at Philadelphia on the Third of June, One Thousand Eight Hundred and One” (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, Jr., 1801), pp. 37, 41.

84. There has been a vigorous academic debate over whether commerce by itself would have put an end to slavery. For an excellent bibliographic essay on the subject, see Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the America Civil War (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), pp. 6175.

85. Hamilton, “1777 Pay Book,” PAH, 1:403.

86. Hamilton, , “The Defence No. XX,” PAH, 19:332.

87. Ibid., pp. 332–33.

88. Ibid., 333.

89. Hamilton, , “A Full Vindication,” PAH, 1:53.

90. Ibid.

91. Ibid.

92. Montesquieu, , The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Cohler, Anne M., Miller, Basia C., and Stone, Harold S. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), part 1, bk. 4, chap. 8, pp. 4041.

93. Hume, David, “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” in Essays: Moral, olitical, and Literary, ed. Miller, Eugene F. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987), p. 418.

94. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, part 4, bk. 20, chap. 1, p. 338.

95. The Federalist Papers, No. 8, p. 37.

96. Hamilton, , “The Defence No. XX,” PAH, 19:332.

97. The Federalist Papers, No. 6, pp. 2128. See also Walling, Karl-Friedrich, Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1999), pp. 176–85.

98. Hamilton, , “The Defence No. XX,” PAH, 19:333.

99. Montesquieu, , The Spirit of the Laws, part 4, bk. 20, chaps. 4–5, p. 357. The Federalist Papers, No. 60, p. 335.

100. McCoy, Drew R., The Elusive Republic: Political Economy In Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), chaps. 5, 8; Kennedy, Roger G., Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 12–16, 7881.

101. Hamilton, , “The Defence of the Funding System,” PAH, 19:40.

102. Hamilton, , “Report on the Subject of Manufactures,” PAH, 10:256.

103. Ibid., p. 259.

104. Hiram Caton makes a similar point: “The Report [on Manufactures] had two further political implications that Hamilton did not stress. … Hamilton might reasonably hope that the growth of manufactures would in the long run dilute the influence of the rural interests and the dangerous localisms of husbandmen” (The politics of Progress: The Origins and Development of the Commercial Republic, 1600–1835 [Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1988], p. 477).

105. Montesquieu, , The Spirit of the Laws, part 3, bk. 13, chap. 8, p. 252.

106. Hamilton, , “1777 Pay Book,” PAH, 1:402 (emphasis added).

107. Hamilton, , “Report on Manufacturers,” PAH, 10:270.

108. Hamilton, , “A Full Vindication,” PAH, 1:53. “Sorry I am to say that mine is still backward in the encouragement of manufactorys or artists, but I trust it will soon get better as the Slavery by blacks decreases & by Emigration from these Countrys we get betterd as to a free tenantry.” Digges, Thomas to Hamilton, , 6 04 1792, PAH, 11:242.

109. Hamilton, , “Second Draft of the Report on Manufactures,” PAH, 10:54. The passage quoted refers to farmers rather than slaves, but it applies to slaves with even more force. See also Smith, Adam, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Cannan, Edwin (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), bk. 4, chap. 9, p. 648.

119. Hamilton, , ”Report on Manufactures,” PAH, 10:251–52.

111. Ibid.

112. Ibid.

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