‘Hamilton’ and the Historical Record: Frequently Asked QuestionsHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Founding Fathers, American Revolution, Broadway, Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton
Historians, many of whom took part in a Twitter watch party under the hashtag #HATM (Historians at the Movies), took a generally milder tone, even as they reiterated some of their earlier caveats. Here’s what some of them have been saying about “Hamilton” — and Hamilton — since Miranda’s take on the “ten-dollar founding father” took America by storm.
Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist? I’m confused.
Early in the show, Hamilton calls himself and his friends “revolutionary manumission abolitionists,” a line that raised a lot of eyebrows among scholars.
Hamilton was genuinely antislavery, even if some scholars say the intensity of his opposition has been overstated. He was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, created in 1785, which among other things, pushed for a gradual emancipation law in New York State. (Such a law was passed in 1799.)
Manumission involved voluntary release by enslavers. Abolition was a more radical proposition, and Hamilton did not advocate it. And while he publicly criticized Thomas Jefferson’s views on the biological inferiority of Black people, the Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed has noted that his record and his writings from the 1790s until his death in 1804 include little to nothing against slavery.
As the show indicates, Hamilton did support John Laurens’s 1779 plan to allow Black soldiers to fight in the Revolution (and many eventually did). But that’s as far as he went.
“OK, Hamilton did not write pamphlets against slavery with Laurens,” Gordon-Reed tweeted during the #HATM watch party, adding: “I hate to be that historian.”
So which characters in the show owned slaves?
Most of them, actually. In one of the Cabinet rap battles, Jefferson extols the South’s agrarian economy, and Hamilton slaps back. “Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting,” he sneers, dismissing Jefferson’s argument as “a civics lesson from a slaver.”
But slavery was hardly just a Southern affair. In 1790, about 40 percent of households immediately around New York City included enslaved people. Most of Hamilton’s associates who toast freedom early in the show were slaveowners, including Aaron Burr and Hercules Mulligan (whose enslaved servant Cato worked alongside him in an anti-British spy ring).
The Schuylers, the prominent family Hamilton marries into, were major slaveholders. In fact, the mayor of Albany announced last month that the city would remove a statue of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, who at various points owned as many as 27 slaves.
Angelica Schuyler and her husband also owned slaves, and Hamilton, who was a lawyer, helped them with their slavery-related transactions, including the $225 purchase of a mother and child.
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