Alexander Hamilton was a revolutionary and military leader, a Founding Father, first secretary of the treasury of the United States, and subject of the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
But the show, which paints him as an opponent of slavery, is now facing calls for it to be ‘canceled’ for glossing over his own involvement in the trade.
While Hamilton saw the evils of slavery first-hand growing up in the West Indies and advocated powerfully against slavery later in life, he often sidelined these views in order to win the approval of wealthy benefactors and advance his career.
His two main benefactors were George Washington and Philip Schuyler, both of whom owned slaves. Hamilton helped the Schuyler family buy slaves, and helped run companies which profited from slave labor.
Even when he did denounce slavery in 1796, having been forced out of politics, some argue he was cynically using it as a tool to trash his rival Thomas Jefferson.
Alexander Hamilton (left) advocated against slavery several times during his life, but also married into a wealthy slave-owning family (pictured right, his father-in-law Philip Schuyler) and often sidelined his views to advance himself
A relentless social climber, Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in 1755 to a trader father who deserted the family when he was 10 years old, and an already-married mother who died in 1768, when he was aged 13.
Growing up in poverty, Hamilton is thought to have lied about his age to begin work for a pair of wealthy New York merchants, before using his connections to travel to mainland America and attend King’s College – now Columbia.
Once there he became an advocate for revolutionary causes, joining the Revolutionary War as a volunteer in 1775 and becoming captain of an artillery company the following year.
It was at the Battle of Trenton in December 1776 that he came to the attention of his first major benefactor – Washington – by bravely defending his main army against an attack by the British.
By 1777 he was serving as Washington’s aide, a connection which he leveraged to marry Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of fellow revolutionary and second benefactor Major General Philip Schuyler. They wed in 1780.
The Schuyler family’s involvement in slavery
By the time Alexander Hamilton was born, the Schuyler family were one of the wealthiest and most-prominent in New York.
Their legacy was started by Philip Pieterse Schuyler, a Dutch-born carpenter who emigrated to what was then New Netherland around 1650.
Once there, he became involved in the fur trade and used his wealth to buy land and property.
His descendants then used that wealth to involve themselves in state politics, while still maintaining their status as landowners and merchants.
Philip’s youngest son, Johannes, served as Mayor of Albany and was followed in that role by his own son Johannes Jr, who was the father of Philip Schuyer, Hamilton’s benefactor.
It is not clear exactly when the family began owning slaves, though slavery was common in New Netherland from its inception, and were involved in the fur trade where the Schuylers first built their wealth.
At the first census in 1790, Albany was revealed as the area with the most slaves in New York and Philip Schuyler is recorded as owning 13 slaves in the city, along with more in Saratoga, bringing the total to at least 30.
For Hamilton the marriage was solely about advancement, and he became a close confidant of Philip who was one of New York’s richest men – and the largest slave owner in Albany.
According to historical records, Schuyler owned at least 30 slaves who worked between his South End mansion and a farm on his Saratoga estate.
While the slaves were used as so-called ‘skilled labor’ as opposed to plantation work, historians say the work would still have been ‘degrading, violent and damaging’.
As part of the family, Hamilton appears to have turned a blind eye to his father-in-law’s slave ownership while helping to buy slaves for his in-laws – though it is unlikely he ever owned slaves himself.
While at the same time involving himself in the slave trade with the Schuyler family, Hamilton began moving in abolitionist circles – including befriending ardent abolitionist John Laurens.
When Laurens proposed admitting black people in to the army in 1779 and freeing them from bondage, Hamilton advocated for him.
After the war ended, Hamilton – having led a battalion at the decisive battle of Yorktown – continued to advocate for freedom of slaves.
In 1785 he helped establish the Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves in New York, which put pressure on owners to free their slaves and tried to stop freed slaves being recaptured and sold back into servitude.
As part of the central committee he helped draft a proposal that would have phased out slave ownership among members of the society, but it was rejected.
This was far from his primary project, however. In 1782 he was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation and went about trying to establish a tax system so the newly-formed government could pay its debts, mostly notably to the army.
He then became involved with a group of officers who threatened the government with military takeover if they were not paid, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy.
While the situation was eventually diffused, Hamilton would continue to advocate for a strong federal government with the ability to raise taxes, recruit an army and impose laws – after the fashion of old colonial masters Britain, with whom he wanted to maintain close ties.
Despite coming from poverty he was an unabashed elitist, believing in the right of a principled upper class to rule over the majority, who he saw as immoral and uneducated.
At the Constitutional Convention on 1787 he proposed that the president and senators should rule for life, while also speaking out against democracy.
He also advocated in favor of the ‘Three Fifths Compromise’, which counted only three fifths of slaves as people when deciding how many representatives each state could send to Congress.
Hamilton’s life was turned into an award-winning musical which glossed over his involvement in the slave trade, something that has seen some call for it to be canceled
‘No union could possibly be formed’ without it, he said at the time.
These views put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, who viewed him as a would-be Caesar intent on leading the country towards tyrannical rule.
In fact Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, even warned her husband that Hamilton was ‘as ambitious as Julius Caesar, a subtle intriguer’.
Separately, she likened him to ‘a second Bonaparte’ – who had also been an artillery commander during the French Revolution and was on his way to becoming Emperor of France.
Henry Adams echoed this idea in a later letter, in which he wrote: ‘I dislike Hamilton because I always feel the adventurer in him…
‘From the first to the last words he wrote, I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom.’
In 1794 that image was solidified in the minds of many when, having become first secretary of the United States Treasury, Hamilton enacted taxes on states to pay off the war debt, leading a group of farmers to rebel.
Hamilton himself marched with troops to stamp out the rebellion, and while few died it cemented his reputation as being against the many and for the few.
While many including Jefferson feared Hamilton becoming President, he wrecked his own ambitions when in 1791 he began an affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.
The Founding Fathers and their slaves
Despite taking a stand in defense of liberty in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, in fact a majority of the prominent Founding Fathers were slave owners at one point.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson – among others – owned slaves, and while Washington and Franklin freed theirs, Jefferson was a slave owner until he died.
Hamilton was one among a handful who is never thought to have owned slaves. Other figures include Samuel Adams and John Adams.
While many of the Founders advocated against slavery at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, strong opposition from those in the South forced compromises.
The Three Fifths Compromise is perhaps the most infamous, counting only three out of five slaves as people when determining how many representatives each state should get in Congress.
The compromise increased the South’s share of seats by a third, but also burdened the region with more taxes.
Hamilton, Franklin and John Jay were also active in abolitionist societies in each of their respective states.
The so-called Reynolds Affair, known as America’s first sex scandal, began when a 23-year-old Maria came to Hamilton and claimed to be destitute having been abandoned by her abusive husband James.
According to Hamilton’s account, he agreed to take money to a guest house where she was staying that evening, and the two ended up having sex.
The affair continued for the next year, with Maria even visiting the house where Hamilton lived while Elizabeth was out of town visiting her father.
Eventually Maria’s husband reappeared and began blackmailing Hamilton over the affair – prompting him to end it.
James Reynolds and a friend of his were then arrested the following year for fraud, when the friend told three congressmen that James had been collaborating in the crime with Alexander Hamilton.
The congressmen confronted Hamilton about it, and he confessed to the adultery in order to exonerate himself.
The scandal went quiet for the next few years as Hamilton retired from politics, but exploded to the fore in 1796 when Hamilton launched a full-throated attack on Jefferson – who was then running for president.
Hamilton himself was out of the running, having been passed over by the Federalist party he helped to found for Thomas Pinckney and John Adams, but was determined to bring down his opponent.
In a series of letters denouncing Jefferson as a hypocrite for speaking out against slavery while continuing to own slaves and profit from it, he also dropped hints about his relationship with one of his slaves – Sally Hemings.
Hamilton would go on to try and interfere with the electoral college in the same election to keep Adams – who he disliked – as vice president while having Pinckney become president, though he ultimately failed.
The following year, journalist James Callender struck back on behalf of Jefferson with information gained from one of the three congressmen, and publicly accused Hamilton of the affair along with dodgy financial dealings.
Late in 1797, Hamilton was forced to publish the Reynolds Pamphlet in which he defended himself against the financial charges while confessing to adultery.
The scandal ruined his political ambitions and casts a long shadow over his arguments against slavery, which critics say was simply a tool to get at Jefferson.
Hamilton continued to exert his influence during the Adams administration until a feud between the pair exploded into the open just before the election of 1800.
Jefferson and Aaron Burr subsequently won, kicking Adams and the Federalist party out of power, and leaving Hamilton in the political wilderness.
Embittered and defeated, Hamilton went on the attack – and in 1801 founded the New York Post as a Federalist paper which he used to attack his opponents.
In 1804 he used the paper to attack Burr, who was widely backed by the Federalists but who had personal grievances with Hamilton.
At the time, Burr was in the running for New York governor having been dropped by Jefferson for the upcoming presidential election.
Burr lost the governor’s race to his little-known opponent Morgan Lewis, and while Hamilton’s intervention may not have swung the vote, Burr was furious.
As the dust settled, Burr demanded that Hamilton face him in a pistol duel because of a ‘despicable opinion’ of him that had been published in newspaper.
Despite his eldest son Philip having been killed in a duel three years previously, Hamilton refused to offend his own honor by backing down and agreed.
On July 11 the two men met at Weehawken, New Jersey – near the spot where Hamilton’s son had died – where they paced apart before turning and firing.
Hamilton’s bullet missed, breaking a branch above Burr’s head, but Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the gut, causing a wound that would ultimately prove fatal.
After 31 hours dosed up on opium to ease his pain, Hamilton died – leaving behind seven children and the wife he had previously betrayed who were deeply in debt.
While most Northern States had voted to phase out slavery at the time of his death, it would take another 61 years and a Civil War before slavery was banned throughout the United States with the passage of the 13th amendment.