Alexander Hamilton and the Abolition of Slavery in New York
A group of persons belonging to the monied aristocracy gathered in dimly lit meeting hall on the edge of New York City in the late 1790s. Many of them were conservative bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians who enjoyed high social status after the recent war for independence from Great Britain. The meeting was not all that it seemed. These gentlemen, donned in white-topped boots and powdered wigs, were not discussing shares in the newly incorporated National Bank, the lucrative fur trade, or even who won the last duel. Instead, they assembled to display their indignation over slavery. One member told of a master who brutally beat his female house servant. Another argued against New Yorkers capturing and selling free blacks to the West Indies or the American South. The meeting ended with each member signing a petition to the state legislature calling for the gradual abolition of slavery in New York. Yet, as they entered their houses later that same evening, many of these abolitionists were greeted by slaves, who took their overcoats, brought them a tanker of Madeira, and shined their buckled shoes.
Alexander Hamilton was not only a member of the group but an officer in the Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves, and he too was not all that he seemed. By today's standards, Hamilton was an arch-conservative. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton supported an elected monarchy with strong emphasis on rule by the rich and powerful. One of his biographers describes him: "Hamilton made no secret of his belief in the advantages of an aristocratic power in the common-wealth, or of his reasons for that belief.(2) One may wonder why Hamilton joined a society that threatened the understood social and racial caste system of the era? After further examination, another question arises as well. What kind of abolitionist was Hamilton if he owned slaves?
Closer analysis shows that Hamilton was at best ambivalent about the abolition of slavery. Unlike his enemy and fellow slaveowner, Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton never clearly, sincerely, or eloquently denounced slavery in his personal or private works, despite his membership in the Manumission Society. Hamilton's wavering on this issue is not typical of how he faced other challenges, like the National Bank, and this suggests that his heart was not into the cause. His inconsistent stance towards slavery most likely stemmed from his desire to be accepted in the Manhattan merchant elite, which viewed the ownership of slaves as a status symbol. This essay will argue that Hamilton thought about the issue of slavery and determined it was wrong, but he found it too convenient an institution to exterminate from his private life.
Some scholars, especially Shane White, argue that Hamilton and his high society friends sought the end of slavery to distinguish themselves from the "middling sort," who began owning more slaves toward the end of the eighteenth century. Although it is true that up-and-coming merchants did acquire more slaves in the late 1790s, the argument that their ownership was the force behind abolition is not convincing. The number of slaves held by the merchant class increased partially due to an increase in the number of merchants in New York City during this time period. In a ten year period from 1790 to 1800, the number of merchants expanded from 284 to 1,102.(3) The increase in merchants reflects the economic expansion of the period. The renewed prosperity of the late 1790s allowed many who were upwardly mobile to close their shops and become merchants. These new merchants used their extra income to demonstrate their improved status by purchasing slaves. As a result of this increase, the share of all male slaveholders increased from 21.9 percent in 1790 to 35.7 percent in 1800.(4)
Yet it appears unlikely that that the increase in the number of merchant slaveowners was the main reason Hamilton and the other monied aristocrats joined the Manumission Society. …