Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

10 MUTUAL INTEREST, MUTUAL BENEFIT, AND MUTUAL RELIEF

William Hamilton

On January 1, 1809, New York African Americans held three separate celebrations of the first anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. "These 1809 celebrations were the high point," writes Benjamin Quarlesin Black Abolitionists. "Within three years the January I observances would be discontinued. For by then Negroes had unhappily taken note that the law prohibiting the foreign slave trade had become almost a dead letter, being blatantly flouted" (119).

One of the primary orators of the occasion was William Hamilton ( 1773-1836). President and cofounder of the New York Society for Mutual Relief, Hamilton was a carpenter and leader of New York's black community, rumored to be the son of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Like many abolitionist orators, Hamilton makes explicit reference in his speech to the rhetorical paradox he faces: antislavery orators must somehow acknowledge and raise awareness of the horrors of slavery, yet no words are adequate to do so: "Who can recount half their sufferings, where is the artist that can delineate a full picture of their miseries?" asks Hamilton. "Their wretched situation baffles description; let us then withdraw from, and at once acknowledge our inability to the task."

Whatever its limitations, oratory is an act of great significance for Hamilton. He addresses allegations of racial inferiority based on the supposed dearth of black poets, mathematicians, and scientists partly by holding aloft a printed copy of orations presented by African Americans (presumably including that of Peter Williams, Jr., who was seated in Hamilton's audience) at the January 1, 1808, celebrations. "If we continue to produce specimens like these," he insists, "we shall soon put our enemies to the blush; abashed and confounded they shall quit the field, and no longer urge their superiority of souls."

Hamilton devotes the bulk of his address, presented in the Universalist Church on January 2, 1809, to an explanation of the aims of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, an important and enduring institution designed to enlist African American support for mutual aid to widows, orphans, and the sick. A copy of Hamilton's address is in the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library.

My Brethren and Fellow Members of the New York African Society, for Mutual Relief, I congratulate you on this first anniversary of a day which has produced an event that, for its importance to Africans and descendants, stands unrivaled; an event that long and arduous have been the exer

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