"Hamilton" Fans Beware: New Research Details Hamilton's Role as an "Enslaver"

By Robert Shaffer posted 11-13-2020 09:47:44 AM


            It is no secret that social studies teachers across the country have been using the Broadway smash hit (and now a Disney+ film) “Hamilton” to help teach about Alexander Hamilton, the American Revolution, and the early national period.  There are many reasons why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has resonated with students and teachers, but surely among them is the idea, drawn largely from Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, that he was an abolitionist.  A newly-released research paper by Jessie Serfilippi, released by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site of New York, however, details Hamilton’s trafficking in slaves, which should dampen the over-enthusiasm for Hamilton’s role in the nation’s founding that has emerged in social studies classes over the past few years.

            The full research paper, entitled “’As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” is freely available as a pdf, at https://parks.ny.gov/documents/historic-sites/SchuylerMansionAlexanderHamiltonsHiddenHistoryasanEnslaver.pdf .  The fact that the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, which preserves and interprets for the public the homestead of Hamilton’s wealthy in-laws, published the paper lends weight to its conclusions, because one would normally think that those in charge of such a site would, if anything, wish to downplay negative material about the Schuylers and Hamiltons.  (Teachers using parts of this new, 29-page research paper would do well to have their students consider the sources of the evidence as well as its publisher, as the NCSS C3 Framework would suggest.)

            The New York Times has published a summary and analysis, by Jennifer Schuessler, of the new paper, which is suitable for classroom use; here’s the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/arts/alexander-hamilton-enslaver-research.html?searchResultPosition=1 .  In addition to recounting some of Serfilippi’s most dramatic findings, Schuessler includes commentary on the new paper by several historians, including Chernow himself, who claims that Serfilippi’s work is one-sided.  (If the paywall of the New York Times website poses problems for students or teachers, they can consult a briefer but similar report from the Associated Press, at https://apnews.com/article/research-alexander-hamilton-slavery-bbc774b5175f20e8f1543c9b9e14aed3 .)

            Serfilippi presents a wide range of evidence for Hamilton as an “enslaver,” using a term of relatively recent vintage for “slave-owner” which underscores the idea that the owner, or enslaver, engaged in an active process of holding other human beings in bondage.  Two examples of Serfilippi’s deep dive into Hamilton’s correspondence and unpublished account books, both of which are included in Schuessler’s summary, will suffice here.  In a 1781 letter to George Clinton, just a few months after Alexander’s marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler (“Eliza,” in the Miranda’s musical), Hamilton discusses the money to be paid for “the value of the woman Mrs. H[amilton] had of Mrs. Clinton.”  Almost twenty-five years later, in his estate inventory after his death in the famous duel with Aaron Burr (sir!), Hamilton’s “servants” were “valued at 400 pounds.”  Serfilippi argues that the term “servant” here – as well as “maids” elsewhere in Hamilton’s correspondence and record books – referred to “slaves,” given the cash values assigned to them.

            To be sure, Serfilippi does not deny that Hamilton was a member of the New-York Manumission Society.  Nevertheless, the evidence she presents casts grave doubt on the idea that he was an active abolitionist.  Of course, in the late 1700s and early 1800s in New York, one could be both an “enslaver” and a supporter of the eventual disappearance of slavery, a concept that may be difficult for middle school and high school students to grasp.  Nevertheless, it is preferable that students grapple with such complexities rather than accept the overly rosy view of Alexander Hamilton recently celebrated in “Hamilton.”  Indeed, pushing against the limits of the Broadway show’s presentation of “history” – Miranda glosses over Hamilton’s role in the Whiskey Rebellion, to mention another example – would be a worthwhile social studies classroom activity in its own right.