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Was Alexander Hamilton A Slave Owner? #CancelHamilton Controversy Explained
This holiday weekend, Hamilton debuted on Disney+ during a national conversation about systemic racism in America. And along with the release of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play to wide audiences came a rejuvenated debate about the play’s historical accuracy. As statues of historical slave owners are being toppled throughout the country, some critics of the play took issue with the depiction of its central protagonist Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist hero, leading to the #CancelHamilton hashtag to trend on Twitter.
In reality, Hamilton’s actual relationship to slavery and slave owners was much more complex, and not as progressive as the play depicts.
Did Hamilton own slaves?
There is no evidence that Alexander Hamilton owned slaves directly. He was among three of the 10 Founding Fathers who did not own enslaved people. However, he did have connections to slaves and slaveowners throughout his life.
According to research from Columbia University, Hamilton had his first direct experience with the institution of slavery during his childhood in the Carribean Islands. His mother, Rachel, died when he was 12 years old, leaving the remainder of her property to her orphaned sons, which included an enslaved boy. However, Hamilton and his brother James Jr. did not receive any of their inheritance, because both were illegitimate children.
Though he did not own or inherit slaves, Hamilton later became involved with the slave trade in the Carribean, The New Journal of African History reported. As a teenager, he took over operations of the entire St. Croix branch of Beekman & Cruger, an import-export business that engaged in the African slave trade and sugar business.
After he moved to the United States, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, who was a member of an influential, slave-owning family in Albany, New York. According to Harvard Law School Professor of History Annette Gordon-Reed, Hamilton bought and sold slaves for his in-laws.
Okay, but was he an abolitionist?
Although the musical paints him as a revolutionary abolitionist who celebrates John Laurens’ dream of building “the first Black battalion,” historians say that this portrayal inflates Hamilton’s antislavery credentials. Gordon-Reed points out that opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda.
Michael Newton, a historian and author of several books on Hamilton and the founding era, says that while Hamilton was a founder of the New York Manumission Society, which was an anti-slavery group, he did not seriously propose the total abolition of slavery. He also propped up several Federalist slaveholders as presidential candidates.
In response to the recent criticism, Lin-Manuel Miranda told NPR’s Terry Gross that slavery was “a system in which every character in our show is complicit in some way or another…Hamilton — although he voiced anti-slavery beliefs — remained complicit in the system.”
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Was Hamilton an immigrant?
In Gordon-Reed’s essay, ‘Correcting Hamilton,’ she says that Hamilton was not really an immigrant in the sense of the Ellis Island immigrant narrative. He was born on the Caribbean Island of Nevis, but qualified as a U.S. citizen when the Constitution was adopted.
Gordon-Reed also notes that there exists no evidence to indicate that he was pro-immigrant.
Was he elitist?
Hamilton’s support for enlisting Black men to fight for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War indicates that his views on race were progressive for the time period, but different historians have noted his elitist views. Gordon-Reed notes that he was not a champion for the little guy, and that he was in favor of installing presidents for lifelong terms. Eric Foner, Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, told the New York Times that elitism and dedication to property rights were more important to Hamilton than fighting slavery.
While the musical might not portray Hamilton in the most historically accurate light, it can be easy to forget that the show is not a documentary, and that it was created to entertain. It did a pretty good job at that, too, taking home 11 awards at the 2016 Tonys, including Best Musical.
“Artists have the right to create,” Gordon-Reed said in reference to the musical. “But historians have the right to critique.”
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