The New York Times has done it again. On the heels of its infamous 1619 Project, a “culture reporter” at the so-called newspaper of record writes that Alexander Hamilton “bought, sold and personally owned slaves” and was an “enslaver.”
Historians and biographers have debated the status of Hamilton as a slaveowner for decades, but a new essay titled “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” written by Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion, asserts, “Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally.” Continuing its attack on American history and the Founding Fathers, The New York Times was all too willing to repeat these assertions without question.
Despite the Times’s endorsement, Serfilippi’s essay is riddled with errors, omissions, assumptions, speculations, and misrepresentations concerning the history of Hamilton on the subject of slavery. The essay presents case after case in which he supposedly bought, sold, or owned slaves, but more often than not the information presented is wrong and the conclusions one-sided, leaving out all evidence showing that he didn’t own slaves. Giving credence to Serfilippi’s assertions, The New York Times article merely repeats the fallacies of the original essay and perpetrates yet another crime against our history.
Evidence Shows Hamilton Wasn’t an Enslaver
In 1781, Hamilton wrote about paying “the value of the woman Mrs. H[amilton] had of Mrs. Clinton.” According to Serfilippi, this “reveals he purchased an enslaved woman. … He did not say he was paying for the value of her labor as other historians have argued.” Hamilton’s use of the word “had,” however, indicates that this “woman” was no longer with the Hamiltons.
Indeed, she had been with the Hamiltons less than a month, during which time she helped them clean a house they had just moved into. Clearly, this woman, who could have been white, free black, or a slave, had been hired from Mrs. Clinton, not purchased. Moreover, earning a soldier’s salary, being paid in devalued currency, and not having received his wages for the past nine months, Alexander Hamilton could hardly afford to purchase a slave.
Serfilippi further contends that Hamilton’s wife Eliza “would expect Hamilton to provide her with an enslaved servant to aid her in the many duties she had to perform.” To the contrary, he had recently asked her: “Tell me my pretty damsel have you made up your mind upon the subject of housekeeping? Do you soberly relish the pleasure of being a poor man’s wife?” It seems unlikely that Eliza would have felt entitled to an enslaved person that her husband could not afford.
In 1783, Hamilton “advocated,” according to Serfilippi, “for the return of the formerly enslaved people because he argued the people were property.” He never said he supported the return of former slaves, however. In fact, he pointed out that they had already been sent away and the concern was that “other property and all of the public records in [British] possession belonging to us” would also be sent away.
At no point did Hamilton argue that these freed blacks should be returned and re-enslaved. In 1789, he said he “always” opposed returning previously enslaved people, a fact Serfilippi either didn’t notice or chose to omit.
Hamilton recorded a £90 transaction in his cash book for “a negro wench Peggy sold him” in 1784. Serfilippi believes this to be “the sale of a woman named Peggy.” More likely, as any fan of the musical knows, this Peggy was Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Peggy Schuyler van Rensselaer, and the entry records her selling a “negro wench.” Indeed, all other entries in Hamilton’s cash book involving slaves were for members of the Schuyler family, with Hamilton acting as a banker, transferring money between the two parties after the fact and recording the payments but having nothing to do with the transaction itself nor the slaves.
That same year, Hamilton received a “request” from Peggy to help her sister Angelica Schuyler Church “purchase [the] remaining time” of a “negro … formerly belonging” to Angelica but who had been “sold for a term of years.” Hamilton forwarded this request to Angelica’s husband’s business associate John Chaloner.
Serfilippi says that by writing to Chaloner about this matter, Hamilton “acted as a slave trader,” but she fails to note that Angelica and Peggy initiated this request and instead makes it seem as though Hamilton was the instigator. Hamilton did forward the request and received a reply saying the current owner would only deal with Angelica in person. If anything came of this, there is no record of Hamilton being involved.
Serfilippi Ignores Evidence
In 1796, Hamilton credited his father-in-law’s account $250 “for 2 Negro servants purchased by him for me.” Other records show these servants to be a “Negro boy and woman.” Serfilippi points to this record as sure evidence that Hamilton owned slaves and then tries to find other records of these two “servants,” but when she comes to the 1800 census, she notes, “There are no enslaved servants listed in the Hamilton household, but the censuses themselves are not accurate.” She believes the censuses to be inaccurate because, according to her, the number of people listed in the Hamilton household in the 1790 census was incorrect.
The record she found of Alexander Hamilton in New York, however, was for the wrong person. Hamilton had moved to Philadelphia with the national government and was found there in the census with his family but no slaves. The Alexander Hamilton that Serfilippi found was the shoemaker of the same name who lived at 64 Broadway in New York City.
Regarding the census of 1800, Serfilippi admits, “All the family members appear to be accounted for. … There are no enslaved servants listed on this census, but like on the 1790 census, this does not mean the Hamiltons did not enslave people.” Instead of relying on evidence, Serfilippi ignores it.
So what happened to the two “servants” Hamilton received from his father-in-law in 1796? Hamilton’s son explains, “He never owned a slave; but on the contrary, having learned that a domestic whom he had hired was about to be sold by her master, he immediately purchased her freedom.” Rather than being an enslaver, it would appear Hamilton bought freedom for these slaves.
Serfilippi Confuses the Facts
In another case, Serfilippi writes about Hamilton “purchasing” slaves for his brother-in-law in two separate transactions, one for $225 and another for £90, but this was one transaction, with Hamilton himself writing in his cash book that “$1008.12 = £403.5,” a conversion factor of 2.5. Footnotes in “The Papers of Alexander Hamilton” also explain that this was one transaction.
Far more importantly, these records do not show Hamilton purchasing slaves. He once again merely acted as a banker, with no record of him having anything to do with the transaction itself nor the enslaved people.
In 1798, Hamilton recorded in his cash book that he “received for term of a Negro boy … $100.” Serfilippi says, “The fact that he was able to lease the boy to another person absolutely indicates that Hamilton enslaved the child.” It is not clear if this “Negro boy” was enslaved, who owned him if he was, or if he was a free black and Hamilton collected his wages for him.
Serfilippi also points to a number of legal cases regarding slavery that Hamilton took on, saying, “Hamilton was an authority figure on the subject of slavery; an expert whose opinion was worthy and reliable enough to solicit.” In reality, however, out of hundreds of legal cases, Hamilton argued only two cases associated with the Slave Trade Act, provided two legal opinions related to slavery, and participated in one case representing someone on behalf of the New York Manumission Society.
Moreover, the Slave Trade Act cases concerned the construction and ownership of ships rather than slavery itself. What’s worse, Serfilippi mixed up two cases and in one case had Hamilton representing the plaintiff when he was actually the lawyer for the defendant.
What About Hamilton’s Assets?
Finally, one of Hamilton’s executors drew up a list of his assets after his death, with one item listed as “servants.” Serfilippi, who misreads the asset values on this list to the point where they do not add up to the given totals, again points to this as proof that Hamilton owned slaves.
Hamilton’s own will, statement of his property and debts, and explanation of his financial situation, which he recorded shortly before his death, however, include no slaves in his modest estate. It would seem that whoever had drawn up this separate list of assets saw Hamilton’s paid “servants and labourers,” to whom Hamilton gave “first” rights to his estate in his will, and assumed they were slaves. An “X” in front of the value of these “servants” might indicate that the author noticed the error and that it should not be included in his list of assets.
In sum, Serfilippi’s essay takes every opportunity to claim Hamilton owned slaves, traded in slaves, or was an enslaver. In many of these cases, she is clearly mistaken. In others, the truth is far less clear than her conclusions. Serfilippi also ignores all the pieces of evidence supporting the other side.
The New York Times article wonders whether “Ms. Serfilippi’s firm conclusions will be broadly accepted by scholars,” but the available evidence indicates Hamilton did not own slaves and was not involved in the slave trade. Rather than being an “enslaver,” Hamilton, as many biographers have pointed out, opposed slavery, advocated for manumission, and supported enslaved and freed blacks to the extent that his limited means allowed.