Guest Essayist: Nathaniel Stewart, attorney in Washington, D.C.

Before ever penning his share of The Federalist Papers, before championing the Constitution for a new nation, before laying the foundations of American fiscal policy, Alexander Hamilton was a vocal and “passionate critic” of the practice of slavery.[1]

In March 1779, in the throes of the American War for Independence, Hamilton wrote to his friend and fellow New Yorker, John Jay, to endorse an effort proposed by Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina to recruit and employ black slaves in the Continental Army.  Jay was sympathetic to Hamilton’s abolitionism,
and several years later the two men would work together in founding the New York Manumission Society to campaign against slavery through lectures, essays, and a registry to keep free blacks from being sent back into slavery.  But in 1779, Jay was then president of the Continental Congress, and could be influential in gaining congressional and state support for Colonel Laurens’ plan.

As Hamilton outlined briefly to Jay, Colonel Laurens hoped “to raise two, three, or four battalions of negroes”[2] to join the revolutionary forces in the fight against the British.  In exchange for their service, black slaves would gain their emancipation.  The plan no doubt was controversial and opposed, and it ultimately failed; but to Hamilton it promised several “very important advantages.”[3]

First, the Crown’s military operations in South Carolina were “growing infinitely serious and formidable,” and Hamilton worried that the Continental Army lacked sufficient forces to address the British threat.[4]  A seasoned soldier and General Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton knew that more battalions of men were needed and that the freed slaves would add significantly to the American ranks and bolster their beleaguered forces.  Hamilton believed–and not without controversy–that under Colonel Laurens’ zealous leadership “the negroes will make very excellent soldiers.”[5]  Here, Hamilton did not hide his abolitionist colors.  He took the opportunity of Colonel Laurens’ effort to dispute the common objection at the time that “negroes . . . are too stupid to make soldiers.”[6]  To Hamilton, such prejudicial and self-interested notions were “founded neither in reason nor experience.”[7]  As a recent Hamilton biographer has explained, Hamilton “had expressed an unwavering belief in the genetic equality of blacks and whites–unlike Jefferson, for instance, who regarded blacks as innately inferior–that was enlightened for his day.”[8]

Second, Hamilton makes the rather obvious and practical point that if the Americans will not enlist the black slaves, “the enemy probably will.”  Either the blacks can fight for the colonies or they will fight against them, so, Hamilton argued, they might as well fight for us.

Finally, the philosophical key to Laurens’ plan was the promise of emancipation.  This, of course, was the most controversial element in Laurens’ proposal, but Hamilton did not shy from it.  “Give them their freedom with their muskets,” Hamilton boldly declared, for “[t]his will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation.”[9]  Here, with the fate of the colonies still very much in doubt, Hamilton is already sowing the seeds of black emancipation and looking for ways to “open a door” to their freedom.

As our own President and Congress today take up the controversial issue of firearms in our society, it is perhaps worth remembering that Hamilton, Jay, and Colonel Laurens well-understood that that the door to freedom–for blacks and whites–could be opened and defended with arms.  Blacks in the South were a disarmed society–forbidden by their masters to bear arms lest they secure “their freedom with their muskets.”  Arming black slaves and training them in the ways of military discipline and tactics could only mean the immediate emancipation of some and the future emancipation for all blacks in the South.  And it was to this hope and the “dictates of humanity” that Hamilton appealed in calling on Congress to support arming black slaves in order that they, too, might join in the fight for freedom.

Read Alexander Hamilton’s Letter to John Jay here:

Nathaniel Stewart is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

April 16, 2013 – Essay #42 





[1] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 307.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, Letter to John Jay, March 14, 1779.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 210.

[9] Alexander Hamilton, Letter to John Jay, March 14, 1779.

2 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Sadly, bearing arms is the ONLY way to protect our freedoms against the tidal wave of tyranny that seems to be building in DC right now. You take away our 2nd amendment right, and the rest of the freedoms will fall away much easier.

    Excellent essay and very enlightening. This and the essays from last week do show that contrary to the politically correct history being taught and the thought process, the Founders and framers were not heartless slave owners but gave this much thought and truly agonized over this. the needs of the many, at least with regards to slavery and the forming of our union, did out weigh the needs of the few. And this cruel institution of slavery was abolished in time.

  2. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    It is worthy of note that during the revolutionary war, and then later again in the attrition leading up to the War of 1812 known as “James Madison’s War”, England did induce the slaves to revolt and attempted to provide arms. But the slaves wholly did not as the slaves especially had not forgotten the ghastly horrors of how the British merchants hunted them like animals in the Congo, wrested them from their families and tribes, interred them with chains in diseased, rat-infested and famine ridden ships, and often flogged before being sold. Had the US had some other enemy of war that attempted to coax the slaves to revolt, then a great revolt may have arisen to the ruin of the US; but since the slaves had not forgotten who it was that created the institution in the first place, they understandably distrusted the intents of the enemy with the risk of being impressed into the British army or even boarded up on deplorable ships again.


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