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.
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” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.” To Hamilton, such prejudicial and self-interested notions were “founded neither in reason nor experience.” 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.”
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.” 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: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4060
Nathaniel Stewart is an attorney in Washington, D.C.
April 16, 2013 – Essay #42