A young Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York City at King’s College, today’s Columbia University, during a time of fervor and unrest that sounds a lot like today.
In 1773, Bostonians had just chucked their tea into the harbor. Even New York, a more crown-friendly town, crackled with talk of revolution. Eighteen-year-old Hamilton ditched his plans to study medicine and threw himself into reading Enlightenment philosophers, arguing with friends and hustling to rallies in the city.
It’s this environment that launches “Hamilton,” the musical, and casts the central character as a fresh kind of Founding Father — immigrant, outsider, activist. The Broadway show’s debut on TV for the July 4th weekend — streaming on Disney Plus, beginning Friday — puts a new lens on the most patriotic holiday at a time when American values are under painful scrutiny.
With Black Lives Matter rising and statues of white slave owners falling, it might feel good to watch “Hamilton” and think of an ethnically diverse, hip-hop past. The reality, of course, was way more complicated.
Slavery was “a system in which every character in our show is complicit in some way or another,” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda told NPR’s Terry Gross this week. “Hamilton — although he voiced anti-slavery beliefs — remained complicit in the system.”
Hamilton doesn’t appear to have ever directly owned any enslaved people. He grew up working-class on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and St. Croix, where blacks outnumbered whites more than 10 to 1. His mother died when he was no more than 13 (his date of birth is uncertain, 1755 or 1757), and left him and his brother two enslaved workers. But because the boys were born out of wedlock, they received no property.
When he arrived at King’s College, Hamilton had only been in America for a year, sent by island businessmen who took up a collection for him after being impressed by his intelligence and drive.
In New York he was surrounded by posh classmates — including a nephew of George Washington — whose families owned slaves or who brought enslaved servants along with them. Hamilton was known to despise slavery, but he also really liked having influential friends.
When he invoked the topic in his fiery early writings, it was to slam British loyalists as “enemies to the natural rights of mankind … because they wish to see one part of their species enslaved by another.” Meaning, the colonists were treated in the worst possible way — like slaves.
Hamilton left school before graduating to join the upstart Continental Army. There the charismatic networker made his ultimate connection, becoming aide and surrogate son to Washington. That alone required Hamilton to set aside his feelings about slavery, because Washington owned more than 100 people back home in Virginia.
But when the British began offering freedom to any slaves who would join the royal cause, Hamilton saw an opportunity. He urged Washington to let black soldiers fight for freedom. Hamilton touted the idea in an extraordinary letter to John Jay in 1779.
“I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers, with proper management,” he wrote. Some say blacks are inferior, he continued, but “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.” And he stressed that “an essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This 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.”
It was a strikingly progressive stance for the time. The line about “natural faculties” is often contrasted with the views of his political rival, Thomas Jefferson, who denigrated black intelligence in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian who has written extensively about Jefferson and his relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings, has argued that it’s not entirely fair to paint Hamilton as the good guy on the question of race. Hamilton, she noted in a Harvard interview in 2016, managed slave sales for his wife’s family. When he was very young, he also kept the books for a Caribbean trading company that engaged in the slave trade.
“He was not an abolitionist,” she told the Harvard Gazette. “[O]pposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda.”
No, climbing the ladder was always at the top of Hamilton’s agenda. His relationship with Washington, his marriage into the wealthy Schuyler family, his slaveholding friends all advanced him socially while requiring him to turn his head from the toughest issue of the day.
When war turned to statecraft, Hamilton compromised his views on slavery in favor of two other priorities: property rights, which the formerly impoverished orphan held sacrosanct, and the need to build a unified country. Hamilton accepted the notion of counting blacks as three-fifths of a person in the new Constitution to ensure Southern states would join the Union.
But author Ankeet Ball, writing for the “Columbia University & Slavery” online project, detects a change once Hamilton followed Washington into the new government.
“Though Hamilton had spent the latter part of his life conceding on the issue of slavery in order to further his personal ambitions and the interests of the early American republic, his work as the eventual Treasury Secretary of the United States allowed him to lay the foundations of an American economy independent of slavery,” Ball wrote.
In his influential “Report on the Subject of Manufactures,” Hamilton laid out a vision for an economy built on manufacturing, with trade tariffs and federal subsidies designed to encourage growth and attract immigrants. His economic plan was a “blueprint devoid of slavery,” Ball wrote.
It was in the final years of his cut-short life — after Washington left office — that Hamilton finally began working directly on the issue. He devoted his time to the New York Manumission Society, which he and several friends had founded shortly after the Revolution but had let languish. Now Hamilton pushed a New York emancipation law, which passed in 1799, and advocated for the revolution in Haiti that saw blacks throw off French rule and form their own democracy.
Jefferson agreed with Hamilton that slavery should end, and that it belittled the slaveholder as much as the slave. But even though he penned the words of freedom that continue to inspire every July 4th, Jefferson left the hard work for future generations. He predicted that when blacks did get their freedom, they could never live alongside whites without the two races killing one another.
Hamilton believed they should just become fellow Americans.
“Of all the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, perhaps their assumptions about the racial future of America were most telling,” historian James Oliver Horton wrote in the New York Journal of American History. “For a man who had grown up in a black society in the West Indies, a multiracial New York or a multiracial America was not unimaginable.”
And in that sense, at least, Hamilton the man lives up to “Hamilton” the show.