History Is Written by the Victors
I am a huge Alexander Hamilton (the man) stan and Hamilton (the musical) stan. My fascination with Alexander Hamilton goes back to the 1990s. I was very excited when I found out that the “forgotten” founding father would be the subject of a musical. The musical is not 100% accurate, but it does Hamilton, the United States, and history justice. Even with this recent resurgence and among those who have seen the musical, I don’t have many who want to discuss A. Ham. As a hardcore African American woman liberal, I am reluctant to publish this post for fear it will not hit the right way. I am going to publish it anyway.
Maybe not discussing Alexander Hamilton with someone else is best. After reading people hellbent on making him the bad guy, I realize that I am way too invested in this extremely old dead man. I have noticed, and expected, that many people are viewing him through a modern-day lens. It is hard for me to state what I feel. Even though it is an educated opinion about a person, I have been actively reading about and, off and on, halfway researching since 1991. Especially when it comes to enslaved black people, it is hard for me to defend this dead white man to others who believe different sources of information than I do. I firmly believe he thought blacks should be free and were human (unlike Jefferson). For me, these are not modern-day beliefs but beliefs that transcend time.
I think the trouble and criticism on this subject come in because, since the musical’s popularity, some historians and other people say Hamilton should have done more than speak against slavery. Some say he had to have owned slaves because Washington and Hamilton’s father-in-law did (slave-owner adjacent?) or his mother’s family owned slaves. The part about Washington and Hamilton’s father-in-law is a weird way of creating a receipt. Getting back to the argument that I understand better (re: Hamilton should have done more): I wish he had. I say that with the knowledge that when he was forming the government, he tried hard to get the South to free their slaves, but they, including Washington, were not having it. Did he try as hard as he did to get a US bank established? No. Or to get a universal US currency going? No. Or to get foreign trade established? No. But he advocated on numerous occasions that slavery was inhumane. He refused to go after England on many occasions because they gave the enslaved who enlisted on the English side their promised freedom (I would love to do some research on what happened to them) during the Revolution.
I think it is easy to say in 2008 (when I think this book was published) and 2015 (when the musical began) that Hamilton should have done more than what he did. When you had founding fathers who were not slave-owner adjacent (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc.) but actually slave owners and those who thought orangutans were closer to the human race than blacks (Jefferson’s written words, which he could not genuinely have believed hence he was sleeping with Sally Hemings-f’ing hypocrite), he was to me a proven sincere ally for an issue he did not think he would win. Herein lies the difference on why I detest Jefferson (which all of my detestation for him does not rest on slavery, but that is enough — he was a cowardly jerk, and I can delve more into why I hate that he is so revered at a different time without once mentioning slavery) and not Hamilton when it comes to the slavery issue. Hamilton spoke out against slavery, protected the few he could (England’s black soldiers), his membership in the New York Manumission Society and his hand at trying to get people at the Constitutional Convention to embrace abolition compared to Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts here. Alas, Hamilton felt that uniting the nation and (some believe) advancing his career were more important than emancipation. A good description of Hamilton and slavery can be found here. I even disagree with saying he gave up on emancipation because he simply wanted to advance his career. I think he just thought he would not get people to budge on emancipation, but he can unify (mostly) the new nation. Did he also think of his career? Yes. Regardless, he knew emancipation was dead in the water, though.
I am rambling at this point and almost feel as if I am not getting what I am trying to say across, and it is coming off as if I am in denial about a racist. I don’t believe that, but that is the counter-narrative being floated around about Hamilton these days. In high school, what drew me to Hamilton and Jay was that they were the founding fathers that spoke up for early American blacks, and I have seen no evidence that has changed my mind on how they truly felt about black people. If Hamilton was only thinking of his career, he could have fallen in line and stopped stating that he thought blacks should be free. He never renounced or stopped saying that.
As a black person who has always applauded Hamilton’s stance on blacks and why I started this dead founding father “romance” with him (sad to write it, sadder to read it out loud, and descriptions of his 5'7" height makes him not my type — but so intelligent ), I am a bit bothered by the second smear campaign that “he has to go through” because people feel as if in the late 1700s/early 1800s his constant saying, writing, and trying to advocate that emancipation for blacks was the best thing to do was not enough. I am sure there are about 100 more articles written since 2015 that “not trying to hear it historians” and “Jeffersonians” will offer up, and these same people are wiping their backsides with what they would call writings of Hamilton’s “supposed” antislavery stance. (I retreat to my bubble unless someone wants to discuss facts and receipts.)
Things I see consistent evidence with about Hamilton are:
- He was an elitist to a certain degree.
- He was not totally altruistic.
- He was definitely arrogant.
- He was brash.
- He could even be helluva petty.
- He was not a racist for his time or our time.
He also believed in treating prisoners like human beings and refused to torture or humiliate captured British soldiers. He was in 10 duels before the one that killed him, where he either didn’t shoot or shot in the air. He shot in the air with Burr, but we all know how that ended. He sent his deadbeat father and poor brother money as they were destitute and wanted them to come to New York. He took in orphans and treated them like they were his own. He kept a list of poor women with children and periodically checked on them to see if they needed food or clothes.