These days the name Alexander Hamilton is immediately associated with the subject of Ron Chernow’s 2004 best-selling biography and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical”. This man’s unlikely story from troubled beginnings in the West Indies to his status among the key founders of the United States is now familiar to millions, as is the idea that Hamilton was an abolitionist who took a principled stand against slavery. Yet Miranda’s production, at least, is a piece of modern theatre, not history, and the true story behind its 18th-century protagonist appears altogether more sobering.
Despite voicing certain progressive ideas, Hamilton’s real position on slavery was, argue various historians, equivocal at best and came second to his overriding social and political ambitions. His interest in upward mobility saw him marry into the Schuylers of Albany, New York, a wealthy and prestigious family who owned numerous compelled labourers. Moreover, according to Schuyler Mansion researcher Jessie Serfilippi, Hamilton’s personal correspondence and ledgers show he not only bought and sold enslaved persons for his in-laws, but actually possessed and hired-out his own human chattels.
No less relevant to the question of Hamilton’s real attitude toward slavery is the impact of his youth in the Caribbean. There he not only witnessed the brutality of wholesale slavery but lived in a household serviced by enslaved domestic servants and, from approximately twelve till seventeen years old, worked for (and briefly managed) a firm that imported captive Africans. Yet what made such concrete experiences possible was an underlying European/colonial culture that viewed slavery as essential to its economy. That culture, as conveyed to him most immediately through his parents and their inherited values, placed a premium on class, privilege and material success to which ends the enforced servitude of others was both an accepted means and logical corollary.
Hamilton’s father (with whom he stayed in contact later in life) was physically present in his youth till he reached the age of ten, and his mother till about age thirteen. The question is therefore “who were his parents and what were their backgrounds?”
The family of his mother, Rachel Faucette, were modest planters on the Island of Nevis who possessed at least seven slaves. Rachel’s father was a Huguenot doctor of some means who had fled religious persecution in France. Like other physician-planters, his medical knowledge was an asset to his own business and a saleable one to other slave-holders. Rachel’s mother was a class-conscious English woman who pushed her daughter into a disastrous marriage with a flamboyant Danish pretender on St. Croix, who squandered a good deal of Rachel’s paternal inheritance on two failed plantations and then had her imprisoned for alleged adultery. Rachel’s older sister had greater success, marrying a more prosperous planter/slave-owner on St. Croix where Rachel would later operate a supply-store for planters with their help.
Before doing so she fled her tumultuous marriage for St. Kitts where she met Hamilton’s future father, James Hamilton. Without inheritance and financially insolvent, having already failed as a merchant on the island, James could at least boast aristocratic Scots lineage. His family were the esteemed “Hamiltons of Grange” from Stevenson, Ayrshire, whose vast acreage was rented to struggling peasant farmers, artisans and weavers. Their home was the gothic Kerelaw Castle or “Grange” after their ancestral residence.
The previous owners of their land, the Cunninghams, had invested in local coalmining and large-scale salt production at nearby “Saltcoats” on the coast. This involved boiling sea water with coal extracted and hauled locally by a special class of men, women and children (Scotland’s “Colliers and Salters”) who, from 1606, were legally bound to the fate of their forbears, albeit for petty wages. Not until 1799 did these people gain the right to choose other employment. Meanwhile, earlier that century, the Hamiltons had become increasingly linked to the Cunninghams when one of Alexander’s cousins, Elizabeth Hamilton, married the heir to their fortune. The Hamiltons also appear to have mined coal in partnership with neighbouring blue-bloods the Kelsos of Hullerhirst (or “Hilderhirst”).
Clearly, the idea of profit acquired at the expense of dehumanised labour was nothing new to the Hamiltons, and while James engaged with colonial slavery abroad, other siblings did so at home by importing the products of slavery for European consumption. His younger brother William married into a prominent family tied to the Glasgow “Tobacco Lords”, becoming a successful Clyde merchant with imports of sugar from the Caribbean and tobacco from the slave fields of Virginia. By 1797, his fortunes waning, William wrote to his then-famous American nephew, ostensibly to connect with a long-lost relative, but also to secure a steady income for his sailor son, Robert, once in his employment. Alexander was delighted to hear from the Scottish family of whom his father had spoken and happily secured a lieutenancy in the US Navy for Robert while hosting him in New York for 5 months in or about 1798.
In 1804 it was Robert’s older brother, (Professor) Alexander Hamilton, who benefited from the American’s influence. An important linguist, this Alexander had earlier served as secretary/translator to Bengal Governor-General Cornwallis (the same Cornwallis previously defeated by his American cousin at the seminal Battle of Yorktown). In 1803, while in Paris cataloguing Sanskrit documents and sharing his exclusive knowledge of India with the European intelligentsia, Professor Alexander was detained following a recommencement of hostilities with Britain. However, shortly before his death in a duel with Arron Burr, Alexander the US statesman would help liberate his namesake-cousin by writing to an old friend, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, then Napoleon’s Foreign Minister. Professor Alexander was not only spared internment in Verdun but given extraordinary liberties of movement within wartime France.
By 1806 the Professor was back in England beginning a long-standing teaching engagement at the East India Company College. If he was a Whig intellectual who valued Indian culture and wrote about the “evils physical and moral incidental to a state of colonial slavery”, he was also a loyal servant of the “Honourable Company”, an instructor to its civil service and a defender of Cornwallis’ imperialist reforms in Bengal. Through familial, business and professional avenues the Professor was also associated with other Scots within the company fold, some of them major slave holders.
One such was a more distantly related Hamilton from Saltcoats. Likely an early trading partner of the Professor and his father William, (Sir) Alexander Hamilton became a wealthy East India merchant and member of Devon’s landed gentry where he owned an estate called “the Retreat”. From his brother, Dr. Robert Hamilton, he had inherited two plantations on the Caribbean island of Grenada including the so-called “Samaritan Estate”. Together these enslaved up to 150 people. Identified as a “friend” in Sir Alexander’s last will and testament, Professor Alexander Hamilton was among the generously rewarded executors who attended its official “proving” in London in August 1809 following the old merchant’s death.
Sir Alexander’s chief beneficiary was his Scottish nephew, Alexander (Hamilton) Kelso, a young Madras civil servant and recent heir to his own family’s fortune in Stevenston. Now astonishingly wealthy, he changed his name to “Alexander Hamilton Hamilton Esq. of the Retreat and Hullerhirst” pursuant to his late uncle’s instructions and, in 1811, began a life-long residence at the “Retreat” in Devon.
In 1835, under the terms of emancipation, he received approximately £500,000 (in today’s terms) as compensation for the freedom of 140 Grenadian slaves. According to one theory, among the Samaritan’s Estate’s “freed” labourers were the ancestors of Formula One racing champion Sir Lewis Hamilton whose surname would, therefore, be traceable to the plantation’s last slave-owner, Alexander Hamilton Hamilton Esq..
What does this brief overview of Alexander Hamilton’s family background suggest about his attitude toward slavery? While his formative years in the West Indies provided direct experience of institutional enslavement, the underlying culture and conventions of his parents and their extended families considered slavery a vital economic tool along with the acquisition of wealth and standing through marriage, inheritance and familial influence. Though such values and practices were present in the Caribbean of the 18th century, they had far deeper roots in the European heritage of Hamilton’s extended family. His choice to marry into and assist the affluent slave-owning Schuylers of New York is entirely consistent with this cultural legacy. But the implications are deeper.
One can picture Robert Hamilton in the New York living room of Mr and Mrs Hamilton in 1798; regaling them with stories of the Hamiltons of Grange and of their links to the Cunninghams and Kelsos; of his father’s connections and successes as a tobacco and sugar merchant and of his learned brother’s influential friends within the “Honourable Company”. Did such stories motivate Alexander to subsequently title his Manhattan estate “the Grange” after the family home in Scotland? More importantly, as they sat chatting in the living room, were they waited-on by the enslaved property of Robert’s American relatives? In both respects it seems likely.