Hamilton: A Revolutionary Manumission Abolitionist?, Reviewed by Ilya



Throughout the biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow usually gives readers a choice of interpretation, placing different versions of events which are debatable “within [their] ‘context’”, “bath[ing] [them] in a common ‘atmosphere’”.[1] He pays great attention to details and does not attempt to integrate Hamilton’s story in “a single process of development” or display his data as “functions of general laws of cause and effect”[2], Instead, he collects facts rather than trying to integrate them into the narrative of progress. Thus, according to Hayden White’s “Theory of Interpretation in History”, Chernow uses a satirical mode of emplotment, a contextualist mode of explanation, and a liberal mode of ideological implication.[3] However, throughout the book Hamilton is described as a “staunch”, “fierce”, “unwavering”, “uncompromising”, “fervent”, and “committed” abolitionist.[4] The use of the strong language that implies Hamilton’s true, selfless and emotional involvement in the case, is supported by evidence that suggests that his anti-slavery talk might have been populist, or dictated purely by his financial vision. However, such options are disregarded by Chernow, whose clear-cut case for Hamilton as a selfless abolitionist serves as “magnifying glass”[5] for the reader, a cold hard fact in his contextualist explanation. However, on such occasions, Chernow’s narrative switches to a romanticized plot, idiographic explanation, and anarchist mode of ideological implication[6], as it depicts Hamilton as a sort of a knight in shining armour fighting for his ideals against the system. I would argue that by making the narrative switch in a manner that is hardly perceivable for the majority of his readership, Chernow betrays his reader by making him unquestionably believe in selfless nature of Hamilton’s fight against slavery.

The concept of historical interpretation can be summarized as “exlusi[on of] certain facts”, arguably “irrelevant to [the] narrative”, and “filling in the gaps in […] information on inferential and speculative grounds”, where facts are lacking.[7] Chernow’s approach to historical interpretation throughout the biography is essentially “atmospheric historicism” or contextualism. He places facts in the general context of the time[8] and this permits the reader to make conclusions about them. For example, a historiographical debate whether Hamilton was born in 1757 or 1755 is presented with an explanation of evidence that supports both dates. 1757 was “used by Hamilton himself”, while in 1768, “a probate court in St. Croix reported him as thirteen”, suggesting 1755 as the year of his birth.[9] Moreover, the irony, a supporting trope of satirical mode of emplotment, closely related to contextualist explanation, comes to play in an assessment of Hamilton’s words that he is “a youth about seventeen” as “an adolescent way to say he was sixteen”.[10] Although Chernow concludes  that 1755 is the preferable interpretation because of the preference of “the integrity of contemporary over retrospective evidence”,[11] he leads his readers to expect that questionable facts will be evaluated based on their compatibility with “atmosphere” and trends of the given period, just like contextualism implies.[12] The other speculation, ”that Hamilton was an illegitimate son of” Thomas Stevens, is not entirely refuted. Instead, it is also placed in context. If it was true, it would explain Alexander’s distanced relationship with his brother and father both named James Hamilton, and his proximity to Thomas Stevens and his son, Edward.[13] This trend of liberal interpretation, which permits many versions of questionable data to be included, runs throughout the book, so the popular history reader might assume that the facts represented from a singular viewpoint are unquestionable. However, the use of romanticized narrative in Chernow’s discourse of Hamilton’s abolitionist ideas goes against this natural assumption.

The romanticist approach to history is represented by an idiographic approach of “magnifying glasses” for the reader, where a process is said to be better explained and specified[14]. Chernow argues that “Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of [his] economic vision”[15], and never considers the possibility that his abolitionism was a consequence of his economic vision. Of Hamilton’s St. Croix apprenticeship in Kortright and Cruger, a company that handled, among other shipments, slaves, Chernow writes that the cause of later Hamiltonian abolitionism was “a permanent detestation of the system”, obtained from St. Croix trade.[16] The evidence that he ignores is “the frequency with which […] Cruger placed newspaper notices to catch runaway slaves,”[17] that might have provoked Hamilton’s doubt in a profitability of such system in the North. Indeed, in Harvey Amani Whitfield’s analysis of post-independence slavery in the North, we find that “even the youngest slaves [there] had valuable skills” and that “versatile and multi-occupational [slave] labour” dominated “along the Hudson River”.[18] Thus, “slaveholders greatly valued their work”, to the point where one slave could cost more than four oxen and one heifer[19]. Therefore, the escape of a skilled slave in the North cost more than in the South, where the monotone task of collecting cash crops did not require such a diversity of skills. Moreover, “the use of free black labour, which began in 1780s […] made chattel bondage unnecessary”,[20] as it enabled a use of institutional racism to push the salaries of Black workers down so they can be used to do similar tasks without a risk of escaping from their owners for very low remuneration. That Hamilton’s acquaintance with the high costs of Northern slaves’ escapes did not provoke Chernow to think that abolition might have fit with Hamilton’s financial program is telling. Later on, he dismisses the alleged cynicism of Hamilton’s approach to the creation of a Black battalion. “If we do not make use of [Blacks] in this way, the enemy probably will,”[21] writes Hamilton to the Congress. Chernow characterizes such writing as “plac[ing] political realism at the service of a larger ethical framework”.[22] Hamilton is favourably compared to Jefferson. Chernow describes Hamilton as someone who believed “in the genetic equality of blacks and whites”[23], as if being less racist than Jefferson was a serious achievement. Hamilton’s resolution on gradual manumission presented to New York Manumission Society in 1785 was “too strong to be swallowed by their peers”[24], which Chernow perceives as a further proof of fierce abolitionism. However, it may have been made so strong on purpose, to reaffirm Hamilton’s status of a deeply moral person without changing anything within the existing system. In fact, Hamilton’s opportunist populist tendencies do not escape Chernow’s satirical treatment. Hamilton, according to him “was trying to have it both ways”, when scaring Southerners that Jefferson might use his fake “sympathy for the slaves [to] emancipate” them.[25] In the end, Hamilton’s opportunism was already present when he wrote “his way out of poverty” at the age of seventeen by writing a letter describing the storm in Nevis.[26] Back then, “[l]est anyone suspect that an unfeeling Hamilton was capitalizing on mass misfortune, [it was] noted that [he] had at first declined to publish it”, remarks Chernow ironically. However, all his irony disappears as he points to the selfless nature of Hamilton’s abolitionism again and again, ignoring his own evidence.

In his views on interpretation, Hayden White permits considerable leeway, acknowledging possibility that there are “as many types of interpretations as there are historians”.[27] However, such a possibility would be extremely worrisome.  A switch from satirical, contextualist interpretation that permits the pluralism of explanations to an idiographic, romantic representation of abolitionism  makes Chernow’s debatable claims of sincerity of Hamilton’s anti-slavery sentiments acquire a certain degree of validity. For readers u unfamiliar with the historiography and with Hayden White’s thinking would probably not see the switch from presenting multiple viewpoints on questionable opinions to a romantic idealistic dogmatism. Since Chernow’s writing was mostly of impeccable quality and interest, popular histories like his deserve a chance to be told but require  a more responsible approach to treatment of collected evidence. Otherwise, speculation such as Chernow’s will make people believe that one of the Founding Fathers was definitely a “revolutionary manumission abolitionist” that genuinely thought that the Americans will “never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as [them]” [28], a questionable opinion that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton musical on Broadway borrowed from Chernow’s book. A questionable opinion that millions have heard and song along with.

[1] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4(2) (1973), 301.

[2] Ibid., 302.

[3] Ibid., 307.

[4] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 6, 23, 121, 495, 629, 730.

[5] White, 299.

[6] Ibid., 307.

[7] White, 281.

[8] Ibid., 301.

[9] Chernow, 16-17.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] White, 300.

[13] Chernow, 27-28.

[14] White, 299.

[15] Chernow, 6.

[16] Ibid., 31-33.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Harvey Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016), 23-24.

[19] Ibid., 50, 52.

[20] Ibid., 108.

[21] Chernow, 122.

[22] Ibid., 122.

[23] Ibid., 210.

[24] Ibid., 215.

[25] Ibid., 515.

[26] Ibid., 37.

[27] White, 307.

[28] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 27.

One response to “Hamilton: A Revolutionary Manumission Abolitionist?, Reviewed by Ilya”

  1. Jennifer Yoon says:

    Hiya Ilya,

    I really appreciated your post. I fully spent a month of my life last year listening to nothing but the soundtrack of Hamilton: An American Musical, and was always curious about how faithful Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show was to the book that inspired it.

    I find your argument that Hamilton was, in fact, an abolitionist because of his economic policy – not in spite of it- to be quite intriguing. I had the impression, given the correspondence, Hamilton shared with Laurens, who appears (from what little I know) seemed to be an abolitionist in earnest. I’d be curious to hear how you would square those letters with your convincing claim that Hamilton’s abolitionism was ambitious maneuvering.

    I’d also really be interested in seeing how Chernow treated the Schuyler Sisters. I was a huge fan of the sisters in the musical (especially “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine, so men say I’m intense or I’m insane” Angelica – though Peggy(!) is a close second), and would have loved to hear about how Chernow depicted and analyzed their role, both in Hamilton’s life, and as formidable historical figures in their own right.

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