Hamilton and Burr before the Duel

Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury to Washington, set up the Bank of America, stares out from the five dollar bill, leaving his imprint across America more than two hundred years later.

In the four years since “Hamilton” hit the New York stage, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony and Grammy-winning tale of this Founder’s rise to power and dramatic death dominated Broadway, the London stage, and now moves around the country, creating a hunger for more.

Hamilton and Burr’s political differences became American tragedy in1804, after years spent glaring across the political Federalist vs. Republican-Democrat divide– except for a brief time early in their careers when they both worked to limit slavery in New York.

A little Hamilton background–the pen saved him

Arriving in Boston in 1772, Hamilton entered a country preparing to severe ties with England and win its freedom. He came from the British West Indies, the illegitimate son of a woman of French and British ancestry and a Scottish Laird, who lived together but never married. Essentially an orphan after his father left and his mother died of smallpox, Hamilton went to work in the export-import business, making himself and his language skills essential to the trade.

As a teenager his break comes with the furry of the 1772 Chistiansted hurricane, which he chronicles for the Royal-Danish-American Gazette and writes his ticket off the island. Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow found the letter in his research, astonished a self-educated boy could write with such “verve and gusto” and equate the hurricane as a “divine rebuke to human vanity and pomposity.” On the basis of the essay, influential members of the community gathered funds to send him to New York to be educated.

Hamilton brings with him never-to-be-forgotten images of 250 scarecrow-like creatures struggling out of the depths of a Dutch Trader after traveling from West Africa’s Gold Coast to St. Croix, squeezed together like human sardines. His nostrils would remember for years the stench of the mass of humanity that had been held tightly in chains for months, bathing in each other’s bodily fluids. Working for the import-export firm, one of his responsibilities was to help inspect, house, groom and put a price on each one about to be auctioned. He shaved bodies and smeared them with palm oil until their muscles glistened in the sun. Some slave merchants came with their own branding irons to mark their purchases, adding the smell of burning flesh to auction sites.

While later Hamilton gained the highest rung of New York society by winning the hand of Eliza Schuyler and stepped up onto the ladder of national notority as the very young aide to General Washington, deep inside he carried a memory of man’s inhumanity. With it came a cry for freedom, equality, and fair play. He held close a parallel fear of the anarchy that can rise from undisciplined race to achieve that freedom. This may explain how Hamilton became such a strong Federalist, eager for an organized central government to unite the states.

A decade after coming to New York, he passed the New York bar after graduation from King College (Columbia University). Hamilton shuffled law practice as he served in the New York militia, then joined General Washington’s staff. After the Revolution, he gained position as a representative to the Congress of the Confederacy (before the Constitutional Convention).

His pen and organizing principles were applied to The Federalist Papers, making a case for New York to accept the Constitution. This lays the groundwork for America’s capitalist revolution, which he plans will operate at full-tilt using free labor.

A man of ideas and passion, battles with the mighty

Known as a faithful friend to his close circle of friends, Hamilton’s hair-trigger ego response could pull him into feuds of historic proportions with leaders and rivals, including Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and finally, Burr. The question arose: would Hamilton embrace a glittering American future and neglect his impoverished West Indian roots once the war ended?

Early on his preference for the British cause (after the war, obviously not before) stood him up against strong Federalists and seemed to place Hamilton squarely on the side of the monied class, what we’d call the one-percenters. Which side would Hamilton take on the issue of slavery? Could his marriage to the ravishing, wealthy, and well-connected Eliza Schuyle sway his decision? Her father held twenty-seven slaves at his Albany mansion and his fields and mills near Saratoga.

Contrary to popular belief, in the 18th century wealthy families in New Jersey and New York retained slaves to serve as cooks, maids and butlers, even to serve as status symbols. New York City held slave auctions in the 1750s and by the 1790s one in five New York City households had slaves or indentured servants.

Slaves and free blacks were being stolen off the streets of New York when on January 25, 1785 when a group of concerned citizens gathered at the home of innkeeper John Simmons to form the New York Manumission Society. Prominent New Yorker John Jay was voted chair, even though he owned five slaves. He authored five of The Federalist Papers with fifty-nine completed by Hamilton and Madison, to promote New York ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Jay believed unless gradual abolition of slavery became law in the U.S., “her prayers to heaven for liberty would be impious.”

Hamilton attended a meeting of the Manumission Society in July as the organization developed a campaign against slavery with lectures, essays, and a registry to prevent free blacks from being dragged back into slavery. The Society also established an African Free School to teach older boys carpentry and navigation, and dressmaking and embroidery to older girls. The school’s goal: to keep slaves from “running into practices of immorality or sinking into habits of idleness,” taking the era’s paternalistic and judgmental approach to slavery.

By February Hamilton took an active role forming the Society’s Ways and Means committee to produce answers concerning how to address New York’s slave population. The conclusions seemed abrupt to the slave owners in the group, but lacked the speedy conclusion people of color prayed for. The proposal to members: slaves under twenty-eight should gain their freedom on their thirty-fifth birthday; those between twenty eight and thirty-eight should be freed seven years hence; and those above forty-five should be freed immediately.

Truth be told, Burr kept four or five household slaves. As he moved politically towards the Republican-Democratic party of Jefferson, Burr no longer spoke like an abolitioinist. According to Chernow, by 1831 Burr tried to discourage William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the Liberator, from persisting in his antislavery crusade. Garrison, who went on to become an advisor to Abraham Lincoln, said of Burr: “His manner was patronizing. . .As he revealed himself to my moral sense, I saw he was destitute of any fixed principles.”

Hamilton’s committee’s proposal did not gain the support of the Society since half its members were slaveowners. They feared members would “withdraw their servies and gradually fall off from the Society,” This did not stop Hamilton. In February 1786, he became a member of the Society’s standing committee lobbying the New York State Legislature to halt the export of slaves from New York, using a pamphlet, “a Dialogue on the Slavery of Africans etc.” Then he signed a petition reinforcing this position, deploring the conditions for blacks exported “like cattle and other articles of commerce to the West Indies and the southern states.” The petition didn’t mince words, calling the practice “so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.”

An illustrious list of Founders and Revolutionary leaders signed this petition just three years after the Revolution ended. Many in the Society would be friends of Hamilton since he came to America, like Robert Trout, his roommate at Kings College (Columbia University); Nicholas Fish, New York Revolutionary warrior and ancestor of generations of politicians; Hercules Mulligan, Irish- American tailor and secret agent for General Washington; William Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of New Jersey (1776-1790); John Jay, first Chief of the U.S. Supreme Court and second Governor of New York. Governor Jay signed the legislature’s watered-down version of the Society’s bill permitting slave owners to free their slaves between the ages of 35 and 50.

While this permissive language insults America’s slaves, some whose ancestors were West Africans who arrived on the first ship to Jamestown in the 16th century, saw the promise of freedom postponed yet another century. The hopeful moment in the 1780s, marking the end of the slave trade in New York and slow emancipation of slaves, would be eclipsed by the need to placate the Southern states during the Constitutional Convention.

Hamilton, often criticized as an elitist, showed himself a friend to the oppressed, despite his links to power and wealth. Whether this reflects the perils his French-British mother faced, possibly as a woman of mixed race, may never determined. His drive and ambition served him well and pulled him out of the crowd. He used his hard-earned skills to write and speak on behalf of those locked into a life of slavery after he blazed his name across the Revolutionary era. Hamilton’s talent for genius tempered by a stubborn, take-no-prisoners ego could have has an even greater impact on America were it not for his knack to wreck promising personal alliances.

Stay tuned for more about this clever man of adventure and a look at Aaron Burr’s life turned after the duel.


1772 Christainsted hurricane. Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group, 2004) p. 32

Her father held twenty-seven slaves at his Albany mansion and his fields and mills. Ibid., 210.

Slaves and free blacks were being stolen off the streets. Chernow, p. 214.

Jay believed unless gradual abolition…”her prayers to heaven for liberty…” Richard Brookhiser, Gentleman Revolutionary. New York: Free Press, 1999. p. 34

The school’s goal to keep slaves from “running into practices of immorality…” Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 286.

Hamilton’s motion. . .A subsequent committee said its adoption would cause members to “withdraw their services and gradually fall off from the Society. NYHS-NYCMS, reel 2 (ca. August-September 1786)

“a practice so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with liberty. . .” Chernow, p. 214

“His manner was patronizing…” destitude of any fixed principles. Milton Lomask, Aaron Burr: The Conspirac and Years of Exile. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980.p. 403.

Hamilton’s committee proposal, Chernow, p. 214.

The petition didn’t mince words, “so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent… NYHS-NYCMS March 1786.

An illustrious list of Founders. Chernow, p. 216.

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