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.

What turned Adams and Jefferson into Revolutionaries?

John Turnball’s painting Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress

As Founding Fathers, they went together like a hand-thrown, ceramic pitcher and a French porcelain teacup. Neither was afraid to break some China. After all, they were poised to upset the 18th century world order. Their political differences surfaced early on–fierce disagreements about the size and cost of government–but for the sake of the Revolution, they soldiered on. What turned these solid, British subjects trained in the English legal system into firebrand Revolutionaries?

Ambitious men, both Adams and Jefferson benefited from their links to the Crown prior to the Indominable Acts, which taxed and punished the Colonists for failing to be subservient to England. Some would say the Boston Tea Party, when white men dressed up as Native Americans to dump expensive English tea into the harbor, showed the ire of the Colonists.

Mounting Fury and Ambition

Pictured by some as Mutt and Jeff–Adams the pudgy midget straining to reach five foot compared with Jefferson, the ramrod six footer. Adams struggled to show up in a proper powdered wig and tidy attire, while Jefferson made certain his dress mirrored the image of a suive squire entering the drawing room. Adams, the simple New England farmer of moderate means who through the force of character became an outstanding, affluent lawyer who inspired and moved legislative bodies to action with his oration. The younger Jefferson rarely rose to speak in any legislative body, saving his ideas for smaller groups, but he had a wicked, mighty pen–a talent Adams recognized soon enough.

In February 1770, a mob attacked the residence of an informer for the Custom service, who fired on the crowd and killed a young boy. The next week off-duty soldiers and dock workers lost control and a brawl ensured near the water. The Sons of Liberty in London, who supported the Colonists, warned, “America is on the point of bursting into flames.” (1)

The following month the Boston Masacre took place on March 5, 1770. Bostonians were protesting economic restraints outside the Customs House when five people were killed and others injured by British soldiers. Sdams called it the “slaughter in King Street,” others referred to it as the Boston Massacre. (2) King George retreated from all except the tax on tea. Adams thought the protests would recede and never surface again.

Adams Defends British Soldiers in Court

Protesters led by John’s cousin, Samuel, sought to have John defend the soldiers, not wanting the trial appear to be a sham. John accepted, but not for a grand fee, he said he earned around 18 guineas (about the cost of a pair of shoes). (3) Rather he believed the soldiers deserved a fair trial, but he also knew the trial would showcase his ability as a defense attorney, raising his reputation as one of the most distinguished lawyers in the country.

He’d been bitten by the political bug an sought a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature. Political payoff it may not have been, but before the trial ended, one of Boston’s four legislators resigned his assembly seat and Adams was elected as his replacement.” (4) He began by getting the trial postponed, allowing tempers to cool. Adams kept up his end of the argain, according to one in the audience delivering “the finest speech I ever heard in my life–equal to the greatest orator that ever spoke in Rome or Greece.” (5)

Wear and Tear of the Circuit

Like Lincoln in Illinois sixty years later, Adams rode a jusicial circuit prior to the Revolution from Maine to Boston and Cap Cod to the western frontier in Berkshire Count. He called this a “maked, barren journey” of a vagabond that “starved his soul.” (6) During the French and Indian War, Adams became caught up in the spirit of the British Army and wanted to join it in his youth, but followed the law as a career.

In 1761 British customs officials in Boston demanded pament from Americans in the form of “writs of assistance.” Pervasive searches of cargo attempted to discover smuggled goods in violation of imperial trade laws. Adams attended the subsequent trial, saying his concept of American independence came out of those trials. He began to picture Britain as a “haughty, powerful nation who held us in great contempt.” (7)

Adams realized that a collision with Great Britain could be inevitable, but at the time he focused on his practice and his courtship of Abigail. By 1765, Adams feared that his legal reputation would sufer if he openly criticized the mother country. (8) Two years later Britain had won Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River, but struggled mightily to pay for the war, so looked to the Colonies to help reduce the British debt through the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765.

The Sugar Act did not amount to much bu the Stamp Act unleashed the furor lurking below the surface. Stamp distributors were threatened and acts of violence forced several out of office. Economic boycotts began and the Virginia House of Burgesses denounced them. Yet Adams still doubted the staying power of the crisis, seeing the potential to become “an ecormous Engine fabricated. . .for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” (9)

“We are in no Sense represented”

Cousin Samuel named John to a panel to urge Governor Francis Bernard to reoped the provincial courts closed by the stamp Act. Adams told the governor that the tax was unconstitutional because it was enacted “where we are in no Sense represented. . . A Parliament of Great Britain can have no more Right to tax the Colonies than a Parliament of Paris.” Paris.” (10)

Adams, who began life philosophically closer to the British from his stud o the law, said this situation turned him into a revolutionary. (11) In 1766, relieved when the British repealed the Stamp Act, Adams began his climb up the political ladder on Braintree’s Board of Selectment, following in the footsteps of his father, who help the office for nine terms. John achieved this post just seven years into his legal career at thirty.

But the British weren’t done punishing the Colonists and imposted the Townshend Duting on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea imported into America and created a board of customs to enforce them. In New York the assembly was suspended for falling to house the British army, bu only minor resistance occurred initially. Then the British impounded the ship of patroit John Hancock’s slook, Liberty, and charged him with smuggling. From early on he’d used his wealth to support patriot causes. This action seemed a retaliation by the British. Adams defended Hancock in court and the charges were dropped. Bostonians erupted immediately when Hancock’s ship was seized and the economic boycott of Britain began in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. (12)

Washington stepped up in 1770, now bored with foxhunting (perhaps the 18th century Virginia plantation equivalent of golf) and his daily tours of his plantation on horseback. He invited his neighbor and noted legislator george Mason over to draft a boycott plan. Washington also joined the assembly committee to strengthen enforcement of the boycott.

Jefferson Rises

As a twenty-two year old law student in 1765, Jefferson listened in the hallway to Patrick Henry’s attack on the Stamp Act, he immediately learned of Henry’s capacity to move men to action. Jefferson later spoke of the “torrents of sublime eloquence” that sparked “the dawn of the Revolution.” He signed Washington’s embargo, but obviousl was not totally onboard as he ordered a mahogany piano and windows from England, saying the piano would be stored until the embargo ended. (13)

When Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, he moved Jeffersona nd his countrymen to action, whether they be from Vrginia, Pennsylvanie, New York, or New England.”I am not a Virginian,” he said.”I am an American,” pushing for solidarity that spoke to his countrymen and may be slipping away for some today. Henry motivated the Colonies to law aside their unrealistic visions that the British would come around, but now they prepared to fight. (14)

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He held his wrists together for his audience, as though they were in chains.”Almighty God! I know not what cause others might takebut as for me, give me liverty,” and he grasped an ivory penknife and thrust it into his chest, “or give me death.” Thereafter Virginians established militia in each county to prepare themselves.Concord and Lexington occurred in Massachusetts less than a month later on April 19, 1775, opening the Revolutionary War. (15)

Stay tuned for more Tales of the Founders in Past Becomes Present next week.

(1) John Ferling, Setting the World on Fire, (New York: Oxford Press, 2000)  p. 77.

(2) (3) Ibid.

(4) L. H. Butterfield, et. al, eds, The Dairy and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vol. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 1961), 3:292-94.

(5) Ferling, p. 57.

(6) Ibid, 58.

(7) Ferling, 69.

(8) Ibid, p. 64.

(9) Ferling, p 70.

(10) John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”

(11) Ferling,p.71.

(12) Ibid., 74.

(13) John Ellis, American Sphinx, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000), p. 28, 32-33.

(14) Ferling, p. 76

(15) Ibid, p. 78.