ALBANY — The Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site is working to parse fact from fiction when it comes to Alexander Hamilton’s role as an enslaver.
While some historians have made the case that Hamilton was an abolitionist or a reluctant slave owner, an article from the Schuyler Mansion claims otherwise.
“ . . . Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” writes Jessie Serfilippi in a report titled “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver.”
During the past few years, the historical interpreter has been poring over ledgers and correspondence of Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, in an effort to gain a clearer picture of Hamilton’s involvement with slavery.
“In the 21st century, Alexander Hamilton is almost universally depicted as an abolitionist. From Ron Chernow’s ‘Hamilton’ to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ there is little room in modern discourse for questioning the founder’s thoughts and feelings on slavery,” writes Serfilippi.
She goes on to explore Hamilton’s relationship with the slave trade from his childhood to his adulthood. Hamilton grew up in a home with several enslaved people, and early on in his career he worked as a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, a St. Croix trading post that imported and sold slaves on several occasions, according to Serfilippi.
She points out that throughout his career as a politician, Hamilton acted as a middleman for his family and friends to purchase enslaved people. In Hamilton’s 1784 cash book, he documented the sale of a woman named Peggy, who Hamilton sold to Malachi Treat, a physician Hamilton knew. In his 1797 cash book, he recorded that he spent $225 purchasing “a negro woman and child” for John Church, his brother-in-law. According to Serfilippi, Hamilton and his wife also owned at least four enslaved people.
While the article “As Odious and Immoral a Thing” was released last year, it was only recently posted online via the Schuyler Mansion’s website. It’s part of a growing body of research that historians and interpreters at the historic site have been working on over the past few years, according to Serfilippi. They have been researching the lives of those who Philip Schuyler and his wife, Catherine Van Rensselaer, enslaved, creating programs and tours to share with visitors.
That research, and especially Serifilippi’s research on Hamilton, is timely in part because of the local and national attention the Tony-award-winning musical “Hamilton” has garnered for the past few years. It debuted in 2015, and though Broadway is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the musical is available to view via Disney+.
It’s kept the Schuyler Mansion busy, dramatically increasing attendance, with people coming from all over the world to learn about the Schuyler family. The Mansion was home to Philip and Catherine Schuyler, and it’s where Hamilton and Eliza were married in 1780.
While Serfilippi said the historic site is grateful for the interest the musical sparked, there is a problem with the storyline.
“I think there is [a] notion that stems from the musical stating he’s an abolitionist, which he wasn’t. I personally enjoy the musical, [but] that is the one point of contention I take with it. It does create a false perception that erases the people he enslaved from the narrative,” Serfilippi said.
Serfilippi’s article responds directly to “Hamilton” as well as Ron Chernow’s book “Alexander Hamilton,” among other works from historians. According to Sarah Schmidt, director of special collections and archives at Union College, Serfilippi’s interpretation of these historical documents represents a modern methodology.
“It really reflects the new pedagogy in terms of working with primary sources, where we encourage students to think not only about what’s there but about what’s missing from the historic record and consider why that is,” Schmidt said. “What Jessie Serfilippi seems to have done is dig into the records of Hamilton and honestly make a strong case, in my opinion, for his involvement in slavery and the slave trade.”
It also reflects the recent interest in looking into the past of historical figures, and reconsidering their legacies and how they should be represented.
In Albany, Mayor Kathy Sheehan ordered the removal of the Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler statue earlier this year, in part because he was “reportedly the largest owner of enslaved people in Albany during his time,” according to a release from the mayor’s office.
The order was met with both backlash and praise.
Those reactions have been echoed in cities across the country as other statues of historical figures are removed. It’s made people grapple with long-held ideas about historical figures.
Serfilippi’s report does something similar, challenging some readers’ views of Hamilton.
“People are complex and I think in the past we created a vision or a myth of our Founding Fathers, often at the expense of the people who helped them every day. So I think it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad,” Schmidt said.
In the report, Serfilippi writes that some historians have not fully acknowledged Hamilton’s role as an enslaver. When asked why that’s the case, she said: “If I had to guess it’s because we want that abolitionist Founding Father. We want someone to point to and say, ‘They did the right thing.’ And there are people in that time period who did, but Hamilton wasn’t one of them.”
Around the time that the report first came out in 2019, she spoke about the topic during a panel discussion of Hamilton’s legacy at the Albany Institute of History & Art. According to Patrick Stenshorn, director of interpretive programs at the Institute, people tend to fall into one of two camps when presented with the information.
“There are people who view any engagement with slavery as being an immoral wrong regardless of how deep somebody was involved in it,” Stenshorn said. “Then there are others who defend people who may have been caught up in the world of the 18th century that included slavery, but they themselves did not actively partake.”
On museum tours, especially when the Institute had “The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle” exhibit on view in 2019, guides fielded questions about Hamilton and the Schuylers, and whether or not they owned slaves.
“For people who were fans of the musical, the musical does give a very anti-slavery angle to it. … So when you also bring up the fact that Hamilton was the lawyer who was buying and selling slaves on behalf of his brother and sister-in-law, people can be surprised about that because the musical does portray him in the way that Ron Chernow does, as a very strong abolitionist, which not every historian agrees with that,” Stenshorn said.
Reactions like those are part of the reason Serfilippi hopes more people read the report, though she also wants to acknowledge the slaves themselves.
“ . . . Every time we said he wasn’t an enslaver, we weren’t acknowledging their existence. I wrote this paper so people could see Hamilton more complexly [and] they could learn the truth about . . . his relationship to the slave trade, but the driving force was for us to know and remember the people that he enslaved,” Serfilippi said.
Serfilippi also wants others to build on her research.
“I think studying Hamilton’s life is important because he’s such a phenomenon right now. People are eager for more facts about him, and I think the more we can discover and tell about a person of the past, [to] show that they were complex, the better,” Serfilippi said.
Stenshorn believes the article will continue the debate over the legacies of the Founding Fathers and may just make people do some research of their own.
“It will encourage people to think critically, because there’s a lot of gray in his thoughts and his opinions about slavery so, for those who read the pamphlet, my hope would be that people go and seek out the stories. Many of the primary sources that she references in the pamphlet are available; you can find them publicly,” Stenshorn said. “People can make their own interpretations based on some of the letters and documents that she references.”
To read “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” visit parks.ny.gov.