Hamilton descendant speaks out against Schuyler Mansion report

Jessica Serfilippi is pictured in the Schuyler Mansion in Albany last month. Inset: Douglas Hamilton. (Peter R. Barber/Staff Photographer and provided photo)

Jessica Serfilippi is pictured in the Schuyler Mansion in Albany last month. Inset: Douglas Hamilton. (Peter R. Barber/Staff Photographer and provided photo)

A descendant of Alexander Hamilton is speaking out against an essay released by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, which explores Hamilton’s involvement in slavery.

Douglas Hamilton, who says he is the fifth great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton, claims that the historic site’s essay is biased and error-filled. 

“The agency stands by the research in this paper,” the Schuyler Mansion wrote in response to the criticism. “We appreciate the attention it has brought to Hamilton’s complex life. We will review all comments with an open mind, as any careful historian would.” 

Titled “As Odious and Immoral a Thing: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” the essay was published last year, though it was only recently made available on the Schuyler Mansion’s website. The Gazette interviewed the author Jessie Serfilippi and wrote about the essay in October. Since then, news about her research has spread far and wide. The New York Times covered it, as well as The Guardian and a host of other news outlets.

Douglas Hamilton, an Ohio resident, has responded with an essay titled “Opening the Door to Their Emancipation: Alexander Hamilton and Slavery,” which tells a different story. He, along with historian Michael E. Newton and other researchers working under the pseudonym “Philo Hamilton,” has been working on the essay for several months. It directly addresses and in many instances refutes “As Odious and Immoral a Thing.”

Among several points of contention between the two essays is how Hamilton’s role is described when it comes to slavery.

Serfilippi’s essay describes Hamilton as a “middleman” who purchased enslaved servants for family members and clients, using Hamilton’s cash books and letters as evidence. Serfilippi writes “Especially when paired with letters, these cash books make it evident that the enslavement of men, women, and children of African descent was part of both Hamilton’s professional and personal life.”

“Opening a Door to Their Emancipation” refutes that claim.

“Hamilton’s role in slave related transactions has been described as that of a ‘middleman,’ which has a rather broad definition and is somewhat vague,” reads the essay. “In fact, Hamilton’s involvement can best be described as that of a ‘banker.’ He handled the exchange of money between the two parties. There is no evidence he was involved in the actual purchase or sale of the slaves.”

“Opening a Door to Their Emancipation” also claims that Serfilippi erred in her use of the 1790 census. She writes that the 1790 and 1800 censuses are not accurate because they list an incorrect number of people in the Hamilton household, and cites a post from the New York Public Library among other resources, as evidence. She writes that the inaccuracies in the census “heightens the likelihood that the people the Hamiltons enslaved were not recorded on the census as well.”

Douglas Hamilton says that both Serfilippi and the library are incorrect and states that the 1790 census entry they cite is actually of Alexander Hamilton the shoemaker not the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, who had moved from New York City to Philadelphia in October of 1790. 

Another disagreement between the two essays is the definition of the term “servant.”

“Philip Schuyler’s letters provide a good example of the various ways enslavers referred to the enslaved,” reads Serfilippi’s essay, “Throughout his correspondence, Schuyler’s use of the word ‘servant’ almost always applies to enslaved men, women, or children.” She adds that it was common practice in the 18th century to refer to an enslaved person as a “servant,” “Negro,” “Man,” etc.

Douglas Hamilton takes a different view. “We went through a dictionary, an old dictionary by Noah Webster and in there he said ‘Every slave is a servant, but not every servant is a slave.’”

He added that Hamilton and his contemporaries would often sign letters “Your Obedient Servant.”

According to “Opening the Door to Their Emancipation,” the Founding Father was involved in organizations that promoted manumission, or the release from slavery. As the report details, he was one of the members of the New York Manumission Society, which was an organization founded by John Jay, among others, that encouraged the gradual release of slaves of African descent in New York. In 1786, Hamilton signed a petition to the New York State Legislature that urged the end of the slave trade, according to the essay.

In an interview with The Gazette, Douglas Hamilton said he doesn’t count Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist.

“We never call him an abolitionist and in fact, in Hamilton’s time, ‘abolitionist’ was hardly ever used,” Douglas Hamilton said, adding that it wasn’t until Ron Chernow’s book “Alexander Hamilton” and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical came out that people started recognizing Hamilton as such. 

The retired salesman has spent years researching his family history and has focused much of the last 15-plus years on learning about Hamilton. 

“He was not a major person in the movement. People would say that ‘Could he have done more?’ Yes. He could have done more,” Douglas Hamilton said. He went on to say that Hamilton did a lot for the country.

“Think of all the things that he did with the bank and the budget and setting up the government, building a nation,” Douglas Hamilton said, “I would challenge somebody [to] go out and tell me some other major Founding Father that did as much as Hamilton did.”

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