New Research Suggests Alexander Hamilton Was a Slave OwnerHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, Alexander Hamilton, founders
For Jessie Serfilippi, it was an eye-opening moment. As she worked at her computer, she had to keep checking to make sure what she was seeing was real: irrefutable evidence that Alexander Hamilton—the founding father depicted by many historians and even on Broadway as an abolitionist—enslaved other humans.
“I went over that thing so many times, I just had to be sure,” recalls Serfilippi, adding, “I went in to this with the intention of learning about Hamilton’s connection to slavery. Would I find instances of him enslaving people? I did.”
In a recently published paper, “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” the young researcher details her findings gleaned from primary source materials. One of those documents includes Hamilton’s own cashbook, which is available online at the Library of Congress.
In it, several line items indicate that Hamilton purchased enslaved labor for his own household. While antithetical to the popular image of the founding father, that reference has reinforced the view held by a growing cadre of historians that Hamilton did actively engage in enslaving people.
“I didn’t expect to find what I did at all,” Serfilippi says. “Part of me wondered if I was even wasting my time because I thought other historians would have found this already. Some had said he owned slaves but there was never any real proof.”
One who is not surprised by the revelation is author William Hogeland, who has written about Hamilton and is working on a book about his impact on American capitalism.
“Serfilippi’s research is super exciting,” he says. “Her research confirms what we have suspected, and it takes the whole discussion to a new place. She’s found some actual evidence of enslavement on the part of Hamilton that is just more thoroughgoing and more clearly documented than anything we’ve had before.”
Editor's Note: Phil Magness wrote a 2015 post on HNN which covers similar ground. Magness has, this week, tweeted about Serfilippi's paper. He has not (to the editor's knowledge) suggested his work was plagiarized, but that the sources and criticism of framing Hamilton as an abolitionist are not entirely novel.
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