Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Was Alexander Hamilton Black?

(Originally published 2.23.07 in the Hamilton College Spectator.)

In honor of Black History Month, I've decided to examine the evidence that our college's namesake was partially of African descent. I have searched the internet and received help and perspective from Professor Ambrose, Professor Rubino and John Guilbert, Executive Director, Nevis Historical & Conservation Society. I'll examine the ramifications of discrediting the assumption that Hamilton was European. Despite a biblical passage to the contrary, Jesus is often illustrated as Northern European. Cleopatra (from Egypt) was portrayed by the English born Elizabeth Taylor. Non-European figures have been "whitened" before. Below, I'll give a brief biography of Alexander Hamilton, focusing on the evidence that he may have had "black blood".

Hamilton was born as the illegitimate son of Rachel Fawcett Lavien on a Carribean island the size of the town of Kirkland called Nevis. His mother was divorced for infidelity long before Hamilton was born, casting question onto Hamilton's father. Some claim that it was James Hamilton, the man who lived with Rachel. Others claim it was Nicolas Cruger, a Carribean merchant with connections in New York who employed an eleven year old Alexander Hamilton after his alleged father left him and his mother died. Some claim that Hamilton's mother had affairs with her slaves. Additionally, many claim that Hamilton's mother was herself part black, newspapers record Hamilton being called a mustee (implying his mother was a quarter black) by political enemies. At fourteen, Hamilton was running Cruger's business. After attending a prep school in New Jersey and applying to an advanced program at Princeton, he was turned down only after an in person interview. At seventeen he began attending what would become Colombia University, only to drop out two years later to fight in the Revolutionary War. At twenty Hamilton was appointed lieutenant colonel and became very close with George Washington. After practicing law for a short period after the war was over, Hamilton became extremely instrumental in the ratification of the Constitution by writing most of the Federalist Papers and formed the Federalist party. Hamilton was perhaps the staunchest abolitionist of his time. He argued blacks were mentally equal to whites and that slaves could be competent soldiers. He supported the black led government in Haiti who overthrew the French. At thirty-two Hamilton was named the first Secretary of the treasury by Washington. After resigning due to a scandal, Hamilton became more involved in political rivalries that would eventually result in his death. John Adams called Hamilton a "creole bastard" and Abigail Adams who said "[Hamilton] was a vain, ambitious man aspiring to govern when it was his duty to submit". Hamilton received much criticism despite being so important in the foundation of this country. Hamilton's life was ended in 1804 by Aaron Burr, who received no punishment.

That's about all the evidence I could find. I imagine some people are convinced that Hamilton was black. Others may think I've offered little or no evidence at all. Remember, there's no proof that Hamilton was white. Nobody knows what race Hamilton, his political critics probably didn't and it's possible that Hamilton himself was never sure. Certainty could only be determined by a genetic test. Some people might argue that Hamilton's race doesn't matter. Clearly, race meant something during Hamilton's time. But even today people of try to accumulate long lists of great individuals of their own race so they can feel proud of their race, or sometimes so they can feel superior to other races. So Hamilton's race remains an uncertainty that is important for people.

What is certain is that Hamilton's achievements were important and affect us today. That he was born a soon to be orphaned bastard on a tiny island makes his life more incredible. So does the fact that he was brutally criticized, perhaps simply for being an outsider (all the important founding fathers were born in America) or perhaps because of his race. He was an important military, political and economic figure, he was one of the few who advocated treating an unfavorably viewed group as the equals. His struggle and achievements are similar and important to millions of African-Americans, regardless of whether he was of African descent. If anybody is looking for a person of African descent who was accepted among whites before abolition, I'd recommend investigating Benjamin Scott Moncrieffe who served as the treasurer of a colonial church union.

All of this begs the questions, why do we need African-American heroes to be African, and why do we need a Black History Month at all? Certainly blacks have faced terrible discrimination, but so have plenty of other groups. There wouldn't be enough months in the calendar to accommodate every group. How about we use the month of February to confront and eliminate our own prejudices so we can honestly say things like the race of Alexander Hamilton, or any other individual, doesn't mean anything.