As Monuments Glorifying ‘Racist’ Leaders Topple Down Throughout the Nation, Will Alexander Hamilton’s Image Stand the Test of Time?
July 4th, 2020
By: Jeff Gambrell- Butler County Connect
HAMILTON – Those who find themselves commuting along High Street in Downtown
Hamilton are often greeted by an iconic sculpture depicting the city’s namesake,
Alexander Hamilton. “The American Cape”, as the sculpture is named, was erected in
2004 by artist Kristen Visbal in the median between Second and Third Streets. It pays
tribute to the city’s nomenclature primarily referencing one of America’s Founding
Fathers, and later, Fort Hamilton’s construction in 1791. In recent years as
demonstrations against police brutality toward minority groups are on the rise (i.e. Black
Lives Matter), there has been a national movement to remove monuments from public
spaces that memorialize leaders deemed to have shared racist attitudes. Here, we will
dive into Alexander Hamilton’s past regarding his views/actions regarding slavery and
whether it justifies him earning the community’s praise.
Alexander Hamilton is regarded as a prominent American figure who served as a
statesman, politician, legal scholar, military commander, lawyer, banker, and economist.
Given this exceptional track record, it would be challenging to fathom the reality that
Hamilton’s childhood was nothing short of tragic. He was born out of wedlock, he and
his brother were abandoned by their father, were orphaned for several years after losing
their mother to yellow fever, and failed to acquire any property from their mother after
her first husband seized control of her estate. Such a laundry list of catastrophes, one
after another, would send the average person spiraling into situational poverty
especially at such a young age. However, Hamilton would eventually be adopted by a
merchant family and educate himself to be an avid reader and remarkable writer. It is
through one of his essays that leaders in the community were so impressed that they
created a fund to send him to North America for a better education. He continued to
better himself while facing one obstacle after another proving to be the very
embodiment of what it meant to pursue the American Dream.
For reasons pertaining to keeping this publication brief, we will shift focus from
Hamilton’s early struggles of eventually achieving a successful career to his
involvement in slavery and race. While most historians and textbooks tout Alexander
Hamilton as being staunchly opposed to the institution of slavery, in reality his views on
the subject manner were more complex.
As previously noted, the early chapters of Hamilton’s life were not a pleasant one. He
was instantly categorized a social outcast upon birth facing numerous trials and
tribulations that most adults today could not endure. Growing up on the island of St.
Croix, a population of 24,000 (of which only 2,000 were white), he witnessed firsthand
the injustices slaves faced daily on plantations and was able to relate to their sorrows.
While not a slave himself, he knew what it felt like to be rejected by society based on
something that was beyond his control. Even with an early resentment toward slavery,
Hamilton struggled to strike a balance between this and his ambitions to rise up and
make a name for himself. In his teenage years, he was employed as a clerk to the
Beekman & Cruger import-export industry to which Hamilton eventually controlled all
operations on St. Croix at the age of fourteen. The company traded all commodities
necessary for plantation owners, including slaves. Hamilton openly opposed the
authoritarian rule of the plantation owners while reserving the fear of implications
brought on if slave revolts should happen.
Hamilton found himself making the voyage to North America and joined the Continental
Army in his early twenties eventually becoming a personal aide to George Washington
after having secured key military victories against the British. Though choosing to refrain
from speaking on issues of slavery to Washington out of fear of alienating his mentor,
Hamilton did advocate for the freedom of slaves who enlisted in the military which he
had hoped would later pave the way for the emancipation of all. Following the war, he
settled down and married Elizabeth Schuyler in order to raise his social class due to her
connection to the Schuyler family, a highly-influential slave-owning family in New York
City. No record brings to light whether he and his wife ever owned slaves and evidence
leads one to believe it not to be the case after, with the help of John Jay, they founded
an anti-slavery organization in 1785. Some notable accomplishments Hamilton led
through his organization included creating a registry of freed Black Americans to protect
them and passing a statewide law ending slavery in New York.
Following the unjustified recent deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police
brutality, calls across the nation to remove statues have magnified. What started out as
a call to remove pro-Confederate monuments has begun to broaden its movement to
include Americans who encompassed a racist belief system in general. Alexander
Hamilton situates himself somewhere in the middle of this all. On one hand, he is known
for sharing anti-slavery values throughout much of his life, but at the same time was no
stranger to keeping his beliefs personal when the opportunity was available for him to
advance his career. I believe that in this case the end justifies the means. If he had
been more outspoken from the beginning he risked sacrificing his relationship with his
influential allies, and thus may not have been able to make substantial strides to
advocate against slavery. However, we no longer live in a time where slavery is the
norm and some classes of people lack equal rights. We need to speak out and be
heard. During these trying times, I implore our city to reflect on what the administration can do to better exemplify the traits of love, acceptance and understanding so we can
all rise up and never be silent as Hamilton was.