My dislike of the Hamilton musical is well-known and also multifaceted. Some of it is that I just don’t like the genre of musical theater so OK, you can ignore that if you are a fan. But part of it is that it spun Hamilton as OUR FOUNDER even though the idea that the aristocratic and close to authoritarian Hamilton was ever someone that liberals should like is beyond ridiculous. And while some might say, “it’s just a portrayal!” in fact a lot of people took that musical and assumed it was telling a true story about Hamilton. The problem with that is that it just isn’t true. We’ve always known Hamilton had a major hand in slavery. That hardly makes him unusual. It makes him a normal rich guy from the era. But now we know more and it really makes the musical look extra eyerolling:
The question has lingered around the edges of the pop-culture ascendancy of Alexander Hamilton: Did the 10-dollar founding father, celebrated in the musical “Hamilton” as a “revolutionary manumission abolitionist,” actually own slaves?
Some biographers have gingerly addressed the matter over the years, often in footnotes or passing references. But a new research paper released by the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, N.Y., offers the most ringing case yet.
In the paper, titled “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” Jessie Serfilippi, a historical interpreter at the mansion, examines letters, account books and other documents. Her conclusion — about Hamilton, and what she suggests is wishful thinking on the part of many of his modern-day admirers — is blunt.
“Not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally,” she writes.
“It is vital,” she adds, “that the myth of Hamilton as ‘the Abolitionist Founding Father’ end.”
The evidence cited in the paper, which was quietly published online last month, is not entirely new. But Ms. Serfilippi’s forceful case has caught the eye of historians, particularly those who have questioned what they see as his inflated antislavery credentials.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” called the paper “fascinating” and the argument plausible. “It just shows that the founders were nearly all implicated in slavery in some way,” she said.
Joanne Freeman, a professor of history at Yale and editor of the Library of America edition of Hamilton’s writings, said that the detailed evidence remained to be fully weighed. But she said the paper was part of a welcome reconsideration of what she called “the Hero Hamilton” narrative.
“It’s fitting that we are reckoning with Hamilton’s status as an enslaver at a time that is driving home how vital it is for white Americans to reckon — seriously reckon — with the structural legacies of slavery in America,” she wrote in an email.
Of course Ron Chernow is unhappy about this. Which says much more about him than about the evidence or the historical profession.
Mythologizing the past is always bad. And when it is done in such a ham-handed, if entertaining, way by people who should know better, it’s extra frustrating.