By Ariel Clay Schuyler Hamilton Ehrlich
A famous portrait of Hamilton. I have a copy in my bedroom.
With a brilliant musical about him, there has never been a better time to be a great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of General Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.
I?m a genealogist and in doing research I found that I am his descendant. It?s super exciting because I?m 14 and 14-year-olds love celebrities and I?m related to the biggest celebrity of the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton is bigger than Kim Kardashian.
The ?ten-dollar founding father? wasn?t always so famous but he became so when Lin-Manuel Miranda brought him back to life with the play, ?Hamilton,? which debuted at The Public Theater in New York City in January 2015. As you probably know, ?Hamilton? is much more than a play, it?s one of the greatest cultural phenomena of my lifetime. Then in the last few weeks, Alexander Hamilton?s became even more and more famous, due to Disney+ on July 3 letting anyone with $8/month see a film of the live play.
As the musical accurately displays, Hamilton accomplished so many things during his short life. He was orphaned at a young age after being born out of wedlock, began working for Thomas Stevens (?his late mother?s landlord?), before writing a letter to his father in Scotland, with whom he had a close correspondence with, whose community had it published in a Danish newspaper, although that is stated in fewer words. He soon after became a Major General in the Army, (although the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, of which I am a proud member, says in their records he was a Lieutenant Colonel), and as General George Washington?s aide-de-camp.
In 1780, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Major General Philip Schuyler, and less than a year later helped lead the Battle of Yorktown, which resulted in the surrender of the English and freed us from British rule. Although the precise dates aren?t specified in the show, he soon became a Delegate to the Congress of the Confederation from New York (a position in which he served twice), and later the First Secretary of the Treasury. He defended the standing constitution, writing over 50 essays of the Federalist Papers. In his final letter to Eliza, which he had asked somebody to deliver in the case that he died during the duel with Aaron Burr, a letter that made me cry, he actually calls her the best of wives and the best of women.
But there are other aspects that the musical doesn?t portray. To begin, while he was ?clerking for his late mother?s landlord,? he oversaw a company that was involved in the slave trade. His mother was a slave owner, in the Caribbean. In fact, had he been born into wedlock, which lawfully prevented him from inheriting his late mother?s estate, he would?ve inherited Christian and Ajax, two of his mother?s slaves, when she died of yellow fever.
According to The New Journal of African History, Alexander Hamilton, whom my father strikingly resembles, first became involved in the slave trade in the Caribbean, before coming to Colonial America to attend what is now Columbia University. As a teen, he oversaw operations of the St. Croix branch of Beekman & Cruger, which was involved in the African slave trade. He and his brother were also supposed to own a slave after his mother died, but their mother?s first husband, Johann Michael Lavien, seized the estate under Danish law, as stated above.
The play also doesn?t mention that Alexander Hamilton bought and sold slaves for his in-laws, according to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed from Harvard University. She explicitly says ?[Hamilton] was not an abolitionist?.
Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, whom I look a bit more like, in December of 1780 at Albany. After the marriage, according to Professor Gordon-Reed, Alexander bought and sold slaves for his in-laws, General Philip Schuyler, who would later become New York Senator, and Catherine ?Kitty? Van Rensselaer. The remains of 14 of their slaves were found and buried, two of whom were infants; though Danielle Funiciello estimated they owned at least 30 slaves.
Major General Philip John Schuyler, who fought in the French and Indian War as a Captain. He was later a New York Senator. He owned at least 30 slaves, according to Schuyler Mansion. He was my seventh great grandfather.
Most importantly, one of Hamilton?s grandsons, Allan McLane Hamilton, believed that some of the slave purchases were his own, and not for his in-laws, although he was generally opposed to southern slavery in the last 20 years of his life. McLane Hamilton?s book, The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton: Based Chiefly Upon Original Family Letters and Other Documents, Many of Which Have Never Been Published, says ?It has been stated that Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue. We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.?
Even if he didn?t own slaves, which shouldn?t be the golden standard anyway, the musical paints him as a very liberal abolitionist. It also portrays him as a person who was in favor of the first black battalion. (In the song ?Battle of Yorktown,? he and Laurens sing/rap, ?We will never be free [un]til we end slavery?.) However, according to Professor Gordon-Reed of Harvard, he never had abolition at the top of his agenda, per se.
In the current Black Lives Matter movement, we are witnessing the downfall of several famous American figures? legacy every day, while my family?s progenitor is still celebrated worldwide. And I am not complaining ? as I said, it has not ever been a better time to be a Hamilton descendant, but I think the full picture needs to come into view.
In the words of Lucian Truscott, who also descends from a Founding Father, it isn?t replacing history if we tell the whole true story. Even though the government didn?t believe it at the time, slaves were real people ? not ? of a white person. To be successful in moving forward, we need to remember history and all of the moving parts.
America is 244 years old, and slavery in America ended 157 years ago. It is time to honor not only the slave-owning or slave trading men but to honor other people in history that made America what it is now, with its flaws. And not just the men. If anybody thinks that the women of American history haven?t contributed greatly to our freedom, especially in the Colonial Era, I would have to strongly disagree.
If there is nobody to educate the public on Hamilton?s position on the slave trade, then can we honor him as we do with several statues, portraits, and the irresistible obsession of the soundtrack of Hamilton as much? I want to, and I know every one of Hamilton?s descendants and his fanatics want to, but we cannot support the lack of education in society. Alexander himself once said that society must bring justice. That applied then, and it applies now, even more so, one might argue.
We keep repeating history here in the US, probably because we only are educated about what was good about the men of American history, not the flawed parts of them. I might argue that in this generation, Alexander Hamilton is the most celebrated founding father, yet I have had to tell people that he was involved in the trade of African slaves, which to them, is a surprise. History exempts our nation?s founders from their wrongdoings, which doesn?t do anything but paint them in a light that represents a perfection that no human is. An old Yiddish saying: A half-truth is a full lie. If we don?t tell the whole truth about the founding fathers, the presidents, and other historical figures, isn?t it all just a big lie?
**UPDATE (JULY 10, 2020 @ 11:17 AM EST) I added Schuyler Hamilton to my name for the story and for fun. My real name is Ariel Clay Ehrlich.