…it doesn’t seem likely. We’ve tackled this issue before (“Warren Harding and his ‘Negro’ Percentage”), in which an American politician who seems pretty darn white is the focus of claims that he really wasn’t.
This has a long history in the U.S. It was started by white racists as an effective way to smear someone; “accusing” someone of being part-black was foolproof because it was almost impossible for the person to disprove: no matter how they pointed to their ancestors, someone could claim there had been hushed-up sex outside marriage with a black man or woman.
One of the oddest examples of this was when rumors were spread that the popular singer Dinah Shore was half-black, despite the fact that her Jewish parents, who emigrated from Russia, did not seem like likely candidates to have had sex outside marriage with a black American. Shore’s husky voice and her childhood in Tennessee were enough for racists to spread the rumor, which was supposed to devastate her and end her career.
Luckily, by the 1950s this kind of attempted character assassination did not work as well as it had earlier in the century. The civil rights movement in this country eventually made the people “accusing” someone of having “black blood” (whatever that is) look stupid and bigoted and backward (because they were), and the tactic died away because it was no longer harmful.
But then history took a turn, as it so often does. Having a mix of races in one’s ancestry moved from being a disaster to a neutral factor to a positive. For some historians and activists, finding black ancestry in a public person’s identity became a way to reclaim history for Americans who weren’t white. That’s perfectly valid: figures in American history who had a mix of races but hid it out of fear of being attacked should be reclaimed.
It’s only when someone is chosen when it just seems very unlikely that they were anything but white that it’s problematic. Warren Harding is one. Alexander Hamilton is another. His own attempts to erase his history before he left St. Croix in the Caribbean and arrived in the New Jersey colony at age 17 have led some people to claim that he was covering up a black father when the real “shames” (at that time) in his life were: his mother’s bigamy; her living with and having two sons by a man she was not legally married to (James Hamilton); Alexander not being allowed to attend the same Church of England school as other colonial white boys because of this and having to go to a school run by a Jewish woman instead; his father abandoning the family when he found out about the bigamy; his mother’s early death and Alexander’s subsequent boot to the streets when her first husband seized all her property.
One can well imagine that an ambitious man like Hamilton did not want any of that known in his new colonial home, where he was trying to make it big.
The Caribbean in the 18th century was not a place where a white woman could easily engage in a sexual relation with a black man, nor a place where that would go unpunished. Just because his mother was a nonconformist when it came to legal marriage did not mean she would have a relationship with a black man at a time and in a place where that was not only illegal but punishable by torture and death.
Claims that Hamilton “looked black” are unsubstantiated. We don’t have a lot of drawings of him, but the ones we do have are fairly unequivocal. And all the rumors spread about Hamilton in the 13 colonies had to do with his sexual rapacity, not his race. Those who would naturally connect the two are, we hope, long gone.
So while it would be gratifying to claim a great American for black history, we’re still awaiting proof that Alexander Hamilton was black.
13 thoughts on “Alexander Hamilton was not black”
As a scientist and person of fact, why do we class other animals along subspecies, but fudge the system when it comes to humans?
Hello Georgia; can you explain what you mean?
This post was written by somebody who knows nothing about the history of Alexander Hamilton or about the history of race in this country or in this hemisphere.
The author of this post is too ignorant to know that drawings are NOT “unequivocal” evidence of one’s ancestry, and that “looking white” has been common for mixed race people of African descent for centuries, including Alexander Hamilton’s lifetime. Many African-Americans continue to be able to pass for white to this day just as they did during Alexander Hamilton’s time. Apparently the author know so little about African American and Afr-Caribbean history that he or she is ignorant of this fact.
How can somebody who is supposed to know about history be so ignorant of the historical process of passing for white which has occurred for hundreds of years.
The claims that Alexander Hamilton looked black are based on what others said about him who were able to physically observe them not on portraits that may have been deliberately intended to make him appear white.
Also the author shows his or her ignorance and total failure to do even BASIC research on the subject of Alexander Hamilton by failing to call meant failing to comment that it was Hamilton’s mother who was believed to be the product of a sexual relationship between a white person and a black or biracial person, hence passing her African ancestry onto Alexander.
The focus on rumors that she had an affair with a black man to the exclusion of all of the other historical information shows The shoddy research that went into writing this piece. However the fact is that there WERE relationships between white women and black men during the colonial period, and this was one of the reasons for the development of anti-miscegenation legislation.
The failure to do even a modicum of research to write this piece shows the authors laziness, or inability to conduct basic research, or a deliberate effort to mislead readers because the author cannot stand the possibility that one of the founding fathers could have been of African dissent and wants to pass his or her racial bias onto readers. Whatever the motive, this piece which is filled with misinformation and is based on an adequate or made up research,should be removed from any site that claims to have a commitment to documenting history.
Take it down and, if you replace it, do it again properly. Shame on you
Hello Mich; yes, there have been black and mixed-race people who have passed for white. Yes, there were relationships between black and white people in colonial times. Neither of these facts proves anything about Alexander Hamilton. Please share the modicum of research you have done with us, like historians do, without any more invective. We would be glad to share your sources with all our readers.
EXCELLENT COMEBACK for Mitch who is obviously one of those BIASED and possibly RACIST individuals trying to re-write history using non-factual BS aka lies.
Hello Remy; thanks for writing, but remember that we promote civil discourse here at the HP, which means we don’t accuse people of racism or lies unless we are very sure these intentions are present. We can argue and debate all we want–but let’s argue and debate history, not the content of people’s characters.
Lol, the man was black and the people who liked and disliked him even said it. Funny how people work so hard to lie and deny these figures having black blood which makes them black. Black people come in all shades, from Wesley Snipes to Mariah Carey. It is what it is.
” the man was black and the people who liked and disliked him even said it.” Citations please…If not, memes and wishful thinking and innuendo from pop culture don’t pass for evidence. If you want to level criticism of historians for misidentifying someones race when they present evidence to demonstrate otherwise, you need to be as suspicious of your proclivities at racial misidentification when you present absolutely no counter evidence. He was called a creole by John Adams? Matha Washington called him a Tomcat? Good lord. This period was rife with whites casting doubt on a persons integrity by insinuating that they had black blood. Don’t complain about ethocentrist racism by taking their racist innuendos as fact on face value. Alexander Hamilton was white, so was John Adams. They were great men by the standards of the day, icons of democracy, and their history is our chance to take their moral failings as a chance of us to become even better. Not as an occasion to retrofit those failings for the use of our own misinformed agenda.
Quite a few gaps, suppositions and logical leaps to make a preconceived conclusion. You started with a conclusion and proved it without any investigation. You lead with “It doesn’t seem likely.” and you end with ” we are still awaiting proof.” rather than making any real evaluation of actual facts to the counter of your position. You had your mind made up without any real facts one way on the other. I read this post due to the definitive statement, expected to find something more than personal conjuncture. Sadly, I was disappointed. On to search for a more rigorous academic discussion of the issue, rather than an emotional one.
Hello MTB – thanks for writing. We provided many facts about Hamilton’s early life that he struggled to hide when he left the Caribbean, and our final statement is an open invitation to anyone with proof that it was a black parent–rather than his mother’s bigamy, his Jewish schooling, his father abandoning the family, and Alexander’s own abject poverty after his mother’s death–that threatened this Founder’s credibility in his new colonial home. We made as definitive a statement as we felt was necessary after stating plainly in our title that Alexander Hamilton was not black. But if you do find more rigorous academic discussion of this question, and find convincing proofs that he was, please share them with us.
Alexander Hamilton appearance was suspect with negroid features, color or bone structure is enough to deduce that he was not purely white – there should not be any mistake in identifying a Scot from a Negro
The play was good but was also clearly a political statement meant to empower the POC movement. This was no Ken Burns recounting of historical facts. But regardless of the facts of history, post-play, some of the general public will have decided in their own revisionist minds that Hamilton was half black which makes him a more sympathetic character/source of pride for POC (as opposed to their undoubtedly labeling of him as a rascist autocrat if white). You have to wonder what influence these artful portrayals of history will have 100 years from now.
The man was white in a white-mans world fighting a white man’s war. Those were the facts of that period of history but we all should be thankful for it since it leads to a society where Lin-Manuel Miranda can make his political statement in a popular play for the general public to make of what they will.
They used DNA to determine cheddarman was a blue eyed”soul brother” from10 thousand years ago. I am pretty sure that the same thing can be done on DNA samples roughly1000 years old..If it means that much to the pros or the cons,the most proactive of the bunch can get permission from Hamilton’s remaining relatives to let the sun set on this debate for many moons.