Alexander Hamilton was not black

Posted on May 11, 2016. Filed under: Colonial America, What History is For | Tags: , , |

…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.

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