How Should We Remember the Problematic Actions of the Nation’s Founders?

How Should We Remember the Problematic Actions of the Nation’s Founders?

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Have you seen the musical “Hamilton” or listened to the music? Are you or your friends fans? What is your view of Alexander Hamilton and the other founding fathers, based on what you know about them?

New research reveals that Hamilton bought, sold and personally owned enslaved people. Does this information change your opinion of him at all? What about your enjoyment of the musical? Why or why not?

In “Alexander Hamilton, Enslaver? New Research Says Yes,” Jennifer Schuessler writes about a paper that finds overlooked evidence in letters and Hamilton’s own account books indicating that he enslaved people:

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.”

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.

Ms. Serfilippi’s research “complicates his story, and in so doing, better reflects the central place of slavery in America’s Founding,” she said. “It also more accurately reflects Hamilton.”

But Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography calls Hamilton an “uncompromising abolitionist,” said the paper presented a lopsidedly negative view.

The paper, he said in an email, “seems to be a terrific research job that broadens our sense of Hamilton’s involvement in slavery in a number of ways.” But he said he was dismayed at the relative lack of attention to Hamilton’s antislavery activities. And he questioned what he called her sometimes “bald conclusions,” starting with the claim that slavery was “essential to his identity.”

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to the new research paper about Alexander Hamilton as an enslaver? Are you shocked? Disappointed? Or is this information unsurprising to you? Why?

  • How should we remember the problematic actions of historical figures, like Hamilton? How important do you think it is to acknowledge the harm they did? Should their contributions be highlighted alongside the hurt they caused? Or does the damage they did overshadow their achievements?

  • Hamilton, like many other founding fathers who were also enslavers, has monuments erected in his memory. What should be done about these statues? In an Opinion essay, “Yes, Even George Washington,” Charles M. Blow writes:

When I hear people excuse their enslavement and torture as an artifact of the times, I’m forced to consider that if slavery were the prevailing normalcy of this time, my own enslavement would also be a shrug of the shoulders. I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.

But in “After the Statues Fall,” Bret Stephens counters:

… acknowledging the fallibility of our national heroes and the limitations of their time needn’t make them less heroic and may often make them more. And that there’s a vast difference between thinking critically about the past, for the sake of learning from it, and behaving destructively toward the past, with the aim of erasing it.

Whom do you agree with more? Do you think we should take down the monuments of enslavers? Or should they remain? What role might your identity and life experiences play in how you feel about this issue? If these monuments remain, what do you think could be done to acknowledge the harm perpetrated by the person memorialized?

  • Mr. Blow suggests that museums might be better able than monuments to contextualize a historical person’s actions. What do you think? To what extent do museums, history textbooks and schools have a responsibility to tell a more complete story of the past?

  • Regarding the criticism of “Hamilton” the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star, wrote on Twitter:

All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.

What is your reaction to Mr. Miranda’s response? Do you think that “Hamilton” should be changed to better represent the founding father’s role as an enslaver? Or do you think works of art have the freedom to stray from history? Do you think harm is done by not acknowledging this part of Hamilton too? Why or why not?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.