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Alexander Hamilton Endorses Arming Slaves for the Revolutionary Cause

In 1778, General George Washington was approached with an interesting proposal from Lt. Col. John Laurens of South Carolina. The war in the southern colonies was going badly, in part because of a shortage of troops. Laurens's solution was to raise a black regiment by enlisting slaves who would be given their freedom in exchange for fighting against the British. The idea was not new. Earlier that year, Washington had approved a similar plan in Rhode Island. But Washington was more skeptical about white southerners' willingness to emancipate their slaves for the revolutionary cause. Rather than authorize Laurens's plan, he sent him to Charleston to gain the approval of the South Carolina Assembly. Meanwhile, Washington's secretary and assistant, Alexander Hamilton, wrote the following letter supporting the plan to John Jay, the newly appointed president of the Continental Congress. When Laurens finally met with the South Carolina Assembly in May 1779, his proposal was rejected and denounced by a strong majority of planters.

Dear Sir,

Col Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering [to] you this letter, is on his way to South Carolina, on a project, which I think, in the present situation of affairs there, is a very good one and deserves every kind of support and encouragement. This is to raise two three or four battalions of negroes; with the assistance of the government of that state, by contributions from the owners in proportion to the number of they possess. If you think proper to enter upon the subject with him, he will give you a detail of his plan. He wishes to have it recommended by Congress to the state; and, as an inducement, that they would engage to take those battalions into Continental pay.

It appears to me, that an expedient of this kind, in the present state of Southern affairs, is the most rational, that can be adopted, and promises very important advantages. Indeed, I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected in that quarter without it; and the enemy’s operations there are growing infinitely serious and formidable. I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers, with proper management….I frequently hear it objected to the scheme of embodying negroes that they are too stupid to make soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude….

I foresee that this project will have to combat much opposition from prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptation they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men….

If arms are wanted for these troops and no better way of supplying them is to be found, we should endeavour to levy a contribution of arms upon the militia at large. Extraordinary exigencies demand extraordinary means. I fear this Southern business will become a very grave one.

Source | Alexander Hamilton, "Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, March 14, 1779," letter, in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), vol. 2:17-19.
Creator | Alexander Hamilton
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Alexander Hamilton, “Alexander Hamilton Endorses Arming Slaves for the Revolutionary Cause,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed July 18, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/674.

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