When President Abraham Lincoln officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, he did so in part because he expected that once Southern slaves learned they were free they would desert the Southern farms they were working and head north, where, among the many ways they could be useful to the Union cause, they would join the Union Army either in a support capacity or as regular soldiers.

Interestingly, one of our greatest Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, had a similar idea 84 years earlier. This week (March 14) in 1779, in a letter he wrote to fellow New Yorker and fellow Founding Father John Jay, Hamilton proposed that slaves be allowed to fight for American independence, in return for which they would be emancipated. They would, Hamilton wrote, earn “their freedom with their muskets.”

In his letter, Hamilton outlined three basic reasons for freeing slaves in this manner. First, like Lincoln, Hamilton did not think, as so many of his countrymen did, that the white man was vastly superior in intelligence to the black man. Hamilton conceded – as detractors of his slave-soldier proposal pointed out – that blacks, having been slaves all their lives, did not think independently and were prone to subservience (it came with the job of being a slave). But, Hamilton argued, this was a good thing. In an army, he pointed out, you generally want subservience; you want unquestioned obedience to authority. Independent thinking was for officers, which no slave would ever become. Following orders, which slaves were used to doing, was for troops.

Second, Hamilton argued, if we don’t make use of them as soldiers, our enemies, the British, most certainly will. Whoever promises them freedom will gain their loyalty and their assistance, Hamilton said, and sure enough, later in 1779 when the British attacked the Southern colonies in an attempt to split them from the Northern colonies, British officers often issued proclamations that said any slaves who deserted and fought for the British would be freed. Unsurprisingly, a great many slaves accepted that offer.

Third, Hamilton thought slavery was an abomination. He was the co-founder of the New York Manumission Society dedicated to the abolition of slaves in New York (John Jay, the recipient of his letter, was the other co-founder) and so, Hamilton suggested to Jay, what better way to hasten slavery’s end than by doing so in a manner useful to the cause of American independence? In effect, we kill two birds with one stone.

In the end, Hamilton’s proposal went nowhere, although about 5,000 blacks did serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolution – far short of what Hamilton had hoped, but nevertheless, it was a start.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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