The year is 1811. In this chapter, President Hamilton visits the state of North Carolina, even as the United States has been sucked into a war with Spain over the Florida territory. While there, he is called on to give an oration on the Fourth of July, 35 years after the Declaration was signed. He uses the opportunity to push for his program of voluntary emancipation for the slaves of the South:
Hamilton stayed in Raleigh until the Fourth of July, at Governor Smith’s request. An endless series of balls and parties were given in his honor, and when he was not being serenaded by bands and politely declining requests to dance, the President took the time to meet with as many members of the North Carolina legislature as possible. He sounded them out individually on the topic of emancipation and found that many were still considering their positions. Always charming, ready with a smile and a quip, a legal precedent, or a passionate argument – depending on his audience – Hamilton exercised his years of political savvy and considerable powers of persuasion to move them in his direction, as once, long ago, he had pleaded, cajoled, and bargained New York’s reluctant legislature to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
He had agreed to stay in town long enough to deliver an oration on the Fourth of July, and then was heading south to the Cape Fear river, whence he would catch a ride on a special barge the governor had commissioned for him down to Wilmington, and from there he would take ship to Charleston, South Carolina. He was anxious to get closer to the border where word of military developments could reach him sooner, but he also wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to speak to the citizens and lawmakers of North Carolina on the emancipation issue.
By the time the Fourth rolled around, word of his presence had spread throughout the state, and a crowd of nearly ten thousand gathered on the Capitol grounds to hear him address the assembled dignitaries there – governors past and present, most of the state’s congressional delegation, and the entire state legislature were seated before the special platform that had been erected on the capitol building’s front steps. The state militia passed in a military review, and Hamilton returned the crisp salutes of the soldiers with great affection. A select group of Revolutionary War veterans, mostly now in their fifties and sixties, marched by under the banners they had carried during the war. Hamilton saw a few familiar faces in that crowd; he did his best to make eye contact and give an individual wave or shouted greeting to each man he knew. It was a hot day, but there was a pleasant breeze and the humidity had dropped enough that the heat was much more bearable than the previous week.
Governor Smith spoke first, and he paid a moving tribute to the spirit of American independence, and then he saluted the veterans of the Revolution who were in attendance. Finally, he spoke glowingly of Hamilton:
“For the second time in our state’s history, it is our honor to welcome the President of our United States to our capitol! On the thirty-fifth anniversary of our nation’s independence, we salute this unparalleled patriot, a courageous warrior for liberty in both peace and war, the architect of America’s prosperity, President Alexander Hamilton!”
Alex stood and bowed as the applause of the crowd washed over him. For a moment, his mind flashed back to his childhood; he recalled his hardscrabble upbringing on the streets of Nevis, his relief when his mother had relocated them to a much better home on St. Croix, and the devastation that had overwhelmed him when she fell ill and died. He remembered the terrifying hurricane that swept the island when he was a teen, the horizontal rain lashing his skin and the roof of their house being ripped off by the storm’s raw power. The essay he had written about the storm for the Royal Danish American Gazette had first brought him to public notice and had generated the wave of public sympathy that had eventually sent a penniless orphan to New York to get an education – and that was where his odyssey began. Now it had brought him here, as President of the United States, about to address a vast crowd of people on the anniversary of the independence that he had helped win for his adopted country. It was so overwhelming that Alex simply stood there for a moment, blinking as the applause continued. He looked down at the carefully prepared speech he had labored on for a month, and then folded it and put it in his pocket.
“My friends,” he began; “fellow citizens, patriots, noble veterans of the Revolution, volunteers of the North Carolina militia, and Americans all; I cannot express to you the honor I feel for being accorded the opportunity to stand here before you today. I have always prided myself in my ability to craft appropriate words for any occasion, and I had labored long and hard on a speech to share with you today. But I have decided, instead of reading prepared remarks, to simply address you from my heart. Thirty-five years ago on this day, the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson were adopted by the Continental Congress, informing the world that a new nation had been born, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the noble idea that all men are created equal, and that our rights and liberties are not a gift of government, but rather our divine inheritance from the God who made us.”
The crowd rose to its feet, applauding again as he paused for a moment. When they resumed their seats, he continued.
“I was a lad of twenty years when I heard those words for the first time,” he said. “I had already made the decision to take up arms to defend the rights of a nation where I had barely resided for a year but already come to love. Even as we struggled and fought and killed for this notion of a nation that we had only begun to build, I knew that America, as deeply as I loved her, did not fully live up to the noble creed which we had declared to be our founding principle. Perhaps this was what Thomas Jefferson intended all along, I have come to realize – that the words of the Declaration were not a statement of a goal realized, or a mission accomplished, but rather a quest, an ongoing experiment to refine and build upon the foundation of liberty that was laid on the Fourth of July in that glorious year of 1776!”
The crowd applauded again, and the assembled veterans joined in with loud huzzahs. Hamilton nodded in appreciation, and then continued.
“We live in an age of marvels, an age where reason has put superstition to flight, an age where men can still acknowledge the sovereignty of the Almighty and yet recognize that He has gifted us with an extraordinary measure of free will, the power to shape and alter this world we live in – the right to change our course in order to more fully embrace the spark of divinity God placed within each of us! We can now embrace our God-given intellect and appreciate our God-given freedom more fully than any generation in the history of mankind! We have harnessed the power of steam to drive boats against the wind and current, Doctor Franklin showed us how to capture the essence of lightning, and who knows what marvels await as we continue to explore the full extent of the gifts God has blessed us with? The children of the nineteenth century will see change on a scale that our fathers could only dream of!”
“Yet, despite our remarkable achievements in the arts, in science, in technology and invention, we are still a primitive people in one aspect – we deny liberty to our fellow men in the name of profit! How can we truly call ourselves free when we buy and sell men, women, and children at the auction block? How can we hold ourselves worthy of God’s love when we violate the very Golden Rule taught by our Savior Himself? I would never want to be a slave, so I have committed to never owning a slave. What I would ask on the Fourth of July is for the people of North Carolina to embrace this idea of liberty as well – that we are only deserving of freedom when we grant it to those we hold in our power.”
There was some scattered applause, and a few jeers, but most of the crowd kept their silence, Hamilton pressed his point, hoping that the silence meant that some, at least, were considering his appeal.
“I have heard the arguments in favor of slavery passionately made by men who truly believe them to be true,” he said. “I have heard how slavery benefits the benighted sons of Africa by exposing them to the twin lights of Christianity and civilization; how the sick and elderly among slaves are lovingly cared for by their kind masters; how labor gives purpose and dignity to a life that would otherwise be spent in squalor and pagan misery. I have heard that the slave in the South is better off than the mill worker in the North, who has no guarantee of care or compassion in the event of sickness. I do not doubt the integrity or sincerity of the men who make these arguments, but I would pose a question to them, a simple inquiry that cuts to the heart of the inherent flaw in their position: Have any of them ever been a slave?”
“If slavery is as benevolent and beneficial as its defenders make it out to be, why do not poor Southerners, suffering in economic distress during hard times, ever once volunteer to become slaves? And why do those who are held in bondage constantly seek to regain their liberty, knowing the penalties that await them if they are recaptured? If freedom is as dangerous and fraught with peril as the slaveholders claim it to be, why do slaves constantly risk all to gain it? If slaves are happy and content in their state of bondage, then why has every plantation in Virginia which has adopted my plan of emancipation seen its productivity increase, and its rate of desertion drop from what it was in the days of the lash and the bloodhound? And let me ask the single most important question of all – would any of you, my friends and fellow citizens, volunteer to become a slave? Is there any inducement that could compel you to place yourself on the auction block to become another man’s property? Of course not! Then why, if none of us would ever choose to be a slave, should we choose to inflict that condition on others?”
“North Carolina stands on the brink, my friends, of a momentous decision. While I know some here in the South have accused me of tyranny, of coveting other men’s property, and even of outright theft, the fact is that they are wrong. As I recently told an elderly black man who stands on the brink of emancipation, I too have a master whose will binds me. That master is an idea, a concept, a set of principles and rules embodied in the United States Constitution. Although it is the fondest wish of my heart that every man in America be free, I will not force a single person to give up his slaves against his will. It is rather up to you, the people of North Carolina, and the legislators that you have elected, to make the momentous decision. Will you rise up, and help America live out the meaning of its creed? Will you take a stand for liberty and justice? Will you see your children and children’s children guaranteed to enjoy the blessings of liberty, granted to us by Almighty God? Or will you bequeath to them the whip and chain and the auction block as their inheritance? The choice is yours, but I would ask you today, as we celebrate the liberty we won at our blood’s expense, at the loss of so many good men, from our own British masters, to strike a blow for liberty! Help America rise up and truly embrace the creed that we fought a Revolution to establish. Rise up, as free men, and share the gift of freedom with those who labor among us. Sow the seeds of hope and future prosperity for ourselves and our children, and they will rise up and call you blessed.”
The crowd surged to its feet, and cheers enveloped the President. He looked at the sea of joyous faces and realized that he had won. Oh, there were still a few scowls scattered among the crowd, but the vast majority were applauding his sentiments, and the legislators behind him were taking note. God willing, another Southern state would emancipate its slaves by the end of the year.
He knew that South Carolina would be a much harder sale to make – its slaves were more numerous, its planters more conservative and aristocratic, and its people more dependent on slave labor. He doubted that the state would ever voluntarily free its Negroes, but perhaps he could win a few souls over during his visit; perhaps a small handful of planters would embark on the experiment of paid labor, and if they did, perhaps the example of prosperity they set would encourage others. Eliminating slavery in the deep South would be a generational project, and Alex prayed that future Presidents would continue to work at it as hard as he had.
The applause began to die down, and Alex stared out at the crowd, smiling at their enthusiasm.
“My friends, you have filled my heart with gladness today. State legislators, I pray that you will take note of the enthusiasm for liberty that has been expressed here this morning when you take up the Emancipation Bill in your next session. To all who have listened to me today, and to all who are not here, but will read what I have said in the newspapers, I ask you to calmly and rationally consider the proposal before you. In giving freedom to the slave, you will ensure freedom to your posterity. Now, as we celebrate the Independence of our great nation on this Fourth of July, let us lift our hearts in appreciation of the gift of God that is freedom! I thank you for the privilege of standing before you today, for the enormous honor that has been granted me, to lead this great nation of ours. May God bless you all and may His face shine with favor on the United States of America!”