The New York Times today has a story about a new study that claims Alexander Hamilton owned slaves right up to the end of his life. There doesn’t seem to be new evidence but a new, more assertive interpretation of it. I know little about the period or Hamilton in particular, so my opinion doesn’t mean much, but the argument struck me as persuasive. I would be surprised to find out that Hamilton wasn’t a slave owner.
But here’s the thing: the article’s writing endorses the new language around slavery. We no longer have slaves but enslaved people, not slave owners but enslavers. It is an attempt to personalize the issue. The word “slave” is said to carry a connotation that the individual in question was somehow different by virtue of their status; instead we want to convey the idea that they were just like anyone else except that, at some point (or repeatedly), other people enslaved them. Myself, I never thought that slaves were anything other than ordinary folks who had been delivered into slavery, so for me it’s a distinction without a difference, but if other people need the change in terminology to respect the full humanity of slaves I’m OK with that.
The enslaver bit is a different story. An enslaver is someone who alters the status of another human being from non-slave to slave. Those who captured previously unenslaved people, whether from a village in Africa or a native community in the New World, were enslavers. Those who participated in the institution of slavery by buying or selling those already enslaved or by directing their work were slave traders or slave owners but not enslavers. If we care about precision in language, we should be careful about the words we use.
But the problem goes much deeper than this. The campaign to replace slave owner with enslaver is part of the larger movement to make politics a matter of individual responsibility. Slavery was a horror, and this horror, we are to believe, was the product of the individual consciousness and behavior—personal racism—on the part of each person who participated in it. According to this view, we need to use the word “enslaver” to not let these evildoers off the hook. If Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver he was personally responsible for the enslavement of the individuals forced to work in his household.
Now personal responsibility is real, but not mainly in this way. We are all called upon to consider our position in an unjust social order, not because each of us individually creates some small piece of it, but because it rests on our acceptance of it. It was not Hamilton who authored the enslavement of his servants; it was the slave system itself that placed them in that position and ensured that, with few exceptions, if he didn’t own the slave in question someone else would. At the margin, an enlightened rich person like George Washington could free a few slaves (in his case upon his death), but slavery as an institution grew and prospered.
At stake is the understanding of politics itself. Is slavery just an accretion of individual choices by enslavers or an institution with legal, economic and social underpinnings? Is racism today also institutionalized and reproduced legally, economically and politically, or is it mainly the outcome of racist thoughts and actions one individual at a time? How does social change happen?
In the case of slavery, it didn’t really matter that Hamilton was active in the Manumission Society, which encouraged slave owners to release individual slaves, nor would it have mattered much for the course of slavery in America if he had refused to purchase slaves from their prior owners. At the margin again, it was better to promote manumission than not, and it would have been even better if Hamilton weren’t such a hypocrite about it by owning some of his own. But manumission did not end slavery nor could it: that was accomplished only by a civil war and the subsequent constitutional amendments outlawing it. It took collective action, and a lot of bloodshed, to bring about this social change.
Obviously the battle for social justice is far from over. Our society is riven by deep inequalities and change is still on the agenda. But just as in Hamilton’s day, more enlightened personal behavior is nice but also something of a distraction. The real personal morality is about participation in movements to dismantle the institutions of inhumanity.