- Race, Power, and Sociability in Alexander Hamilton's Records of the Tuesday Club
Although David S. Shields laments that people who own a copy of Dr. Alexander Hamilton's (1712–56) The History of the Ancient and Honorable Tuesday Club (1756) constitute a "[v]ery select" group (xxiii), Hamilton's writings are regularly culled by cultural historians looking for details about colonial life. The fact that Hamilton's two major works—History, a rendition of the annals of his gentleman's club, and Itinerarium (1744), a travel narrative of his journey from Maryland to what is now Maine—are the kind of texts that used to be ignored by students of "literature" attests to the strong historicist impulse in cultural studies. Hamilton's major works circulated only in manuscript and were published long after their author died. Partly because he wrote just for himself and a specific coterie, his works are nowadays poorly understood—unfortunately so, because he has many more readers today than during his lifetime.
This essay seeks to put the interpretation of Hamilton on a better footing by focusing on two junctures in his writings where there seem to be glaring incongruities, where the opinions of the character, Alexander Hamilton (or his club pseudonym, Loquacious Scribble), are at odds with the same character's more general views, as well as at odds with the apparent opinions of the historical Alexander Hamilton. I will not argue [End Page 21] that Hamilton's characters are merely fictional nor try to show how contrary opinions do not conflict; instead, I will seek to elucidate the logic governing these contradictions. The inconsistencies arise from the clash of antagonistic ideologies that Hamilton held simultaneously. How he negotiated the collisions has far-reaching implications for how we ought to understand Hamilton's writings.
The first apparent contradiction occurs in Itinerarium. Klaus H. Schmidt points out that, on the one hand, the narrator makes "repeated slurs on women and racial minorities"; on the other, "the self-same narrator defends women and members of ethnic groups against racism and sexism" (161). Schmidt focuses his analysis on women and ethnic groups such as the Dutch, arguing that the inconsistencies stem from Hamilton's "self-fashioning as a cosmopolitan gentleman" (162). Yet he does not elaborate specifically how such self-fashioning might lead to irreconcilable attitudes toward people of African descent and slavery.
Hamilton owned a slave, Dromo, and his general attitude is as unsurprising as it is unpleasant. While traveling in New York, for example, Hamilton tells a tale of a doctor with a violent antipathy to green peas. When served them despite instructions to the contrary, the doctor runs away. It is rather amusing to read that, as a result of the strange doctor's sudden departure, "we had a good dish of pease . . . which otherwise we should not have tasted." However, it is not amusing to read that the blame is to be placed on a "stupid negroe wench" (85).
Typical of a slave owner, Hamilton is untouched by his slave's exertions. For example, once when Dromo falls to the ground in the middle of a road, "horse and baggage and all," Hamilton remarks that this sight made him think about his own "state of health" (193). A more compassionate person would have expressed concern for Dromo's well-being. At another time, Dromo is enlisted to help free an anchor. Again, the description bears little sympathy for his slave's struggles, instead focusing on Dromo's supposedly savage origin: "Dromo grinned like a pagod as he tugged att the cable or like one of his own country idols" (78).
Comparing Dromo to a heathen deity is telling, since Dromo was a Christian. While in Philadelphia on a Sunday, Hamilton says he "intended" to go to church, "but was diverted from my good purpose by some polite company." Dromo, on the other hand, "very piously stept into the Lutheran church to be edified with a sermon preached in High Dutch, which, I believe, when dressed up in the fashion of a discourse, he understood every bit as well as English" (24). The sneer here seems particularly unjust. Dromo could not have...