Serfilippi upended ‘Hero Hamilton’ narrative so those he enslaved ‘could take their place in history’

Jessica Serfilippi


ALBANY COUNTY — Jessica Serfilippi started her groundbreaking and myth-busting research on Alexander Hamilton the way she thinks any historian should — with an open mind, she says.

She was “not looking one way or the other to find something, just seeing where the primary sources led me,” Serfilippi says. “And I cannot ignore where they were leading me.”

The primary sources — including letters and cash books in Hamilton’s own hand — led her to this conclusion: “When those sources are fully considered, a rarely acknowledged truth becomes inescapbly apparent: not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally.

“The denial and obscuration of these facts in nearly every major biography written about him over the past two centuries has erased the people he enslaved from history. It has also created and perpetuated a false and incomplete picture of Hamilton as a man and Founding Father.”

Serfilippi, who works as a historical interpreter at the state-run Schuyler Mansion in Albany, had those words published on the state’s website as part of her carefully researched 28-page paper, in the fall of 2020.

A firestorm followed.

The New York Post, which Hamilton had founded in 1801, published a story featuring a fifth-great-grandson of Hamilton, Douglas Hamilton, saying Serfilippi’s paper is “riddled with errors, omissions, assumptions, speculations and misrepresentations. There are a number of factual mistakes.”

The one “misrepresentation” Douglas Hamilton points to is saying Serfilippi confused the terms “servant” and “slave.” The Post wrote, “He claims the employees were likely free men and women unburdened by the yoke of slavery.”

Serfilippi has a lengthy discussion of those two terms in her paper and writes of Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law, “Throughout his correspondence, Schuyler’s use of the word ‘servant’ almost always applies to enslaved men, women, or children. He was not the only person to use the word in this manner — it was common practice during the 18th century.”

One document pictured in her paper from the Library of Congress shows Hamilton’s three assets tallied after his death: “House,” valued at 2,200 pounds; “Furniture & library,” valued at 300 pounds; and “Servants,” valued at 400 pounds.

“Monetary value ascribed to a human being as property is an inherent aspect of slavery,” writes Serfilippi. “Valuing servants in such a way, as part of the estate on par with furniture, simply cannot refer to hired servants ….”

The Post quotes Douglas Hamilton as saying, “The people who want to destroy the culture of this country have got to start somewhere, so why not him? … The mission of [today’s] cancel culture appears to be the complete elimination of all our history prior to the 1960s.”

The Post story denigrates Sefilippi’s paper, saying it “has been embraced by some ‘woke’ historians” as it espouses Douglas Hamilton’s worries that “social justice warriors will try to ‘cancel’ his forebear next.”

It also quotes him as saying “Jessie’s research is a lie” and that she twisted “facts” to “suit her agenda.”

The New York Times story on Serfilippi’s paper was more balanced, quoting some respected historians who called her paper “fascinating” or “part of a welcome reconsideration” of  the “the Hero Hamilton” narrative.

That narrative got a huge boost with the popularity of “Hamilton: An American Musical,” which Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he was inspired to write after reading Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography on Hamilton.

Chernow, whose biography calls Hamilton an “uncompromising abolitionist,” The Times reported, said Serfilippi’s paper “presented a lopsidedly negative view.”

Serfilippi, in this week’s Enterprise podcast, describes herself as “a little bit naive,” not expecting the reaction that came with her research. “I really just thought this would maybe make its rounds in the local-history world …,” she said.

“But when The New York Times called for an interview, I was very excited. And it was only after that I realized what comes with a lot of attention to research.”

She felt supported by her co-workers at the Schuyler Mansion and also by “so many amazing historians that I met on Twitter.” They helped her realize, she said, “to ignore what people might be saying if it’s rude and to just stick with my research.”

Serfilippi said she started the project because the staff at the Schuyler Mansion has been focusing on the history of the people that Philip and Catherine Schuyler had enslaved and, when Serfilippi joined the staff in 2017, she joined in the research, focusing on the Schuylers’ children.

Hamilton was married to the Schuylers’ daughter Elizabeth. A staffer who left , said Serfilippi, had “already done a bit of research about Hamilton and slavery on our blog, and she left off with the question: Did he enslave people?”

Serfilippi researched that question for two years. “When I was able to see in his cash book, in his own handwriting, that he purchased a woman and her child, that was when, I said …. This is definitive.” She then wondered why other historians hadn’t looked at this.

“It turned out they had but weren’t drawing the same conclusions I did. So I kept going from there and the evidence just kept building up,” said Serfilippi.

Her paper notes that the first published biography on Alexander Hamilton, seven volumes written by his son John C. Hamilton and completed in 1864, states his father “never owned a slave.” Serfilippi notes that “valiant view” gained increased traction in the 20th and 21st centuries with one of the few historians to contest it being Alexander Hamilton’s grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, in 1910.

“It has been stated that Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue,” wrote Allan McLane Hamilton. “We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.”

“What really guided me through,” said Serfilippi, “was just … knowing the enslaved people and seeing that that had been untold in so many of these biographies.” She wanted to let readers know Hamilton had indeed enslaved people “because that way the people they enslaved could take their place in history and be remembered.”

Serfilippi, who grew up in Bethlehem, has been interested in writing and history — particularly the American Revolutionary period — since she was 8 years old. She has a bachelros’ degree in English and a master’s degree in creative writing — both from The College of Saint Rose in Albany.

She loves her job, guiding people through the Schuyler Mansion and researching the era.

Separate from her job, she is also working on a book — a contemporary young-adult novel — about a girl who is inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poetry; Serfilippi has herself read all of Dickinson’s poems.

She believes coming-of-age books are worthwhile because “we’re all always coming of age in different senses as we grow older.”

She wants to write the book she wishes had been around when she was growing up.


Jessica Serfilippi will speak on “As odious and immoral a thing — Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History with Slavery,” on Thursday, April 21, at 7 p.m. at the Delmar Reformed Church. This is the final talk in the Bethlehem Historical Association’s spring lecture series.


More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.