5. King’s, the Revolution, and Slavery

Myles Cooper
Myles Cooper

The War of Independence created a crisis for King’s College. Closely tied to the Anglican Church, the college was a center of loyalism. A significant majority of graduates, faculty, and governors sided with the British. Many emigrated during or after the War of Independence, including President Myles Cooper, a staunch defender of British policies and the author of passionate loyalist propaganda made him “one of the most hated men in America. Soon after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Cooper escaped to a British warship a few steps ahead of a patriotic mob. During the war, the college suspended operations, and when independence was achieved there was considerable talk of abolishing it and starting a new one. But thanks in large part to the efforts of Governor George Clinton and Mayor James Duane (among the handful of King’s governors to side with the patriots), the institution survived, now rechristened Columbia College. It reopened its doors in 1784 with a group of regents appointed by the state; in 1787 they were replaced by a self-perpetuating board of trustees.[i]

Columbia College
"Columbia College at the Foot of Park Place"

Slavery, too, survived the American Revolution. But the struggle for independence made slavery, for the first time, the subject of widespread public debate. The rise of a revolutionary ideology centered on individual liberty convinced a number of patriot leaders of slavery’s incompatibility with the ideals of the nation they were struggling to create. Of more immediate import to New York’s slaves, however, were the actions of British officials who offered freedom to the slaves of patriots in order to weaken the revolutionary cause. During British occupation, New York City became “an island of freedom in a sea of slavery,” a haven for fugitive slaves from rural New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as for hundreds of black refugees who had fled to British lines in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. As noted above, over 3,000 left with the British when they evacuated the city. Many who remained had imbibed the ideology of liberty. An advertisement for Jack, who ran away in 1791, noted that “he passes for a free fellow.” The owner asked that Jack be delivered the Daniel Ludlow, a member of a prominent mercantile family who had attended King’s College in the 1760s. However, as soon as the British departed, the buying and selling of slaves resumed; James Barclay, King’s Class of 1766 and before the war owner of an auction room where slaves were sold, revived his business, posting numerous advertisements including a “sober, honest fellow” for sale in December 1783 and a woman and her three children in 1786.[ii]

The fateful question of slavery’s future in the new republic became an issue at the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787. Among the fifty-five delegates were four Columbians – William Samuel Johnson, Columbia’s president from 1787 to 1800; Rufus King, a trustee from 1806 to 1824; Gouverneur Morris, who had graduated from Kings in 1765 and would serve as a trustee from 1805 to 1816; and Alexander Hamilton, who attended classes in 1775 but left to join the revolutionary struggle and returned to Columbia as a trustee in 1787, serving until his death in 1804. Their actions with regard to slavery differed dramatically.

William Samuel Johnson
William Samuel Johnson

President Johnson, a slaveowner, was quite close to southern delegates. While representing Connecticut in Congress in 1785 he had tried to sell a recalcitrant slave to one of the southern members. At the Constitutional Convention, he said nothing about slavery but supported the efforts of South Carolina and Georgia to allow states to continue to import slaves for twenty years. Charles C. Pinckney, the South Carolina statesman, seems to have had Johnson in mind when he said that he found New England delegates as “liberal and candid” (I. e., willing to accommodate southern slave owners) “as any men anywhere.”[iii]

Rufus King
Rufus King

Rufus King grew up in a slaveowning family in Massachusetts, but imbibed some of the antislavery ideas inspired by the Revolution. As a member of Congress in the 1780s, he sought to bar the institution from the new nation’s western territories. “To suffer the continuance of slaves until they can gradually be emancipated in states already overrun with them,” he wrote, “may be pardonable… but to introduce them into countries where none now exist, countries which… we have boasted of as an asylum to the oppressed of the earth can never be forgiven.” At the constitutional convention, however, King said little about slavery. He made brief remarks opposing the clauses allowing the slave trade to continue and counting three-fifths of slaves in apportioning representation in the House of Representatives. King hoped to see slavery die out but felt no urgency about the matter. When a Quaker antislavery petition was presented to the Senate in 1790, where King now served, he declared that Congress had no power over the institution. King served as ambassador to Great Britain in the 1790s. After his return to the United States, he bought a farm on Long Island and purchased at least one slave, a woman he manumitted in 1812.[iv]

Gouverneur Morris
Gouverneur Morris

The most outspoken critic of slavery among the Columbia-connected delegates was Gouverneur Morris. His father, the owner of Morrisania, a large estate that straddled the East River, had owned 46 slaves in 1762, possibly the largest single holding in New York colony at that time. At the 1777 convention that drafted a new constitution for New York, Morris unsuccessfully tried to have a clause added directing the legislature to take steps, “consistent with… private property,” toward abolition, “so that in future ages, every human being who breathes the air of this state, shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman.” At the constitutional convention, Morris delivered a strong condemnation of slavery while opposing the three-fifths clause: “It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed… The admission of slaves into the representation… comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pa. or N. J.” Yet Morris, like King, buried his doubts to become a strong supporter of the Constitution; indeed, James Madison credited him with the leading role on the Committee on Style that worked out the document’s final wording.[v]

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

As for Alexander Hamilton, having grown up in the Caribbean he was more acquainted with slavery in its most brutal form than the other Columbians. He seems to have developed at an early age a strong aversion to the institution. But he generally allowed other priorities – personal advancement, American nationalism, the protection of property rights – to override this conviction. The money that sent him to study on the mainland derived from slavery, and he married Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of a major slaveholding New York family. Like other patriots, he freely used the argument that British measures were reducing Americans to metaphorical slavery. Unlike many of them he also spoke out about real slavery, calling it a source of weakness in the newly independent nation as it interfered with the development of industry and commerce and encouraged “avarice and lust” among whites. During the War of Independence he urged the enlistment of blacks in Washington’s army, writing that with “proper management” they could become “very excellent soldiers.” To fears that this would be a step toward emancipation, Hamilton replied, “this circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me in favor of this unfortunate class of men.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hamilton rejected the idea of innate black inferiority--“their natural faculties,” he wrote, “are as good as ours.” Nonetheless, passionately devoted to the project of creating a strong national government he said nothing about slavery at the constitutional convention, and reluctantly acquiesced in the three-fifths clause, concluding that without it “no union could have possibly been formed.” His contributions to the Federalist Papers said nothing about slavery.[vi]

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

[i]. Ibid., 45-55; John Pine, “King’s College and the Early Days of Columbia,” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 17 (1919), 119.

[ii]. Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York, 2015), 32-36; New York Packet, January 18, 1791; Independent Journal, December 8, 1783; Brewington, “Run-away,” 20.

[iii]. George C. Groce, Jr., William Samuel Johnson, A Maker of the Constitution (New York, 1937), 146-47, 146n.

[iv]. Robert Ernst, Rufus King: American Federalist (Chapel Hill, 1968), 7, 53-55, 106-11, 171; Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (3 vols.: New Haven, 1911), 2: 220; Robert Ernst, “Rufus King, Slavery, and the Missouri Crisis,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 46 (October 1962), 358-61.

[v]. William H. Adams, Gouverneur Morris: An Independent Life (New Haven, 2003), 4-12, 158-63; David N. Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom 1777-1827 (Baton Rouge, 2006), 33-34; Farrand, Records, 2: 221-22.

[vi]. James O. Horton, “Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation,” New-York Journal of American History, 3 (2004), 16-24; Ankeet Ball, “Ambition and Bondage: An Inquiry on Alexander Hamilton and Slavery,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015.