Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Jay (March 14, 1779)


In this letter to John Jay, president of the Continental Congress, dated March 14, 1775, Alexander Hamilton details his attempts to raise battalions of slaves in Georgia and South Carolina under threat of British invasion. While George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, was in favor of recruiting slaves for soldiers, he never extended full support for Hamilton’s plan to allow the slaves to have “freedom with their muskets.”


To John Jay

[Middlebrook, New Jersey, March 14, 1779]

Dear Sir,

Col Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering you this letter, is on his way to South Carolina, on a project, which I think, in the present situation of affairs there, is a very good one and deserves every kind of support and encouragement. This is to raise two three or four batalions of negroes; with the assistance of the government of that state, by contributions from the owners in proportion to the number they possess. If you should think proper to enter upon the subject with him, he will give you a detail of his plan. He wishes to have it recommended by Congress to the state; and, as an inducement, that they would engage to take those batalions into Continental pay.

It appears to me, that an expedient of this kind, in the present state of Southern affairs, is the most rational, that can be adopted, and promises very important advantages. Indeed, I hardly see how a sufficient force can be collected in that quarter without it; and the enemy’s operations there are growing infinitely serious and formidable. I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make very excellent soldiers, with proper management; and I will venture to pronounce, that they cannot be put in better hands than those of Mr. Laurens. He has all the zeal, intelligence, enterprise, and every other qualification requisite to succeed in such an undertaking. It is a maxim with some great military judges, that with sensible officers soldiers can hardly be too stupid; and on this principle it is thought that the Russians would make the best troops in the world, if they were under other officers than their own. The King of Prussia is among the number who maintain this doctrine and has a very emphatical saying on the occasion, which I do not exactly recollect. I mention this, because I frequently hear it objected to the scheme of embodying negroes that they are too stupid to make soldiers. This is so far from appearing to me a valid objection that I think their want of cultivation (for their natural faculties are probably as good as ours) joined to that habit of subordination which they acquire from a life of servitude, will make them sooner became soldiers than our White inhabitants. Let officers be men of sense and sentiment, and the nearer the soldiers approach to machines perhaps the better.

I foresee that this project will have to combat much opposition from prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.

When I am on the subject of Southern affairs, you will excuse the liberty I take, in saying, that I do not think measures sufficiently vigorous are persuing for our defence in that quarter. Except the few regular troops of South Carolina, we seem to be relying wholly on the militia of that and the two neighbouring states. These will soon grow impatient of service and leave our affairs in a very miserable situation. No considerable force can be uniformly kept up by militia—to say nothing of many obvious and well known inconveniences, that attend this kind of troops. I would beg leave to suggest, Sir, that no time ought to be lost in making a draft of militia to serve a twelve month from the States of North and South Carolina and Virginia. But South Carolina being very weak in her population of whites may be excused from the draft on condition of furnishing the black batalions. The two others may furnish about 3,500 men and be exempted on that account from sending any succours to this army. The states to the Northward of Virginia will be fully able to give competent supplies to the army here; and it will require all the force and exertions of the three states I have mentioned to withstand the storm which has arisen and is increasing in the South.

The troops drafted must be thrown into batalions and officered in the best manner we can. The supernumerary officers may be made use of as far as they will go.

If arms are wanted for these troops and no better way of supplying them is to be found, we should endeavour to levy a contribution of arms upon the militia at large. Extraordinary exigencies demand extraordinary means. I fear this Southern business will become a very grave one.

With the truest respect & esteem   I am Sir   Your most Obed servant

Alex Hamilton

Want of time to copy it, will apologise for sending this letter in its present state.

Head Quarters   March 14th. 79


An excerpt from the diary of George Washington (January 28-30, 1760) Newspaper Advertisement for Runaway Slaves, George Washington (August 20, 1761) Letter from James Hill to George Washington (August 30, 1772) Letter from James Hill to George Washington (December 13, 1772) Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley (October 26, 1775) Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (December 31, 1775) Journals of the Continental Congress (March 29, 1779) Letter from George Washington to John Laurens (July 10, 1782) An Act to Authorize the Manumission of Slaves (1782) Query XIV; an excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (1784) Letter from George Washington to Anthony Whitting (December 23, 1792) Letter from Anthony Whitting to George Washington (January 16, 1793) Letter from George Washington to Anthony Whitting, (January 20, 1793) Letter from George Washington to Anthony Whitting (May 19, 1793) Circular to William Sturat, Hiland Crow, and Henry McCoy (July 14, 1793) Letter from George Washington to William Pearce (December 18, 1793) Letter from George Washington to William Pearce (December 23, 1793) An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters (1793) Letter from George Washington to William Pearce (January 26, 1794) Letter from George Washington to William Pearce (March 30, 1794) George Washington’s Last Will and Testament (July 9, 1799) Enclosure: Washington’s Plans for His River, Union, and Muddy Hole Farms (December 10, 1799)

APA Citation:
Hamilton, Alexander. Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Jay (March 14, 1779). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Hamilton, Alexander. "Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Jay (March 14, 1779)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 28
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