WHO WAS JEREMIAH HAMILTON?
Jeremiah G. Hamilton was the only African American broker on Wall Street and the only black millionaire in mid-nineteenth century New York. His astonishing success failed to impress black intellectuals such as James McCune Smith who disparaged his relentless pursuit of wealth as crass and undignified. American historians would also shun Jeremiah Hamilton, ignoring his prominence in Wall Street during the 1840s and 50s. Today he is all but forgotten.
Yet in his lifetime, Jeremiah Hamilton was larger than life, anything but a reticent figure lost in the background. Indeed, he left a pretty hefty footprint on the historical record: there are tens of thousands of words of newsprint about him and, in the archives, well over 50 court cases involving Hamilton as either plaintiff or defendant. His life provides a unique and illuminating insight into black life in New York, before and during the Civil War.
Surviving details of Jeremiah Hamilton's early years are contradictory. Contemporary newspaper articles claimed he was born of free parents in Richmond Virginia. However his death certificate stated he was born in the West Indies and listed Port-au-Prince as the birthplace of his parents. Certainly, Hamilton was highly literate, numerate, fluent in French and bristling with ambition. “Jeremiah Hamilton's past was malleable, something to be used as he saw fit and, most of all, deployed to his advantage,” observed his biographer Shane White, author of Prince Of Darkness.
Hamilton first made his mark in the counterfeiting trade. In 1828, at just 21 years of age, he ran a large cargo of counterfeit coins from Canada through New York into Haiti for a consortium of prominent New York merchants. Haitian authorities discovered the scam and Hamilton was very nearly caught. Counterfeiting was an offense punishable by death in Haiti and a judge sentenced him, in absentia, to be shot. Proclamations nailed to posts all over the island offered a $300 reward for his capture. For 12 days, Hamilton lurked around Port-au-Prince harbor until he could escape on board a vessel bound for New York.
By the time of the Great Fire of 1835, one of the most destructive events in the city’s history, Hamilton was living in New York and renting an office on Wall Street. He profited handsomely from the disaster, taking pitiless advantage of several victims of the fire to pocket some $5 million in today’s currency. Within months he invested heavily in New York’s real estate boom, buying 47 lots of land at Hallet’s Cove, in present-day Astoria, and docks, wharves and tracts of land up the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie.
Hamilton was more aggressive and more ruthless toward his competitors than most businessmen. Wall Street has never been a place for the faint of heart, and in the unregulated marketplace of the antebellum era, New York businessmen played hardball. Initially sensing an easy mark, they lined up to play with Hamilton though the black broker always returned what he had received—and with interest. A serial litigant, the lawsuit became Hamilton's weapon of choice.
Jeremiah Hamilton's relationship with the insurance industry was particularly fraught. In the 1830s, the New York marine insurance firms blackballed Hamilton and refused to underwrite his ventures. He was rumored to have scuttled a few heavily insured vessels - a charge that almost certainly had some truth. In 1843, the Atlantic Insurance Company accused him of conspiring to defraud them of $50,000. Eventually they dropped their legal case, but not before Hamilton claimed that the insurance company hired a thug to drown him in the East River.
His troubles extended to the stock exchange. In 1845, the New Board, a secondary New York stock exchange, resolved to expel any member who bought or sold shares for him. One newspaper editor suggested the reason: “Hamilton is a colored man; and so, forsooth, his money is not to be received in the same ‘till’ with theirs. Oh, ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
Yet most brokers and merchants were more interested in the color of the black man’s money than his skin. Regardless, Hamilton simply brushed aside the obstacles placed in his way, or connived to get around them, and carried on amassing his fortune.
Hamilton did not shy away from physical confrontation with his enemies. In an 1843 court case, a witness, a prominent judge, viciously denigrated Hamilton’s character. Unable to restrain himself, Hamilton stood up in court and denounced him as an unreliable witness. Outside the chamber, the pair continued to quarrel, jostling and then brawling: when the judge struck Hamilton with his cane, the broker attempted to clobber him with a rung seized from a passing cart. The press had a field day.
In the 1850s, Hamilton would take on Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of America's wealthiest and most ruthless tycoons, over control of the Accessory Transit Company. “There was only one man who ever fought the Commodore to the end and that was Jeremiah Hamilton,” wrote an obituarist in the National Republican the day after Vanderbilt died in 1877. The writer neither explained who Hamilton was nor mentioned his skin color, noting only that although Vanderbilt did not fear him (he did not fear anyone), the Commodore nonetheless “respected him.”
Jeremiah Hamilton lived in two worlds. On Wall Street, the black broker relished his predatory role, aggressively working deals to his advantage. Yet his everyday life on the streets of New York streets was shaped by an unforgiving and demeaning racial etiquette. At work Hamilton was, to borrow Tom Wolfe’s term, a master of the universe, but for the rest of the day and night he was barely a second-class citizen.
For all the distance Hamilton put between himself and other African-Americans, to white New Yorkers seeing him about town, he remained just another Negro.
Hamilton was a racist’s nightmare, an affront to the beliefs of most white New Yorkers. He was wealthy, successful, associated with whites – and married to a white woman. Eliza Jane Morris became pregnant with Hamilton’s child when she was just 13 or 14 and he was at least twice her age. They had nine more children, and their marriage lasted for some 40 years, until Hamilton’s death.
The Civil War merely heightened the absurdity of the black broker’s existence. On Wall Street, he carried on accumulating money, caring nothing about whom he upset. A master at manipulating speculative share values to his advantage, Hamilton saddled the client with any losses but pocketed any profits – a habit that often landed him in court. He gave scant, if any, thought to moderating his behavior or lifestyle. On one occasion in 1864, he imperiously suggested that boxes of expensive champagne and cigars were an ideal way for a white client to show his appreciation.
Such cocksure behavior from a black man may have been tolerated, just, on Wall Street, but on any other city street he would have been strung up from a lamppost. There were always New Yorkers willing to remind Hamilton what blackness meant in a city riven by race. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Draft Riots that erupted in New York in July 1863.
On the second evening of rioting, somewhere between a dozen and a score of “men and boys,” descended on the house where Jeremiah G. and Eliza Jane Hamilton lived. The white rioters kicked in the basement door and rushed up the stairs to the ground floor where they were confronted by the 40-year-old Eliza Hamilton who told them Jeremiah Hamilton was away. No one doubted the intruders’ intentions. A curious neighbor ambled down the block to see what all the noise was about, only to have one of the mob point a cocked pistol at his chest and tell him that “there is a nigger living here with two white women, and we are going to bring him out, and hang him on the lamp post.”
After the Civil War, Hamilton’s life took on a veneer of respectability. He frequented the New York Society Library and read the philosophical works of Francis Bacon, John Milton and Aristotle.
On his death, one obituary damned him as “the notorious colored capitalist long identified with commercial enterprises in this city.” But other tributes were gentler, noting that he was “with one exception, the oldest Wall Street speculator” and emphasizing that “his judgment in banking was highly esteemed, and he was often consulted by prominent bankers.” Harper's Bazaar described him as “an intelligent, gentlemanly man.” He was buried in his family lot in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, next to two of his daughters.
The story of Jeremiah Hamilton’s life disrupts the tidy view that the financial powerhouse of Wall Street was quintessentially white, totally segregated from the African-American past. When Hamilton died in May 1875, obituaries called him the richest black man in the United States, possessing a fortune of $2 million, or in excess of $250 million today.
He lived out the American nightmare of race in his own distinctive fashion, and it would be some time before New York City would see his like again.
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