Chernow Gonna Chernow
A Pulitzer Prize winner punches down
A quick note: My most recent book, You Never Forget Your First, comes out in paperback on Tuesday! If you plan on picking up a copy, there’s still time to pre-order (it makes a difference, but so do all sales!) from Amazon, Bookshop, or better yet, your local indie.
I have nothing personal against Ron Chernow. I’m grateful that his work inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write Hamilton: An American Musical, which reinvigorated interest in the Founding era. I wrote as much to him early last year, not long after my biography of George Washington came out, afraid he would take the book as a provocation. As reviewers and readers noticed immediately, I take issue with how Chernow handles women and slavery in his own biography of the first president. In the introduction, I tally up the various problematic words he uses to describe Mary, Washington’s mother—26 of them, including “crusty” and “shrewish”—and try to set the record straight on family dramas he just plain invented. And I note that as hard as Chernow is on Mary, he is remarkably soft on Washington, a man who owned hundreds of people and did not free one during his lifetime.
Chernow never answered my email, and though several journalists told me they reached out to him for comment, he never responded to them, either. I thought that was his style, and I respected it. I was surprised, then, to see him go in a very different direction with Jessie Serfilippi, a 27-year-old part-time interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, New York.
This past fall, Serfilippi published a paper that clearly hit a nerve. “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver” offers persuasive evidence that the first Secretary of the Treasury indeed owned Black people. This time, Chernow had comments for all the major outlets. In an email to the Times, he wrote that Serfilippi’s paper “seems to be a terrific research job that broadens our sense of Hamilton’s involvement in slavery in a number of ways,” at the same time dismissing her for focusing too much on slavery…in a paper explicitly about slavery. As he put it to Smithsonian Magazine, “There is, inevitably, some distortion of vision by viewing Hamilton’s large and varied life through this single lens.”
Chernow bemoaned Serfilippi’s “bald conclusions,” but never offered a defense of his own claims. In his biography, he writes that “the memories of his West Indian childhood left Hamilton with a settled antipathy to slavery.” In her paper, Serfilippi counters that “there is no indication, either in documents from Hamiton’s childhood or adulthood, that the horrors of slavery he witnessed on St. Croix turned him into an abolitionist.”
Did Chernow cite the missing documents? No. Instead, he told the Times that Serfilippi “omits all information that would contradict her conclusions.” This is false; in her paper, Serfilippi notes that there are documented instances in which Hamilton criticized slavery and that he was a member of the New-York Manumission Society, which advocated gradual emancipation. But Hamilton worked as a lawyer, and as Serfilippi points out, it’s hard to imagine that his pro-slavery clients, whom he advised on the issue, would have sought his services “if he were known among his peers as having only abolitionist leanings.” (George Washington privately claimed that he, too, favored “some plan adopted by the Legislature, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.” Yet when he lived in Philadelphia, a city that had such laws in place, he sought to work around them, and in Virginia, a state that allowed individuals to emancipate the people they enslaved, he made no move to; Washington didn’t free a single person during his lifetime, and he pursued those who fled bondage.)
I was disappointed by Chernow’s response, and also baffled: Why, after keeping mum for so long, did he find it necessary to reply? Why now, after a year defined by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, both disastrously mishandled by a president widely acknowledged as sympathetic to white supremacists? My own explanation: George Washington may have won Ron Chernow the Pulitzer, but Alexander Hamilton defines his legacy. Serfilippi’s paper was a direct challenge to the man he’d sold as an “uncompromising abolitionist.”
Some of the best historians of early America, including Annette Gordon-Reed and Joanne Freeman, responded positively to Serfilippi’s paper, ready to examine evidence that may complicate the Hamilton hero narrative. And there’s plenty in “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’” that most historians have long considered factual: Hamilton bought and sold people. He accepted money in exchange for labor performed by an enslaved person belonging to his household. Here’s what Serfilippi found: At the time of Hamilton’s death, his estate included enslaved servants valued at 400 pounds. “There’s just no denying it after seeing that specific piece of evidence,” she wrote to me in an email. “There’s no debating that he enslaved people. To say he didn’t is to erase them, and I will not let that happen.”
Nor should she, or any scholar. Historians aren’t here to present their subjects in the most favorable light, but rather to bring them as fully as possible into the light. Good and bad coexist in people, and they should in the books on them, too. That’s what I told the journalists and editors who contacted me about Serfilippi’s paper—off the record. I had no intention of saying more, but then Chernow came out swinging, and I saw some of the same Founder fetishists who had trolled me go after her, too.
This was never going to be a fair fight. Chernow is wealthy and famous; in addition to the Pulitzer, he’s won the National Book Award, received the National Humanities Medal, and hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Serfilippi, just a few years into her career, was thrilled to have a paper posted to the Schuyler Mansion’s website.
When I was Serfilippi’s age, I was a research curator at the New York Public Library. I had little experience and few contacts. I would have been mortified by this kind of attention and terrified that my bosses, even the ones who vetted the paper many times, would soon tire of the controversy. I’m now at a different place in my career, and I understand that, regrettably, this sort of thing is part of the deal (for the time being, anyway). And happily, when you do solid work, your supporters end up vastly outnumbering and overshadowing your detractors.
I wanted to make sure Serfilippi knew that, so I sent her a DM, and I’m glad I did. She told me that when her father called to congratulate her on the coverage of her paper, which spanned The Guardian to The New York Times, she wasn’t celebrating; she was crying about the trolls who were coming after her. And while the Schuyler Mansion has steadfastly supported her, she asked me to include this note:
This is about my personal experience online, on my personal Twitter account, after the publication of my research. My views here are my own and are not meant to represent those of my employers.
Serfilippi is a gifted scholar, and I hope to see much more from her. Right now, she told me, she’s happy at the Schuyler Mansion, where the staff is focused on learning more about the lives of Hamilton’s enslaved servants. When people can once again visit, I have no doubt they will leave with a complicated impression of the man.
But let’s be realistic here. This is a historic site in Albany, New York, and no matter how many visitors the Schuyler Mansion gets, it’ll never come close to matching the number of people who have purchased Chernow’s book or memorized the Hamilton soundtrack. Every new edition of Alexander Hamilton will continue to state that Hamilton may have enslaved people, omitting evidence that shows he did. That narrative will dominate the conversation—for now. There’s a long game to be played here, and that’s exactly what the Schuyler Mansion is doing by supporting work like Serfilippi’s.
Now, a request: Let’s show Serfilippi and the Schuyler Mansion how much we support their work. You can start by following them on socials and reading and sharing her paper. And if you’re able, please consider donating $50 to the Schuyler Mansion (accepted through the purchase of a membership).
On a related note:
I’ve seen Serfilippi’s “part-time interpreter” job description used online to degrade her, which demonstrates little knowledge about public history and cash-strapped historical societies. Full-time jobs, especially for younger staffers, are few and far between. Interpreters aren’t just tour guides who punch in, put on a uniform, and read a script they memorized. Many are historians who do research, aid scholars, and collaborate with colleagues on education and exhibitions.
On an unrelated note:
For the first 22 years of my life, my grandfather Max and I celebrated our shared birthday of January 26th together. We had separate cakes but joint parties. It was a stroke of luck that a shy, bookish girl got to spend much of her childhood standing as close as possible, but ideally behind, a more gregarious counterpart as family and friends sang “Happy Birthday.”
Max always told me that I was the best present he’d ever received, and I didn’t realize, until he died, that he was the best birthday present I’d ever received, too. My first January 26th without him was sad, and every one since has felt half full — until last year. That’s the first one I spent with my daughter, his namesake. It's not the same, of course, but it was awfully nice to have someone just as gregarious to call by the same name on my birthday.