A specialist in African-American history pieces together the remarkable career of an antebellum Wall Street broker who was married to a white woman, ambitious, ruthless, successful, and black: in short, “a racist’s nightmare come to life.”
An 1875 death notice of Jeremiah G. Hamilton labeled him “The Richest Colored Man in the Country.” Relying almost entirely on newspapers, government files, court records, the public cloud of dust kicked up by Hamilton’s tumultuous financial maneuvering, and his otherwise private life, White (History/Univ. of Sydney; The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech, 2005, etc.) recovers a surprising amount of information about this amazing wheeler-dealer. The natty, shrill-voiced Hamilton enjoyed fine living—he bought only the best homes, cigars, and lawyers—and serious books. During the course of compiling his $2 million fortune, he was at various times sentenced to death in absentia in Haiti for his role in a counterfeiting scheme, banned from coverage by New York insurance companies, and blackballed by the stock exchange. He exploited the financial chaos amid the ashes of the city’s Great Fire of 1835 and smartly used the Bankruptcy Act to recover from the 1837 panic. In a largely unregulated Wall Street, with gambling and speculation rife, the ethically challenged Hamilton beat his slippery white adversaries at their own game—and they resented him for it. Combative (in old age, he fought off a Broadway pickpocket), endlessly litigious (he once sued Cornelius Vanderbilt), Hamilton understood the importance of the press and manipulating public opinion. White expertly mines the era’s penny press for stories and characters—William Thompson, junk shop and brothel owner, Thomas Downing, oyster-house proprietor, himself book worthy—that help explain the era’s racial climate and Hamilton’s notoriety as assessed by the likes of John Russwurm, publisher of New York’s first African-American paper, the Herald’s race-baiting James Gordon Bennett, and Hamilton’s ally, the Sun’s Benjamin Day.
Superb scholarship and a sprightly style recover an unaccountably overlooked life in our history.