by Rich Juro
Editor’s note: See the Feb. 12 edition of the Jewish Press for part II of this story.
Was Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of our country, Jewish?
What was his scandalous upbringing?
Could Hamilton have been President of the USA?
Why was he shot and killed?
Why is his picture on the $10 bill, and why do they want to remove him?
Why did Hamilton become a Broadway hit?
Could he solve the European economic crisis?
Alexander Hamilton, one of the great leaders of the new American Republic, is now the subject of a hit Broadway musical. Hamilton was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis in 1755. His mother, Rachel Faucette, was an heiress of French Huguenot (Protestant) descent. Some have said that she also had Jewish or African ancestors, but those claims have never been substantiated. In 1745 she wed John Lavien (derived from Levine?) on the island of St. Croix, who was probably a Danish Jew. The marriage was a disaster. Lavien even charged her with committing “such errors which between husband and wife were indecent, and very suspicious”. The young wife, having been found guilty of adultery twice, was imprisoned for several months.
Upon release, Rachel traveled to the island of Nevis, where she had property. There she met a Scotsman, James Hamilton, and they had two sons, James Jr. and Alexander. Rachel never having divorced, the two boys were considered illegitimate bastards. Therefore, they were not allowed to attend the local Church of England school. What was young Alexander to do for an education?
Nevis was one of several Caribbean islands that had a number of prosperous Sephardic Jewish families. Most had fled Spain or Portugal around 1492 for Brazil at the time of the Inquisition, and then went to the Caribbean when the Inquisition reached Brazil. They were sugar planters, merchants, or even slave traders. The Jewish community had a synagogue and school, and also a cemetery that you can still visit today. It is in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, just a few blocks from the Hamilton home.
The young Alexander, ineligible for regular school, was instead sent to the Jewish day school. At a young age he learned to recite the 10 Commandments in Hebrew! But hard luck was coming: James Hamilton deserted his family, and Alexander’s mother died in 1768, leaving the 13-year-old an orphan.
So, was Alexander Hamilton Jewish? No. His mother’s original husband may have been Jewish, but neither Hamilton’s mother nor father was Jewish. And although his early education was in a Jewish school, he never practiced nor felt himself to be Jewish. He mainly was a deist, someone who sees God as standing outside of history. As to Jews, Hamilton admired them and asked for tolerance for them, recognizing the essential role they played in God’s plan for humanity. “Progress of the Jews,” he later wrote, “from their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause is also an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?”
Young Alexander showed such intelligence and drive that some local citizens sent him to the United States to further his education. There he enrolled in King’s College, which became Columbia University after the American Revolution. (Personal notes: As a graduate of Columbia, I was determined to visit the fine Hamilton house-museum when we cruised last winter to the nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. After all, Hamilton was the most famous Columbian before Barack Obama. It was in Charlestown, Nevis, that we also found the old but well-maintained Jewish cemetery that sparked the research for this article. Also, Fran and I met at Hamilton Hall in Columbia University when she requested directions to a summer-school Spanish class. It was many, many years ago, but it was the first and last time she actually asked for and followed my directions.)
Hamilton joined the new American Revolutionary Army. Again, his insights and brilliance soon resulted in his promotion to George Washington’s trusted aide. Washington so valued Hamilton that the General would not let his adviser lead troops into battle. Finally, both Hamilton and another vital assistant, the Marquis de Lafayette, played key roles in the decisive and final Battle of Yorktown. After the War of Independence was won, Hamilton practiced law and married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a prominent New York State family.