An interview with a founder
The effect of one man’s faith and foibles on the beginnings of America
Constitution Day on Sept. 17 commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution by 39 Founders in 1787. Alexander Hamilton became the primary defender of the new document, writing 51 of the 85 newspaper columns—now known as The Federalist Papers—that proved crucial in winning New York support.
The success of Hamilton, the Broadway musical and movie, has led to a stream of new books about him. The most unusual is probably Andrew Porwancher’s The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton (Princeton University Press, 2021), which over-promises on the title but reveals some little-known but now scholar-verified insights into Hamilton’s early background. His mother Rachel married Johan Levine, a Jewish plantation owner on a Caribbean island, and probably converted to Judaism. They had one son, but the marriage broke down after five years and Levine had her jailed for adultery.
When Rachel got out, she fled to a neighboring island, abandoning Levine and their young son. There she became involved with an immigrant from Scotland, James Hamilton. According to Porwancher, Alexander was born out of wedlock in 1754 and as a child attended a Jewish school, where he learned to say the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. His mother died in 1768, his father disappeared from his life, and a cousin who had temporary custody of him committed suicide. His half-brother also committed suicide. From such tragedies Hamilton emerged with toughness but also recklessness.
Those two qualities helped Hamilton fight in the Revolutionary War, fight his political opponents, and fight duels. Hamilton had a Christian renewal late in life, following his adultery. Shot by Aaron Burr, he died in 1804, well before I had the opportunity to interview him. So, here’s what I would have asked—and here’s how, judging from Hamilton’s writings and the evidence biographer Porwancher provides, he might have responded.
After your parents were gone, how did you live? I had a good friend, Ned. His father Thomas Stevens, a wealthy merchant, took me in. I worked at an import-export firm and learned about accounting, pricing, inventory, and exchange rates.
In 1771 you were asked about your religious beliefs. What did you say? Anglican church, Reformed understanding.
Did you like being a clerk? I learned a great deal, but my rich friend Ned had gone to New York to study, and I confessed to him my weakness: “My ambition is so prevalent that I condemn the groveling conditions of a clerk and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. I wish there was a war.”
In 1772, while you were a teenager on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, how did reporting on a hurricane change your life? I wrote a sensational story about “a total dissolution of nature … the roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed.” Readers thought I had talent and funded my move to New York.
You concluded your article with a theological twist: “Where now, oh vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thy arrogance and self-sufficiency?” Why that ending? It reflected what I had learned from a Presbyterian minister, Hugh Knox.
But didn’t you in the new United States brag about your self-sufficiency and gain a reputation for arrogance? Guilty as charged. I was proud of defending the new Constitution and becoming the first secretary of the treasury, but that was God’s providence—and I didn’t give Him credit.
Your analysis relied on the historical evidence you summarized in Federalist No. 70: how rulers for centuries have “abused the confidence they possessed; and assuming the pretext of some public motive, have not scrupled to sacrifice the national tranquility to personal advantage or personal gratification.” True. Whether you look at ancient Greece and Carthage, or Venice, or England’s Cardinal Wolsey, corruption and hypocrisy are universal.
What do you think of those who think America has been and can be an exception? You should remember what I wrote in Federalist No. 70: “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape?”
Even when you did not profess faith in Christ, you seemed to back up your historical evidence with an understanding of original sin. True. I wrote, “Men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. … Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice? ... How often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals.”
But you didn’t confess to much of that in yourself? Not when I was young. In everyone else I saw “detestable vice.”
What did you rely upon when a study of history and human nature didn’t give you adequate guidance? Human reason. Here’s an example: In Philadelphia we debated a proposal to have two “consuls” instead of one president—imitating ancient Rome. I acknowledged that ancient history didn’t give us clear guidance on that, but the dictates of reason and good sense gave us good cause to reject the proposal.
That seems different from the approach of your Federalist Papers co-author, James Madison. He followed the Enlightenment tendency to start with reason, but you seemed to use history first, a Biblical understanding of human nature second, and your own reason third. Looks like some of your early religious training stuck with you? Yes, and maybe the experience of growing up in a broken family and coming to maturity in a broken country fed my skepticism regarding reason, pure and impure. I did see the need for some measuring device outside our fallen brains.
When others at the Constitutional Convention wanted each session to open with prayer, why did you say delegates did not need to call in “foreign aid”? Couldn’t resist uttering a witticism. When I returned to New York and my old friend, Dr. John Rogers of the Wall Street Presbyterian Church, asked me why the Constitution did not expressly recognize God, I gibed, “We forgot.”
But you saw religion as useful, particularly when the French Revolution turned atheistic. In 1798, when the United States almost went to war with France, why did you ask Americans to “trust in Heaven, and nobly defy the enemies both of God and man”? I’m sorry to say I was using Christianity for political purposes. I told one of my allies, William L. Smith, that “it may be proper by some religious solemnity to impress seriously the minds of the people.” I wanted “active competition with the atheistical tenets of their enemies. This is an advantage which we shall be very unskilled if we do not use to the utmost. … A day of humiliation and prayer, besides being very proper, would be extremely useful.”
You seemed to see God not in a distant deistic sense, but as engaged in the world? I believed the blessing of Providence staved off national bankruptcy in the 1780s. When John Adams acted feebly, I wrote to the great Washington, “My trust in Providence, which has so often interposed in our favor, is my only consolation.”
But your ability to recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew did not keep you from committing adultery? Sadly no, even though Eliza was the best of wives and the best of women. I hated it when she wouldn’t even talk to me, but I deserved it.
Then in 1801 your eldest son, 19-year-old Philip, had a duel with George Eacker, who had attacked your policies. My fault. I ignored my pessimism about human nature and advised Philip to do the honorable thing—refuse to shoot. I thought Eacker would act honorably as well. He did not. He shot and killed Philip. Killed also my sense of self-sufficiency.
What did you learn from studying the Bible, and William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity? I carefully examined the evidence and told people I could prove the truth of Christianity “as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.” I proposed that we create in every large city Christian schools to help the poor, and charitable organizations to help immigrants.
You liked the Louisiana Purchase even though your political opponent Thomas Jefferson got the credit? It was the kind interposition of an over-ruling Providence.
Your opposition to Aaron Burr helped Jefferson become president in 1801. What did you think about the presidential candidates in 1804? I didn’t think about them. My father-in-law Philip Schuyler asked me political questions. I replied, “I am too much disgusted to give myself any future concern about them.”
You responded differently than you had before to complaints about life’s twists and turns? I advised one man, “Arraign not the dispensations of Providence, they must be founded in wisdom and goodness; and when they do not suit us, it must be because there is some fault in us which deserves chastisement; or because there is a kind intent to correct in us some vice or failing, of which, perhaps, we may not be conscious. … In this situation, it is our duty to cultivate resignation, and even humility.”
How did you prepare for your July 1804 duel with Burr? The evening before, I recited the Lord’s Prayer with our 12-year-old son, John.
The next morning Burr fatally shot you, but you lingered for a few hours. What were your last words? “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me.”