The Big Question: Was Alexander Hamilton Jewish?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Justin Fox: You’re a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of a new book on Alexander Hamilton — one of our most obsessed-about founding fathers, thanks in part to the musical “Hamilton.” You’ve discovered something surprising about Hamilton, which is that he was...probably kinda-sorta Jewish.
Andrew Porwancher, author, “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton”: Yes, the balance of evidence suggests that Hamilton in all likelihood had a Jewish identity in his youth in the Caribbean.
JF: And that was derived from his mother, who had probably converted?
AP: His mother, Rachel, was born a Christian into a French Huguenot family in the British Caribbean. My theory is that Rachel converts to Judaism to marry a Jewish merchant named Johan Levine, and that although she bears Alexander out of wedlock to a non-Jew, in all probability she chooses to raise him in her adopted faith of Judaism.
JF: One of the striking things about that story is that she marries Levine on St. Croix, that marriage falls apart, she heads to St. Kitts and meets this new guy. Then they move to Nevis, and on Nevis, one-quarter of the white population is Jewish. It’s the cosmopolitan Caribbean!
AP: Fully 25% of the free population on Nevis was Jewish in the 18th century. And Nevis was not nearly as Jewish as some other islands. On Curaçao it was 40% Jewish. There were more Jews living on that one Dutch island in the West Indies than in the entire continent of North America.
JF: There was a Hebrew school on Nevis.
AP: There was a Jewish school that Hamilton later told his children that he attended, where we know he began at least rudimentary study of the Torah — because he recalls how his teacher would put him on a table so it would be eye-level, and he would recite to her the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
JF: The way you present this Caribbean history, it’s not as much that there’s foolproof evidence Hamilton was Jewish as that most of the evidence showing that he had a Christian upbringing turns out to be really flimsy.
AP: Any historian writing about the 18th century Caribbean has to bring a lot of humility to the topic. Many documents have been partially eaten by termites or lost over the years to fires or hurricanes. We’re dealing with a fragmentary historical record and our conclusions based on that record will necessarily be probabilistic.
JF: What got you started on this search?
AP: I’ve been teaching constitutional history at the University of Oklahoma since 2011, and I love to bring biographical details about the iconic figures in constitutional history to my students. In reading about Hamilton’s background for the purposes of humanizing him to my students, I found he had a mother named Rachel Levine, and she’d enrolled him in this Jewish school. I thought, Well, this might make him the only person in the long history of the Jewish people to have a mother named Rachel Levine and attend Hebrew school who wasn’t Jewish.
I got a grant to go down to the Caribbean and poked around some archives there. This catalyzed a journey that took me to the capitals of European countries that had colonized those islands and to archives in the United States. I started subjecting the assumptions that scholars have long made about Hamilton’s upbringing to scrutiny and found that time and again, articles of faith about Hamilton’s West Indian youth did not square with the historical record.
AP: I was actually doing research for the book in New York when the musical was in previews. I thought, “This is probably gimmicky. It might shut down after just a couple of weeks — this might be my one chance to see a musical on a topic I’m writing about.” I was able to get a ticket for face value and saw the musical and it wasn’t gimmicky. It was a brilliant piece of art and ended up creating an enormous demand for more information about Hamilton.
JF: Back to Hamilton, then. Once your story moves to the U.S., it’s not so much about unearthing new details and debunking old claims as placing him and his views in the context of the American Jewish community. What was his connection to that community?
AP: Hamilton in his American adulthood does not identify as Jewish, nor do we have evidence that he breathed a word about any Jewish heritage to his contemporaries in New York. In fact, Hamilton was largely taciturn about all aspects of his Caribbean boyhood.
However, we find in Hamilton a closer relationship with the American Jewish community than we find in any other founder. In a variety of forums, from the marketplace to academia to the courthouse, he’s committed to securing equality for America’s Jews — and this at a time when anti-Semitism still had considerable purchase on American political life.
Hamilton nominally identifies as Christian, and a pretense to a Christian identity would have been important to his ascension to the highest echelons of American civic life. Yet he doesn’t join a church. If you look at the communion books from Trinity Church, where his wife belongs, her name appears but his does not. And on his deathbed he had still never taken communion.
JF: The Jewish community in New York was also allied with Hamilton on the Revolution and on later political fights.
AP: There is some faction within the New York Jewish community that does stay loyal to the crown, but by and large in New York and even more so in other Jewish communities like Philadelphia and Savannah, the support is on the side of independence. When the Constitution comes up for ratification, which is a deeply divisive issue both in New York and throughout the country, the Jewish community and Hamilton find themselves aligned in favor.
The U.S. Constitution at the time that it’s considered for ratification in 1788 does not have a Bill of Rights. So when American Jews and Gentiles alike are reading the Constitution for the first time, they don’t have a document that has a free-exercise clause or an establishment clause, but they do have a constitutional text that bans religious tests for office.
Until that point, the vast majority of state constitutions limited office-holding to Christians or certain subsets of Christians. For the federal Constitution to open office, both elected and appointed, to Jews and other religious dissenters was really extraordinary. The ban on religious tests for federal office wasn’t an abstract promise of liberty that could be violated in practice. It was a concrete grant of substantive power in the most important realm of American civic life.
JF: There was a lot of opposition to the Constitution in New York state. The Jewish community was crucial to the pro-Constitution cause. One of my favorite details in the book is that there was going to be a pro-Constitution parade in New York City in 1788, and it gets pushed back a day because it conflicts with the Jewish fast of Tammuz. I mean, they don’t even suspend alternate-side parking in New York for Tammuz now.
AP: Someone should really talk to De Blasio about that!
Most of the resistance in New York, and in the country at large, is not predicated on anti-Semitism. Most of it is a broader concern about centralized power. Hamilton, who alone had been both a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and to the New York ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie, is able to rally support in a state that might have turned against ratification. Every incremental scrap of support mattered to the Federalist cause. The willingness of the New York Federalists to postpone this parade so that the city’s Jews could participate was a striking testament to the alliance between the Hamiltonian Federalist faction and the Jewish community.
JF: Another key moment involves another Federalist, George Washington, writing a letter in 1790 — and it’s really a lovely letter — to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.
AP: The Newport letter is arguably the single most important document in American Jewish history, and one of the most important documents in Jewish history, period. It marks the first time that a modern head of state anywhere in the world acknowledges Jews as citizens. Washington writes to the Jews of Newport after visiting Rhode Island that in the United States the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” He concludes the letter by quoting from what he would call the Old Testament, what Jews would call the Torah, a line from the Book of Micah where he says that in this new republic, everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.
Washington, at a moment in American history when the power of precedent was at its zenith, sets the norm that American citizenship would be open to Jew and Gentile alike. Despite the fact that the Newport letter is not a legislative act or an executive order and doesn’t have the force of law, it’s more important than any of those because it sets the tone for a level of inclusion toward American Jews that had been unknown in Europe.
JF: Washington and Hamilton were close. Is there any sign that Hamilton had a role in this?
AP: No one in Washington’s orbit has a closer relationship than Hamilton with the Jewish community. The letter is sent to Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue, and Hamilton knew the Seixas family. A few years earlier Hamilton had been instrumental in putting Moses Seixas’s brother Gershom on the board of Columbia, the first time a Jew sits on the board of an American college ever.
The other facet is that the Newport letter talks about the distinction between mere religious tolerance and genuine religious freedom. That is a distinction to which Hamilton himself is sensitive. We can find in Hamilton’s writings an argument in favor of transcending tolerance and embracing a more full-throated regime of religious liberty.
JF: The major founding fathers have a pretty good public record on religious freedom and their treatment of the Jews, but in their private writings, some harbored a lot of bigotry and hostility.
AP: What readers will find in this book is some very colorful, bigoted language from iconic founders like Franklin and Jefferson, whom we associate with religious freedom and tolerance. Washington and Hamilton are unique in the absence of religious prejudice toward Jews, but what makes Hamilton distinct is that he cultivates ties to the Jewish community with a depth that Washington never does.
After returning to private life, Hamilton becomes the go-to lawyer for many of New York’s leading Jewish merchants, and he also has this connection with Gershom Seixas, who is what’s known as the hazzan, effectively the rabbi, of the local congregation Shearith Israel. The other way that Hamilton ends up becoming aligned with the Jewish community is that he himself becomes the object of so much anti-Semitism. Time and again his opponents wield the cudgel of anti-Semitism to try to defeat his agenda, whether that’s ratification of the Constitution or implementation of his far-reaching system of financial programs as Treasury Secretary, or it’s attacking his Jewish witnesses in court purely on the basis of their faith.
JF: He’s pro-city, he’s pro-finance, and to some extent he’s pro-outsider, and those are all things that Jews get lambasted for through history.
AP: Hamilton shares so much in common with New York’s Jewish community. They are in many respects outsiders, they develop acumen in finance and in languages. They are urban rather than rural. They are entrepreneurial and commercial rather than agrarian. Hamilton is the visionary for America’s future, and Jews, by virtue of their marginality, were effectively forced to become modernizers in order to survive.
JF: As you were starting to mention before, there was this trial where the opposing lawyer, Gouverneur Morris, argues that the case is nonsense because Hamilton’s best witnesses were Jewish.
AP: Gouverneur Morris is no longer a household name, but he was one of the most iconic statesmen of his era. In this high-profile case, he makes the claim that Hamilton’s witnesses can’t be trusted because they’re Jewish. This is an old anti-Semitic stereotype with deep roots in European history, built on the trope that the Jewish religion encourages its adherents to lie under oath.
Morris’s attack lays the predicate for Hamilton to offer the most full-throated denunciation of anti-Semitism to come from the lips of any American founder. In his closing remarks he lampoons Morris for resorting to anti-Semitism and he calls on the court to live up to the American creed that justice must be blind to religion.
JF: Hamilton won that case. His short life ended a few years after that. He’d never accepted communion, but on his deathbed he asks the Episcopal bishop of New York to please give him last rites. How do you interpret that?
AP: There are two ways of interpreting Hamilton’s deathbed communion. One is that someone who had kept a measured distance from church life for his previous 49 years suddenly finds Jesus. Another interpretation that’s more consistent with the rest of Hamilton’s life is that he was concerned about his wife, Eliza, who unlike Hamilton was a deeply pious Christian, and surely understood that if he were to finally take communion it might offer some measure of solace.
What was striking to me in researching this aspect of the story was that both Hamilton’s admirers and detractors described this deathbed communion as a departure from his prior apathy toward Christianity. For me the deathbed communion is more significant for what it reveals about Hamilton before that moment than for what it tells us about him in that moment.
JF: What’s your next project?
AP: I'll be at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center as the Ernest May Fellow next year to work on my next book, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Jews,” and I can tell you definitively that Teddy was not a Jew.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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