Culture

Alexander Hamilton: The “Jewish” Founding Father

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Yisroel Ben-Porat

 

Porwancher, Andrew. The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Since the late nineteenth century, American Jews have sought to write themselves into the origin story of the United States. These anachronistic appropriations of history helped construct a mythical American Jewish legacy to advance filiopietistic agendas. Hence ahistorical notions of Christopher Columbus as a crypto-Jewish discoverer, Pilgrims and Puritans as Judeo-Christian colonists in New England, or financier Haym Salomon as savior of the American Revolution.[1] But Andrew Porwancher’s bold new study, arguing that Alexander Hamilton was Jewish, should be taken much more seriously. His fascinating findings reshape our understanding of Jews, Judaism, and the founders in early America.

The book proceeds chronologically through Hamilton’s life from cradle to grave, retelling a familiar tale through a new lens. We can divide the story into two sections: Hamilton’s origins and early years, and his career as an adult. Porwancher is not the first to notice Hamilton’s connections to Judaism,[2] but he is the first to fully assess the possibility of Hamilton’s Jewish identity as well as his affinity for Jews throughout his life. He adduces an impressive array of evidence, much of which previous scholars have either ignored or unduly dismissed. Collectively, it offers an intriguing case that deserves careful consideration.

First, we must consider what Porwancher means by arguing that Hamilton was “Jewish.” Porwancher subtly resists the strict binary of Jew/Gentile. Instead, he insists that Jewish identity is complex, enumerating eight potential dimensions: personal, communal, public, universal, legal (halakhic), ethnic, religious, and cultural (26). These categories do not necessarily overlap. This nuanced taxonomy is quite useful and insightful to apply, not only to Hamilton but to studies of Jewish identity throughout history. The book’s title appropriately reflects this interpretive cautiousness, referring to Hamilton’s “Jewish World” rather than the “Jewish Founding Father.” While there is insufficient evidence to posit a halakhic identity for Hamilton, the communal aspect of Jewish identity applies more convincingly.

The book begins, fittingly, by framing its evidence around the religious identity of Hamilton’s mother. Rachel Faucette was born to Christian parents on Nevis, an island in the British Caribbean. She immigrated to St. Croix, an island in the Danish West Indies, where she married her first husband Johan Michael Levine (not Hamilton’s biological father). The surname Levine is likely a cognate of the Hebrew name Levi; additionally, Hamilton’s grandson described Levine as a “rich Danish Jew” (quoted p. 17). Although some have rejected this possibility on the grounds that the colonial Dutch records in St. Croix did not identify Levine as a Jew (Joder), Porwancher points out that almost no Jews received such an appellation in the land registers or census list for this period.

Porwancher speculates that Rachel converted to Judaism before marrying Levine. While no surviving document directly confirms that possibility, indirect and circumstantial evidence supports such a conclusion. Significantly, the couple’s first son Peter underwent an adult baptism, which suggests that he did not receive one as an infant. The only plausible explanation for his adult baptism is one of conversion (from Judaism), as no Christian denomination that rejected infant baptism existed on the island of St. Croix at the time.

To support the possibility of Rachel’s conversion, Porwancher invokes some halakhic arguments, though Orthodox readers may find them problematic. “The Talmud,” he writes, presumably referring to Yevamot 46b, “requires only three adult Jewish males to constitute a beit din, and none need be a rabbi.” However, the exact parameters of a valid beit din for conversion is higher; although laypeople are indeed eligible to serve on a beit din for conversion, at least one of them must have sufficient knowledge of the intricate laws, details, and procedures of conversion.[3] That such a man lived on St. Croix seems unlikely, even if the community generally followed Halakhah. Porwancher asserts, “For a woman converting to Judaism, the sole Talmudic obligation is immersion in a ritual bath known as a mikveh.” That sounds misleadingly simple. Not only must the lay court ensure a proper immersion according to Jewish law, but they must also adequately follow prescribed formulas of teaching prospective converts, especially to ensure fulfillment of kabbalat ha-mitzvot (the acceptance of Jewish law), another element crucial (if not definitional) for the conversion process.[4] Although “other Christian women at the time converted to the faith of their Jewish husbands” (21), it is doubtful that Rachel’s would have satisfied Orthodox standards for establishing matrilineal halakhic Jewish identity.

The most substantial piece of evidence for Hamilton’s Jewishness is his early education. After the marriage of Rachel and Johan Levine deteriorated—Rachel was imprisoned for several months for committing adultery—she fled without a divorce and returned to her childhood location of Nevis. There she met a Christian Scotsman named James Hamilton and gave birth to Alexander out of wedlock. Shockingly, Alexander’s son John later related the following anecdote: “Rarely as he alluded to his personal history…he mentioned with a smile, his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments] in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when so small that he was placed standing by her side upon a table” (quoted p. 28).[5] Some scholars have suggested that Hamilton attended the Jewish school because his illegitimacy barred him from Christian education. Yet Porwancher points out that the local churches did baptize illegitimate children, so it stands to reason that they would have educated them too.

The social context is convincing in establishing at least a communal Jewish identity. “The town featured the trappings of an established Jewish neighborhood,” Porwancher writes, “complete with a synagogue, cemetery, and pathway in between known as ‘Jews’ Alley’” (25). Jews on the island experienced antisemitism, endured legal inequalities, and lived geographically separate from Christians. In such a context of cultural divide, given the “fraught nature of Jewish-Christian relations on Nevis” (29), it would be exceedingly strange for a Jewish school to accept a non-Jewish student. Thus, the most plausible explanation for Hamilton’s attendance in this school is that the local Jews viewed him as belonging to their community. Since Hamilton’s biological father was not Jewish, the only possible point of connection must have been his mother’s ostensible conversion before her first marriage.

Porwancher once again turns to Halakhah to bolster his argument, but this too may fail to convince Orthodox readers. He notes that “the Talmud [Sanhedrin 59a] prohibits Jews from teaching the Torah to Gentiles” (29). Firstly, this point assumes that the Jewish community in Nevis was learned enough to be familiar with the prohibition (and observant in following it); secondly, a variety of traditional Jewish sources limit the prohibition to the Oral Law (extra-Scriptural rabbinic traditions) but permit teaching the Written Law (Tanakh) to Gentiles.[6] Accordingly, Hamilton’s anecdote, which mentioned only the Decalogue, would likely have been wholly permissible under Jewish law even if he were halakhically a Gentile. The social context, however, remains convincing. Additional circumstantial evidence suggests that Rachel maintained her Jewish identity after leaving her first husband: she retained the surname Levine throughout her life, and she was not buried in a Christian cemetery.

We must also contend with Hamilton’s own words on his religious identity. Not only did he never publicly identify as a Jew, but he once claimed to have been raised Christian. As a witness in a court case, when asked about his religious identity to determine eligibility for an oath on the Bible, a teenaged Hamilton equivocated. Hamilton testified that he was “brought up in the Reformed religion as it was observed in the English Established Church [i.e., the Anglican Church],” but also that “he had not yet received communion” (quoted p. 40). The former clause was in a sense technically true; after Hamilton’s mother died when he was thirteen (and his father had abandoned the family), “In all likelihood he was brought up Anglican, at least nominally” (40-41). The latter clause suggests that he did not undergo Anglican life cycle rituals that would have rendered him eligible for communion. Regardless, “Any identity as a Jew that Hamilton may have had almost certainly died with his mother” (38). Given Hamilton’s understandably deep shame about his illegitimate birth, and as a vulnerable young orphan, it makes sense that he would have hidden his Jewish origins.

The rest of the book traces Hamilton’s connections to Jews throughout his career. Porwancher clarifies that he does not “read the adult Hamilton’s veneration of Jewry and Judaism backward as all the more proof of a Jewish identity earlier in his life.” Rather, he astutely reflects, an understanding of Hamilton’s early life sheds new light on his later actions: “It is a fundamental truism that we are all shaped by our childhoods” (10). Even without the first part of the book, the central premise would stand convincingly: Hamilton was deeply connected to and supportive of the Jewish community, at least after the Revolution.

As a corollary to this argument, Porwancher seeks to downplay Hamilton’s relationship with Christianity throughout the rest of his life, implicitly attributing that to his Jewish origins. He claims that the adult Hamilton was “largely ambivalent” (41) toward Christianity and rarely discussed it. However, historians have argued that despite a lack of religiosity earlier in life, Hamilton fervently identified with Christianity toward the end of his life.[7] Shockingly, in a letter from 1802, Hamilton proposed the creation of a “Christian Constitutional Society,” indicating substantial affiliation with the faith.[8] Evidently, despite his deep connections and contributions to the Jewish world, Hamilton had strong elements of Christian identity as well.

Relationships with Jews from his career in both the military and the legal profession help explain Hamilton’s efforts to promote religious liberty. On the local level, he helped draft a Jew-friendly new charter for Columbia. Of great interest is Porwancher’s comparison of Hamilton to the other founders, finding that only Washington came close to approaching Hamilton’s level of affinity for Judaism; the others had more negative or ambivalent views on Judaism or the value of religion generally. This finding leads to the novel suggestion that Hamilton influenced Washington’s famous letter to the Newport Jewish community proclaiming that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Yet Hamilton’s advocacy for Jews did not preclude believing in the benefits of civic support for Christianity. This fact complicates a straightforward understanding of his philosemitism, and it also upends the typical assumption that religious liberty necessarily means strict separation of church and state.

Ironically, Hamilton’s financial policies in the early United States garnered an astonishing amount of antisemitic opprobrium (though his opponents did not know about Hamilton’s actual connections to the Jewish world). “In all likelihood, no other self-professing Christian in the early republic saw antisemitism invoked against him with greater frequency than did Hamilton” (121-122).[9] Perhaps this experience helped him better understand the plight of the Jewish community. Indeed, Hamilton ardently defended many Jewish clients as a lawyer.

In one poignant case, Hamilton provided “the most fervent rebuke of antisemitism to be found in the annals of the American founders” (165). Referencing his opposing counsel’s attacks on Jews, Hamilton declared, “Has he forgotten, what this race once were, when, under the immediate government of God himself, they were selected as the witnesses of his miracles, and charged with the spirit of his prophecy?” He further proclaimed: “Be the injured party…Jew, or Gentile, or Christian, or Pagan, Foreign or Native, she clothes him with her mantle, in whose presence all differences of faiths or births, of passions or of prejudices—all are called to acknowledge and revere her supremacy.” These are powerful words; as Porwancher concludes, “It was readily apparent that the case touched Hamilton personally. No other American founder denounced antisemitism with such conviction” (173-174).

The laudatory comparisons between Hamilton and the other “Founding Fathers” implicitly follow the old-school Whig narrative of early American political history, which tends to celebrate the founders. By contrast, recent historiography offers a much darker story that highlights the experiences of enslaved people.[10] Similarly, contemporary scholars might object to Porwancher’s traditional definition of “Founding Fathers” as referring to a specific group of seven men: Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and James Madison (197 n. 1). Many early Americanists now look beyond these elite white men to acknowledge the contributions of a more diverse cast of characters in the early republic.[11] Porwancher’s substantive study could have cast a wider net on both elite and ordinary views on Jews and Judaism in the early republic to add important context for understanding the relative novelty of Hamilton’s philosemitism.[12]

This book does not offer a definitive biography of Hamilton, but it contributes greatly to our understanding of him. Porwancher draws upon deep archival research regarding Hamilton’s Jewish world; the early chapters are notable for their use of church records, legal documents, and other colonial sources to provide the fullest understanding yet of his Caribbean origins. Regarding Hamilton’s career, Porwancher has mined the historical record to find connections to Jews that other scholars have entirely missed. Yet he also relies heavily on secondary sources for the more familiar parts of Hamilton’s life. For a broader understanding of Hamilton’s significant involvement with the non-Jewish world, readers must turn to other books. But future biographers will undoubtedly have to contend with these remarkable findings.

With lively prose, this book invites us to consider the implications of calling Hamilton one of our own. While Orthodox Jews do not have sufficient evidence to plausibly attribute halakhic identity to this founder, they may nevertheless appreciate Porwancher’s wider understanding of “Jewish” contributions to American history. Hamilton’s remarkable story will continue to resonate, fascinate, and spur debate as we grapple with his monumental legacy.


[1] Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Mythical Jewish Columbus and the History of America’s Jews,” in Religion in the Age of Exploration: The Case of Spain and New Spain, eds. Bryan F. Le Beau and Menachem Mor (Omaha, NE: Creighton University Press, 1996), 81-95; Beth S. Wenger, History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] See, e.g., Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 10, 17-18, 26; David G. Dalin, “Jews, Judaism, and the American Founding,” in Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, eds. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 63-83.

[3] See the analysis in my father’s responsum: Eliezer Ben Porat, “Gidro Shel Beit Din Le-Inyan Geirut” [The definition of a beit din regarding conversion] (Heb.), Ḥakirah 7 (Winter 2009): 31-40.

[4] See Eliezer Ben Porat, “Response to Rabbi Marc D. Angel’s Article on Gerut,” Ḥakirah 8 (Summer 2009): 41-45.

[5] Jewish readers will be fascinated by Porwancher’s lengthy excursus on the history of Jewish schools and the gendered aspect of his education in Nevis (206-7, n. 99).

[6] J. David Bleich, “Teaching Torah to Non-Jews,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 18:2 (Summer 1980): 192-211. Porwancher, aware of examples of Jews teaching non-Jews (such as Ezra Stiles), differentiates between private one-on-one instruction versus acceptance into a school (207 n. 101).

[7] Douglass Adair and Marvin Harvey, “Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?” The William and Mary Quarterly 12:2 (April 1955): 308-329; Gregg L. Frazer, “Alexander Hamilton, Theistic Rationalist,” in Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, eds. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 101-124. Cf. Porwancher, pp. 47, 215 n. 48, 236 n. 76, 243 n. 8, 245 n.8.

[8] Porwancher himself concedes that Hamilton’s son John cited Alexander as declaring his belief in Christianity, but he contends that the claim is not verifiable (245 n. 15). Yet since John is also our sole source for Hamilton’s early Jewish education, it seems reasonable to view both assertions as reliable.

[9] It is difficult to empirically validate this claim, but for another noteworthy example of antisemitism against a non-Jew, see the case of Israel Israel (born to a Jewish father and Christian mother) in William Pencak, Jews and Gentiles in Early America, 1654-1800 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 231-248.

[10] Hamilton’s reputation has survived mostly unscathed, thanks to Chernow’s Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s famous musical. See Woody Holton, “American Revolution and Early Republic,” in American History Now, eds. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 24-51; David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey L. Pasley, “Hamilton as Founders Chic: A Neo-Federalist, Antislavery Usable Past?” in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past, eds. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 137-66. See, however, this recent analysis of Hamilton’s connections to slavery.

[11] See, e.g., Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, eds. Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, eds. Dreisbach et al.; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 12.

[12] See, for example, the case of Ezra Stiles, recently discussed in Brian Ogren, Kabbalah and the Founding of America: The Early Influence of Jewish Thought in the New World (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 148-186 (see my review here).

Yisroel Ben-Porat is one of the editors at The Lehrhaus and a PhD candidate in early American history at CUNY Graduate Center. He serves as Graduate Teaching Fellow at The City College of New York, and he teaches twelfth-grade history at Ohr Yisroel of Tenafly in affiliation with the Middle College program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. After studying in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh for a year, he graduated summa cum laude from Yeshiva University in 2018 and received his M.Phil from the Graduate Center in 2021. His dissertation focuses on how Puritans used the Hebrew Bible as a legal and political text in the seventeenth century Atlantic world.