Alexander Hamilton – A Jewish Founding Father
Hundreds of curious listeners gathered at Beth Jacob Congregation last Wednesday night to find out whether Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, was Jewish. This standing room-only event was presented by the Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.
The director of the Straus Center, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveitchik, explored Hamiton’s Jewishness in conversation with Dr. Andrew Porwancher, Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma, an author and historian who has traveled to the Caribbean in order to investigate Hamilton’s roots. Dr. Porwancher’s findings will be published in his upcoming book, The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life, which is currently under contract with Harvard University Press.
Dr. Porwancher went through many official records in Hamilton’s birthplace, Nevis, in the then British West Isles, as well as St. Croix, the town where his mother had lived before Hamilton’s birth and where she had moved when Hamilton was young. The information Dr. Porwancher found led him to believe that Alexander Hamilton was indeed Jewish.
Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucitt Levine, was married to Johann Michael Levine. The couple lived in St. Croix and had one son, Peter. Rachel’s husband mistreated her, eventually causing her imprisonment. When Rachel was released from prison, she fled from St. Croix to Nevis. There she met James Hamilton and had two sons with him out of wedlock, James Jr. and Alexander, born in 1755. James Hamilton later abandoned Rachel and their two sons.
There is no definitive proof that Rachel’s husband, Johann Michael Levine, was Jewish, but there are many pieces of evidence that point in that direction, not least of them being his last name. Moreover, Levine’s son Peter was not baptized.
Rachel herself was not born Jewish, but Dr. Porwancher believes that she had converted to Judaism according to halachah before she married Levine. At the time, according to Danish law, all marriages had to be among people of the same religion, and it is clear that Rachel and Johann were legally married.
If this conjecture is true, then all of Rachel’s sons were halachically Jewish, including Alexander. Other evidence from Alexander’s childhood supports the theory that Alexander was part of the then large Jewish community in Nevis. Neither James Jr. nor Alexander were baptized at birth. Alexander attended a Jewish school. While he did not speak much about his childhood, he shared one detail with his children. At the Jewish school, the teacher would stand him on the table, and he would recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.
While traditional historians believe that Hamilton attended a Jewish school because Christian schools would not accept an illegitimate child, both Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik and Dr. Porwancher see that as highly unlikely.
Dr. Porwancher believes that Hamilton’s Jewish origins and education influenced his outlook and later political career. As a lawyer, he demanded equal treatment in court for Jews and gentiles – an attitude that had been unheard of in the early history of United States. The America that we live in today, where everyone has equal rights, may well be a product of Hamilton’s contributions to its development.