Andrew Porwancher is the author of "The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton."
Andrew Porwancher is the author of "The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton."

Bastard. Orphan. And Jew? New book explores ‘The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton’

Is it possible that, over 200 years after Alexander Hamilton’s death, we learn that this esteemed Founding Father had Jewish roots?

Scholar Andrew Porwancher offers compelling evidence of just that in his new book, “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton,” which is based on a decade of painstaking research in Denmark, England, and the Caribbean islands of St. Croix and Nevis. In addition to sleuthing out new information about Hamilton’s Jewish background, Porwancher offers a vivid portrait of Jewish life in America before and immediately after the American Revolution, when Jews continued to struggle for the equality they were denied for centuries in Europe.

Hamilton was born in the 1750s on the Caribbean island of Nevis, a British colony at the time. (The earliest record of Jews in Nevis was documented in 1678, when 17 Jewish families built a synagogue and consecrated a Jewish cemetery on the island.) His mother, Rachel Faucette, was from the nearby island of St. Croix. There, she met and married Johan Michael Levine, a merchant whom one of Hamilton’s grandsons described as a “rich Danish Jew” in his memoirs. Though Johan is not registered in official Danish records as Jewish, neither were many other prosperous Jews who were living on St. Croix at the time. Porwancher suggests that Rachel converted to Judaism when she married Levine, as evidenced by the fact that their son Peter was not baptized as an infant. (He was later baptized as an adult, possibly after converting to Christianity.)

Looking to escape her unhappy marriage, Rachel fled to St. Kitts and began an affair with the Scotsman James Hamilton, with whom she had two sons out of wedlock. The younger Alexander was sent to an Orthodox Jewish school rather than to an Anglican one. Some historians maintain that Alexander could not have attended an Anglican school because of his “illegitimate” birth. However, Porwancher argues that the practice of infant baptism for illegitimate children raises doubts about the conventional wisdom that those very same children were denied church schooling. Furthermore, he maintains that because the Talmud prohibits Jews from teaching the Torah to non-Jews, the local Jewish community in Nevis very likely embraced Rachel as a legitimate convert to Judaism and therefore recognized her son as Jewish, too.

After Hamilton left the Caribbean in 1772 and established himself in New York, we learn that he identified as Anglican, never as Jewish (though he was not religious and did not attend religious services with his wife, Eliza). Yet he faced criticism in the press for having Jewish money lending interests at heart during his term as Treasury Secretary from 1789 to 1795. Many Anti-Federalists vehemently mistrusted the merchant class and opposed the creation of a strong central bank, believing Hamilton’s proposed financial remedies to be schemes to enrich Jews.

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Of course, Jewish affairs were not the defining theme of his multifaceted life. Yet Hamilton, more than any other Founding Father, worked assiduously to promote the welfare of American Jewry.

As one of New York City’s most prodigious lawyers, he often encountered antisemitic attitudes in the courtroom. In one notorious case, Hamilton defended a non-Jewish French immigrant merchant named Louis Le Guen who was charged with fraud. Two of the key witnesses were Sephardic Jews, which, given widespread antisemitic biases at the time, presented a problem for Hamilton. At Le Guen’s appeals trial, New York political giant and Founding Father Gouverneur Morris slandered the witnesses as liars whose testimony needed to be expunged based on their religion. “Jews are not to be believed upon oath!” exclaimed Morris.

Hamilton delivered a fiery retort to the court. “Has [Morris] forgotten what this race once were, when under the immediate government of God himself, they were selected as the witnesses of his miracle, and charged with the spirit of prophecy?” He then shifted to an impassioned historical account of Jewish persecution and suffering as “the degraded, persecuted, reviled subjects of Rome.” Vigorously proclaiming that Lady Justice would judge no people based on their religion, Hamilton pontificated, “Be the injured party … Jew, or Gentile, or Christian or Pagan, Foreign or Native, she clothes them 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.” Hamilton ultimately won the case.

Over time, Hamilton forged numerous connections with the Jewish community in New York. Most noteworthy was his close relationship with Gershom Mendes Seixas, the hazzan of Shearith Israel, a congregation founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees. In 1787, following a relentless lobbying effort, Hamilton successfully secured an appointment for Seixas to the board of trustees of Columbia University. This was an unprecedented coup for New York Jewry, since Jews were largely banned from colleges, clubs and other prestigious groups. Columbia would not have another Jewish trustee on its board until 141 years later in 1928.

It is also noteworthy that unlike many of his contemporaries, Hamilton refrained from castigating Jews in private correspondence. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that the Jews have a “degrading and injurious” understanding of God, devoid of “sound dictates of reason and morality,” and that the Jewish priesthood of antiquity resembled a “bloodthirsty race, cruel and remorseless.” In a letter to his secretary William Short, Jefferson wrote that Jesus “exposed their futility and insignificance.”

Students of both Jewish and American history will be fascinated by Porwancher’s compelling new evidence substantiating Hamilton’s Jewish roots on the island of Nevis. His groundbreaking research reveals how an icon of American history fought fiercely — on the battlefield with the Continental Army and off — defending the rights of Jews and all Americans to participate in the promise of America’s revolutionary ideals of religious freedom and equality under the law.

“The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton” by Andrew Porwancher (Princeton University Press, 272 pages). The book is available at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers. The musical “Hamilton” is playing Oct. 12-31 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

Barbara Hassid
Barbara Hassid

Barbara Hassid is an independent scholar and former adjunct professor at San Francisco State University’s College of Humanities. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming publication “Becoming Beethoven: The Formative Years in Bonn, 1770–1792.”