The Jew­ish World of Alexan­der Hamilton

  • Review
By – December 20, 2021

Alexan­der Hamil­ton could not trace his birth to the thir­teen colonies, the only one among the major politi­cians who cre­at­ed the Amer­i­can repub­lic who could not do so. As the first Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury, he estab­lished the finan­cial foun­da­tions of the new nation, and his Report on Man­u­fac­tures (1791) out­lined an econ­o­my that would be indus­tri­al and not only agri­cul­tur­al, that would be urban and not only rur­al. As an out­sider whose tal­ent and ambi­tion enabled him to become an insid­er in a soci­ety that under­cut the advan­tages of patri­cian ances­try, Hamil­ton exud­ed Jew­ish attrib­ut­es. His­to­ri­an Andrew Por­wanch­er dares to go even fur­ther: the immi­grant cre­ator of an emi­nent­ly suc­cess­ful finan­cial sys­tem actu­al­ly was a Jew. Sort of. Or such is the inge­nious and ten­ta­tive case that The Jew­ish World of Alexan­der Hamil­ton advances in this supreme­ly revi­sion­ist work.

Its fresh­est chap­ter is the first. Gen­e­sis” shows how the per­ti­nence of matri­lin­eal descent leads to the sur­mise that, at the time of Hamilton’s ille­git­i­mate birth (1755?), Rachel Faucette Levine had con­vert­ed to Judaism. Her son was not bap­tized and attend­ed a Jew­ish school on the island of Nevis, where oth­er edu­ca­tion­al options exist­ed. Por­wanch­er impres­sive­ly draws on pri­ma­ry sources in half a dozen lan­guages (includ­ing Dan­ish and Por­tuguese) to argue for the like­li­hood — not the cer­tain­ty — that Judaism marks the ori­gins of this orphan who reached New York City as an ado­les­cent. From then on, how­ev­er, he pre­sent­ed him­self as a non-Jew. Unlike his wife, Eliza Schuyler, he belonged to no church, how­ev­er — nor did he ever exhib­it reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al yearnings.

Porwancher’s Gen­e­sis” chap­ter would have made a ter­rif­ic schol­ar­ly arti­cle. But by pur­su­ing the blaz­ing career of this Founder to the very end, which was the shock­ing and stu­pid duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, the author deft­ly builds upon his con­jec­tures about the West Indies. His book traces the utter absence of anti­se­mit­ic sen­ti­ments in Hamilton’s own make­up, as well as the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that his pro­mo­tion of com­merce inflict­ed, mak­ing him a tar­get of big­otry. That Hamil­ton, an alum­nus of King’s Col­lege (lat­er Colum­bia), put the haz­zan of Shearith Israel, Ger­shom Seixas, on the board of the col­lege also tes­ti­fies to sym­pa­thies that no oth­er Founder could match. In describ­ing the tex­ture of the tiny Jew­ish pop­u­lace, as they tran­si­tioned from colo­nials to cit­i­zens, Por­wanch­er some­times lets Hamil­ton dis­ap­pear. But these chap­ters ampli­fy the spec­u­la­tion that mem­o­ries of a Jew­ish boy­hood gave Hamil­ton a sin­gu­lar under­stand­ing of the spe­cial chal­lenges of the Dias­po­ra, and equipped him with the fore­sight to envi­sion the lin­ea­ments of modernity.

Discussion Questions