Was Alexander Hamilton Jewish? Does it matter?
For all the ink spilled on Alexander Hamilton by historians, and for all the buzz generated by the Hamilton musical, there is a hidden story to this iconic founder who never made his way to the page or the stage: Hamilton was probably Jewish. Its origins have long remained hidden behind a veil of unfounded hypotheses. The work of debunking these myths reveals the very real possibility of Hamilton’s Jewish identity and suggests a new way of thinking about the American foundation.
If Jewish identity begins with the mother, then so must this story. Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, was born a Gentile on the British Caribbean island of Nevis. When she was about sixteen she moved to Sainte-Croix in the Danish West Indies where she quickly married a merchant named Johan Levine in 1745. The rest of the evidence in the historical records suggests the following: Johan was Jewish, Rachel s converted to Judaism to marry her, and she raised her son Alexander in his adopted faith.
Let’s start with Johan Levine. Hamilton researchers have long expressed skepticism that Levine had a Jewish identity on the grounds that Danish records did not classify him as Jewish. But, it turns out that these documents almost always failed to note anyone’s religious identity, Jewish or pagan. Additionally, several other known details about Johan align with the theory that he was a member of the Jewish people. Johan’s surname appears in some variations, including “Lewin” and “Levin,” which correspond to the way Jews of Levitical descent spelled their surnames. Johan’s work as a merchant was typical of contemporary Jews. In addition, he had come to Holy Cross in Nevis, where a quarter of the free population was Jewish. And Hamilton’s own grandson would later describe Johan as a “rich Danish Jew.”
The year after their marriage, Rachel and Johan had a son, Peter. What little we do know about Peter lends even more credence to the idea that Johan was a Jew and Rachel became so. As an adult, Peter would undertake an adult baptism to join the Anglican Church, a facet of history that has left Hamilton biographers perplexed. After all, if Peter had been born a Christian – as historians assume – then he would have already been baptized as an infant, with no conceivable need for an adult baptism. If, however, Johan was a Jew and Rachel had converted to Judaism in order to marry him, then the matrilineal nature of Jewish identity made Peter a Jew. An adult baptism would therefore have been a necessary step in Peter’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.
Rachel and Johan had a difficult marriage, and she was jailed in 1749 because of her infidelity. When she was released from her imprisonment in 1750, she fled from Sainte-Croix, leaving behind her avenging husband and their young son. Rachel eventually returned to her hometown of Nevis, where she gave birth to Alexander out of wedlock to a Scottish settler named James Hamilton. Although James is unmistakably a Gentile, there is good reason to believe that Rachel retained a Jewish identity and passed it on to Alexander.
The baptismal records are fragmentary, but those that survive show no entry for him. Even more convincing is the fact that Rachel enrolled Alexander in a Jewish school where he began a rudimentary Torah study in the original Hebrew. “Rarely as he alluded to his personal history,” his son once told of Alexander, “he mentioned with a smile that he had learned to repeat the Decalogue. [i.e. the Ten Commandments] in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when he was so small that he was placed standing beside her on a table.
Hamilton biographers have long known that there is no baptismal entry existing for him and that he received a Jewish education. They ignore these curiosities, peddling a theory that Hamilton’s illegitimacy prevented him from both baptism and church school. This careful explanation, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Both in Nevis and throughout the Caribbean, church records show cases of children who were “bastards” still baptized. We have little reason to suppose that Hamilton’s out-of-wedlock birth was a barrier to his acceptance into church life.
Further, scholars make a critical error in assuming that a Jewish school would have educated a child who was considered a Christian. Jewish schools were religious instruments. Their main mission was to transform Jewish children into observant Jewish adults. And the Talmud forbids teaching Torah to Gentiles. For these reasons, enrolling a given child in a Jewish school during this time is a strong indicator that the child was Jewish in the eyes of the local community.
The tense nature of Judeo-Christian relations in the West Indies raises further doubts about the conventional wisdom that the Jewish school would have accepted from a student who was considered a Christian. Jews in Nevis and other islands faced legal discrimination and cultural prejudice. Various forms of segregation between Jews and Gentiles were part of daily life in Nevis. Admitting a Christian student into the Jewish school would have sparked accusations that Jews attempted to Judaize children of Christian families, precisely the kind of outcome Jews sought to avoid. It’s hard to imagine that in a damaging climate like Nevis, local Jews would have run that kind of risk.
Hamilton’s mother tragically died when he was only thirteen, and it appears that any Jewish affiliation he may have had died with her. He did not identify as a Jew as an American adult and did not reveal to anyone a hint of his Jewish past. In fact, Hamilton has remained largely silent on all aspects of his Caribbean origins. And yet his early exposure to the people and faith of Judaism seems to have left a lasting mark: no other American founder cultivated a closer connection with the Jewish community in America.
In the aftermath of the Revolution that Hamilton led alongside his countrymen – both Gentiles and Jews – the new republic faced a momentous question: the radical promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence would translate – it now by democratic realities? A number of politicians have sought to deprive Jews of the prerogatives of citizenship, from the courthouse to the polls. Against these forces of anti-Semitism, Alexander Hamilton sought to build an America where Jews and Gentiles were on an equal footing. He helped break down barriers to Jews in academia, energized a market that offered Jews their greatest opportunities, and railed against anti-Semitism in the courts.
The question of Jewish affiliation in America has resurfaced with disturbing vigor in recent years. Much of the animosity towards the Jews rests on a mythical interpretation of American history, in which the Gentiles were the original founders of the country and the Jews are intruders who somehow threaten the character. fundamental of the nation. Alexander Hamilton’s story offers a surprising reminder that Jews have been part of the American experience since its inception. If the hatred of Jews in the United States is as old as the country itself, so too is the struggle to ensure equality for the Jewish people.