Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part One

The debate has long raged over the religion of the Founding Fathers. One side asserts that all of the Founders were deists, while the other side claims that the Founders were Christians instead. At the same time, some claim that the Founders were perhaps neither of the above, but were rather something in between. In perusing the Founders writings, any unbiased mind finds that it would be very erroneous indeed to paint all of the Founders with a broad brush in regard to their religion; not all of the Founders believed exactly the same thing.

In the case of Alexander Hamilton, he has been portrayed as being all of the above each at a different point in his life. In the next several articles, we shall examine in depth both the claims and the evidence for and against those claims. Not being a long-time historian (yet), I continue to study this subject. However, I have studied intensely for the past 3-and-a-half years, and what my research has yielded thus far is more than what any historian or professor (that I have ever read) has henceforth revealed.

In this post, I wish to examine the early period of Hamilton's life, focusing particularly upon his religion.

Our narrative begins, of course, when Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis, which John Adams called "a speck more obscure than Corsica." (1) Obscure it was and still is, for it is hardly a pin-prick on a map, and most people in America would not be able to locate it, for many have never heard of it. The exact year of Hamilton's birth is still disputed. According to a legal document that was drawn up by the court of St. Croix (where Hamilton spent his childhood) upon the death of Hamilton's mother in 1768, Hamilton's birth was in 1755. Hamilton, however, claimed that he was born on January 11, 1757. It is difficult to discern which one is more accurate, but since my motto is "When in doubt, listen to the Founders themselves," I will use 1757 as a base for all figures of Hamilton's age.

Little of Hamilton's childhood is known, since he hardly wrote anything that has survived to this present day, and since he hardly ever spoke of his childhood to anyone. Hamilton, did, however, make an exception in one incident. John Church Hamilton, one of Alexander's sons, would later recollect:

"As an instance of which [AH's early education], rarely as he alluded to his personal history, he mentioned with a smile, his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue {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." (2)
Of the earliest writings of Hamilton which still survive (besides his famous letter to Edward Stevens, a childhood friend), are chiefly those which shed great light upon his religion. Most noticeable of these is a key writing, one which not only is key to discovering Hamilton's religion, but which writing itself is what brought Hamilton out of the Caribbean to America.

But before I introduce the letter, I will introduce the background of it.

Earlier that same year, 1772, a Reverend Hugh Knox from America arrived in on the island of St. Croix, apparently for the purpose of missionary work. At that time, the Caribbean Islands were notorious for their decadence and vice. The practice of the slave trade was the most horrifying on the seaports of the Caribbean Islands, dueling was frequent and gruesome, and all kinds of fornication, though generally looked down upon, prospered in the crowded port-cities of the Caribbean. Knox, who had personal connections to the newspaper editor of St. Croix, and well as to the illustrious New York/West Indian merchant Nicholas Cruger.

Ron Chernow's book Alexander Hamilton has shed some fascinating light upon the background of Knox. Knowledge of this background is significant to the study of Hamilton's life in two ways: (1) it sheds light upon Knox's religious and political convictions, and thus sheds light upon the man and mind who would influence Hamilton's earliest reflections on those two fields, and (2) Knox's background helps the student of Hamilton's life to see the bigger picture beyond Hamilton, and into the Providential plan that manifested itself throughout Hamilton's dramatic life.

Hugh Knox was born in Northern Ireland, and immigrated to the state of Delaware, where he became a schoolmaster. Chernow relates that Knox was at this time anything but fit for a preacher; Knox mocked the local pastor of the town, the Reverend John Rodgers, a friend of the Reverend George Whitefield, in order to impress his own friends. But one Sunday morning, as Knox sat in his church pew mocking to his friends beside him, the words of Rodger's sermon on repentance from dead works to faith toward God began to deeply move Knox. The result was his total transformation from the life of a skeptic, to a passionate believer who committed himself to the ministry. He went on to attend Princeton College (more commonly known at that time as the College of New Jersey), where he was ordained a Presbyterian minister. In one of histories great ironies, Knox's college tutor (who was then the president of the university) was Aaron Burr, Sr., Jonathan Edwards' son-in-law and the father of the very man who would murder Knox's greatest protege, Alexander Hamilton.

As will be demonstrated later, Knox made some very important connections in the Mid-Atlantic states, and most all of these people would go on to be leaders in local and national spheres as American patriots. But Knox felt the urge to leave that circle and confront the horrors and frights of tropical seaport decadence. He believed that God was calling him to leave the American continent and sail to the West Indies, in order to reach those who had been the victims of the most hideous forms of sin in those parts of the world. Little did Knox know that his giant leap of faith would result in a giant leap forward in the history of humankind.

Hugh Knox was not a total stranger when he arrived in the West Indies. A good friend of his, a merchant by the name of Nicholas Cruger, ran a business in both New York City and St. Croix. Cruger was proud of his fifteen-year-old employee, Alexander Hamilton, who only a year previously had come to Cruger seeking employment as a penny-less, home-less, name-less orphan, who was now capable of managing the business in Cruger's absence. Cruger introduced Hamilton and Knox to one another, and it was then that a life-long friendship developed that would prove extremely beneficial to both parties. Knox quickly observed Hamilton's sharp mind, which was constantly preoccupied with the timeless questions of human history and human nature. Knox took Hamilton under his wing, and fed Hamilton's keen appetite for knowledge, and his tireless ambition to study the history of human government. This desire of Hamilton never wained, for near the very end of his life, Hamilton expressed a desire to embark, with the help of several friends, upon a boldly ambitious project to spend the retiring years of his life in a thorough study of governments throughout human history to a close friend Chancellor James Kent, to whom Hamilton wished to assign the project of researching "ecclesiastical history." (3)

John Church Hamilton, in writing of Hamilton's early years and his relationship with Dr. Knox, of whom Hamilton probably spoke of to his own children, wrote:
"There is reason to believe, from the low state of education in the West Indies, that the circle of his [Hamilton's] youthful studies was very limited, probably embracing little more than the English and French languages, which he wrote and spoke with fluency. With a strong propensity to literature, he became a lover of books, and the time that other youths devote to classical learning, was by him employed in miscellaneous reading, happily directed by the advice of Doctor Knox, a respectable Presbyterian divine, who was delighted with the precocity of his mind, took a deep interest in its development.
"The fervent piety of this gentleman gave a strong religious bias ["bias" in the era of J. C. Hamilton's writing was not always used in the negative sense; it simply meant "leaning" or "inclination" or "preferred viewpoint"] to his feelings, the topics of their conversation opening to him [Hamilton] a glimpse of those polemical controversies which have called forth the highest efforts of intellect." (4)
Before Hamilton's mind was ever opened to the theories and ideas of "secular" philosophers from the Enlightenment, Hamilton was influenced by a Bible-believing preacher of the Gospel.

Christianity's influence on Hamilton through Knox is made clear in the famed "hurricane letter" which Hamilton wrote during the horrific hurricane that swept the island of St. Croix in 1772. The flow of Hamilton's writing indicates that he probably wrote this letter just as the hurricane was ravaging the town around him. For a young man with little or no security in life from his fellow man, to see the horrors of death around him (and young Hamilton definitely feared for his life at this point) must have certainly been a very unnerving experience. At this dreadful time, Hamilton had no one in whom to physically confide his feelings, except his father, whom Hamilton had not seen in six years. It probably gave Hamilton some comfort to express his feelings on paper, and then eventually send the letter to his father, which he did.

In the beginning of the letter, Hamilton gave a very vivid account of the hurricane, almost as if he were a reporter for the local newspaper. After giving his frightening descriptions, he then wrote down his thoughts and reflections as they came to him.
"Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine[(original reads "they")] arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptable [sic] you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements – the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent and presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched and helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise[(original reads "despite")] thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken – in Omnip[o]tence I trusted.

"He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage – even him I have always loved and served. His precepts I have observed. His commandments I have obeyed – and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys."
This selection reads like one of the impassioned sermons of the Great Awakening, and indeed, Hamilton's words show his great familiarity with Christianity and with the life and mindset of the believer. However, Hamilton knew then, as death looked him squarely in the eye, that such was not his case, and that he had not only death but hell itself to fear. He continued:
"But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph [sic] of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge – the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! wither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.
"Hark – ruin and confusion on every side. 'Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!"
Thus did I reflect, and thus at every gust of wind 'till it pleased the Almighty to allay it. Nor did my emotions proceed either from the suggestions of too much natural fear, or a conscience over-burthened [sic] with crimes of an uncommon cast. I thank God, this was not the case. The scenes of horror exhibited around us, naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives. It were a lamentable insensibility indeed, not to have had such feelings, and I think inconsistent with human nature.
"Our distressed, helpless condition taught us humility and contempt of ourselves. The horrors of the night, the prospect of an immediate, cruel death – or, as one may say, of being crushed by the Almighty in his anger—filled us with terror. And every thing that had tended o weaken our interest with him, upbraided us in the strongest colours, with our baseness and folly. That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity. Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants. The father and benefactor were forgot, an in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair."
At this time, when Hamilton thought he had his last moments on earth, he cried out to God for another chance to be reconciled to God. Up to this point, Hamilton had respected Knox, and saw religion as good and useful, and perhaps even true. His letter indicates that he always knew and believed in the existence of God, and that he believed that the Bible was true. If Hamilton had not thought so, then he would not have been convicted, as this letter indicates he was.

Just as Hamilton believed that he was about to die as a result of the "wrath of the Almighty," and fervently prayed for mercy, the storm began to calm, and Hamilton knew that his prayer had been instantly answered.
"But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer. The Lighting ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace The darkness is dispell'd and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer."
This letter is indisputably Hamilton's own account of his spiritual regeneration.

Hamilton's letter then takes a sharp turn in a different direction. Instead of focusing his attentions upon himself, he then turned his attention to the welfare of his fellow man. His moving descriptions and reflections are a far cry from the Hamilton that has been portrayed in our current textbooks as a hater of the poor and a protector of the rich.
"Yet hold, Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy. Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou capable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. ... Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withhold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye still have more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour [sic] the miserable and lay up treasure in Heaven" [Matthew 6:19-20; 19:21].
One biographer of Hamilton, David Loth, wrote that Hamilton's expression of concern for his own soul was temporary if it was genuine at all. Loth made this statement, but offered no evidence for his evidently erroneous assertion. Although many more recent biographers of Hamilton do not see Hamilton as having been a truly regenerate Christian throughout his entire life, I am not aware of their hearty support for this theory. There is much evidence against Loth's assertion in Hamilton's subsequent writings that the theory becomes impossible to defend. The evidence for this will be covered further covered in "Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Two," in its place in the chronology which not long after followed the "hurricane letter."

Hamilton did not intend for this letter to be viewed by the public. It was completely private correspondence with his father. However, Hugh Knox discovered a copy of it, and upon reading it, was fascinated by Hamilton's powers of writing and Hamilton's power to think deeply. He showed the letter to several of his own friends, who were of some wealth and influence, and they afterwards asked Hamilton for permission to publish it in the newspaper, for the purpose of giving a description of the late hurricane, and of collecting funds for Hamilton to be sent to a university in America. At first, Hamilton was hesitant to consent to his private and rather personal letter being published for the whole island to read; but Knox and the other gentleman convinced him, and the letter appeared in The Danish Royal Gazette. Funds were collected from the public, from Knox's congregation, and from one of Hamilton's relatives, and he set sail for America in August of 1773. Knox, who was still managing his ministry and congregation in St. Croix, did not accompany Hamilton, who sailed alone. However, Knox gave letters of introduction to several of his own friends back in America: William Livingston, Elias Boudinot, the Reverend John Rodgers, and the Reverend John Mitchell Mason, Sr. These men would become Hamilton's early American mentors, as well as staunch patriots upon the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

"Alexander Hamilton's Religion, Part Two," will cover Hamilton's religion over the first several years that he spent in America.


Our Founding Truth said...

Finally got a chance to read this slowly. Awesome stuff, good job!

Hamilton was too smart to be swept away with enlightenment doctrines. I can't wait to see the greatest American mind that ever lived in Heaven! His genius is with us this day in the economy of today.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi, OFT. Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry if my post was long (mine have a tendency to be, because I have SO much to say). I'll try to make them more condensed.

"I can't wait to see the greatest American mind that ever lived in Heaven!"

Same here. As of September 6 of this year, another great American mind has joined Hamilton in Heaven -- Doctor D. James Kennedy, who founded Coral Ridge Ministries, passed away early this morning. God bless him and his family. His ministry did much on behalf of "reclaiming America for Christ," and to enlighten the minds and hearts of people across the world.

Anonymous said...

I am truly impressed with your blog/website. I too am a fan of Hamilton and can not believe that we were so fortunate as Americans to have him come to our shores. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello Anonymous. Welcome to my blog (which will be moving to its own domain, soon, I hope). I'm glad you enjoy the content here. Thank you for taking the time to read and leave your kind words.

Thanks for Reading!