Sunday, June 8, 2008

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Four

In my post Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Three was discussed Hamilton's religion during his college years and during his entry into the Continental Army during the American War for independence. We discovered the Christian beliefs that Hamilton developed as a youth formed the basis of his patriotism and his devotion to the cause of a country that was not, by nativity, his own. We also observed that he was a fervent believer in the Christian religion, and argued persuasively to defend its basic tenets. His moral character, as groomed by Hugh Knox when Hamilton was a youth, was an outgrowth of his fervent religious convictions.

But when Hamilton became more involved in the creation of his “adopted” country, did he change his beliefs, or become indifferent to his faith? So many have suggested that this is exactly the case, and such claims have been repeated so often, that the public generally seems to accept them at face value, without any further investigation. On the surface, these claims appear to be viable, but since religion is a matter of the heart, as well as of the head and the conduct, we cannot do justice to the subject be merely glossing over the details.

So let us take a closer look at Hamilton's religion, as infrequently as he discussed the subject, and examine several of the portions of Hamilton's writings which have been used to imply his lack of Christian faith, and then look at the affirmative evidence for Hamilton's Christianity. Let us then determine our conclusions based upon the evidence, and not merely come up with hypotheses and speculations when we can avoid them.

I would like to establish first of all, that Alexander Hamilton, from 1776-1781 (the period which we are about to examine in this post and in the next), never wrote anything that would indicate a change in his religious thinking or beliefs. I can state confidently, that he never said anything during this time period that shows that he doubted the “fundamental doctrines of Christianity” (e.g., the existence of God, the divinity and atonement of Christ, the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible, etc.). Although some of his writings have been used to imply his lukewarmness towards religion, such writings never indicate that Hamilton abandoned the religious beliefs that he fervently defended in his youth.

Given this lack of definitive evidence during this time period, we must consider the possibilities. Hamilton was definitely a Christian in his youth, and his fervent piety was clear to everyone, in both his consistent and eloquent prayers, his defense of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and in his own writings. The relative silence that proceeds the transition from youth to adulthood does not likely indicate a change in his religious beliefs, at least not where his mind was concerned. Hamilton was not one to flip-flop on issues of any kind, and throughout his writings and the conversations he held with friends, one finds an astonishing amount of consistency in his beliefs and conviction. We may expect that Hamilton would have been intellectually consistent when it came to his Christian faith, which he espoused with such zeal and fervency. Silence does not argue for his “conversion to skepticism” very convincingly, given Hamilton's characteristic consistency of belief.

Some will no doubt say that his silence on the subject of religion proves, or at least indicates, his lack of faith. This presupposition is not entirely without an iota of truth. When one's faith is a priority in his life, it flows out of him naturally, so that everyone notices. But this fact does not mean that a temporary silence (or more accurately, a less frequent occurrence of evidence) concerning religion means that one lacks it altogether. It is possible that in the flurry of Hamilton's public duties, which demanded all of his energies and resources, often exhausting his strength and his health (Hamilton literally dropped with exhaustion while on a mission in 1779, going so far as to approach death's door without crossing the threshold), that Hamilton's mind would find little time to meditate on things transcendent. HOWEVER, Hamilton did not view faith as being an abstract state of meditation, and Christianity truly is not abstract from one's earthly life. Religion, to Hamilton, and in it's true sense, comes through more in the purity of character and morals, in one's worldview (that is, what one sees as being right and wrong), and in one's political stands, than in what is conventionally considered to be religious activities. We may not have much evidence that Hamilton was religious in the conventional sense, but the evidence that we do have about his relationship to religion suggests that he was still firmly rooted in the religious beliefs which had been cemented in his youth, and that he did not segregate his religious convictions from his political and moral ones.

As previously mentioned, Hamilton spoke little at this time of religious subjects, and what he did say about it is of little consequence to either side of the argument. However, his mentions of religious subjects make more sense and are more consistent with the broad spectrum of his writings, if one should assume his Christianity rather than his infidelity.

It is sufficient for this post, however, to discuss the objections. In Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Five, we will discuss the affirmative evidence.

One of the writings of Hamilton's during the Revolutionary War period, which has been used to imply Hamilton's impiety, is a portion of a letter which he write (though only half-seriously) to his good friend Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens, one of his fellow aide-de-camps (Hamilton was appointed George Washington's aide-de-camp in 1777). In this letter, Hamilton lays out an outline of the character of “such a wife as I want.” One of these qualifications was:

“As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint.” (1)

The phrases “a moderate stock in religion” and “hate a saint” are key in examining this passage. Some have taken the first phrase as an implication that Hamilton was indifferent about religion, and they have taken the second phrase as an implication that Hamilton wasn't too picky about moral character either. Whatever may have been Hamilton's meaning in these phrases is of little practicality to these claims, because Hamilton eventually married someone who was anything but indifferent to religion and morality (we will examine her in a moment). Also, in order to conclude what Hamilton meant by these two phrases, one would have to define his terms somewhat arbitrarily. We must avoid defining 18th-century religious language in light of 21st-century common religious attitudes and trends. The other qualifications which Hamilton listed also suggest that he too was not indifferent towards the quality of one's moral character. For example:

She must be ... chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness) of some good nature, a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist) ... (2)
Hamilton does not qualify what a “moderate stock” in religion means; but he apparently didn't mind a “devoted stock” either! So much for his aversion to religion! This passage also fails to provide those who claim that Hamilton's faith diminished during this period that he ever changed his religious beliefs.

There is another passage of Hamilton's writings during this time period has also been construed to imply his impiety and irreverence. It is a letter to General Anthony Wayne, concerning a military parson by the name of “Mr. Mendy”:
July 6, 1780.
Dear General,

Doctor W. Mendy is one of those characters that for its honesty, simplicity, and helplessness interests my humanity. He is exceedingly anxious to be in the service, and, I believe, has been forced out of it not altogether by fair play. He is just what I should like for a military parson, except that he does not* drink. He will fight, and he will not insist upon your going to heaven whether you will or not. He tells me there is a vacancy in your brigade. I should be really happy if, through your influence, he can fill it. Pray take care of the good old man.” (3)
After the asterisk (which I added), the original manuscript (supposedly, as I have not seen the original) contains the phrase “w---e or.” There is a problem with this phrase. The version of this letter which omits this phrase was taken from the original letter of Hamilton's which Lodge (who printed this letter for the first time) obtained from the prominent 19th-century historian George Bancroft (5). However, the version of this letter containing this phrase (reprinted in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 2, p. 354) is taken from a copy of the letter in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library. So, the authenticity of this phrase is slightly questionable. But then again, it is more mathematically and physically probable for phrases and words to be accidentally omitted than purposefully added.

If, however, the phrase does exist in Hamilton's original letter, this letter is poor evidence against his Christianity, for the following reasons. First of all, what idiot would seriously expect a military chaplain, of all people, to practice those things? The style of Hamilton's letter implies that he is writing somewhat humorously. Hamilton's reference(s) may be a rather exaggerated way of referring to the parson's abstinence from drinking wine and attending balls, which were part of the circle of life at Washington's headquarters, and since Washington was particularly hospitable to chaplains, he no doubt would have invited the chaplain to participate in the few relaxations and luxuries available at his headquarters. If the parson declined, he probably would have done so with Hamilton's knowledge, since Hamilton was one of Gen. Washington's closest aides-de-camp. Hamilton then, may be giving an impression of the parson's aversion to those things on account of their abuses.

In addition, Hamilton's statement “he will not insist upon your going to heaven whether you will or not” does not at all indicate impiety or heterodoxy on Hamilton's part. This sentence begins with “He will fight,” and then continues as quoted above. Hamilton is not saying that the parson is neglectful of the souls of the troops, but merely that he is willing to stand with them and defend their lives rather than allow them to die. Hamilton's words, paraphrased, would say something like, “This man will stand and fight, instead of saying 'If we die, it's just as well -- at least we'll all get to heaven more quickly!' (Going to heaven of course, would depend upon the cases of individual soldiers.).”

Notice also, that Hamilton's letter indicates ("whether you will or not") that he doesn't believe that all people are going to Heaven automatically; he is obviously not of the universalist mindset. Hamilton believes in Heaven, and that God requires people to satisfy certain criteria; given Hamilton's Christian youth, and no evidence of change, it is reasonable to conclude that he accepted the Scriptural standard of a Christian.

We see then, that the evidence thrown as objections to Hamilton's faith and morals are rather weak when given a closer look.

Next, we will examine the evidence in Hamilton's writings where he does mention or allude to Christianity.

10 Comments:

Anonymous said...

I think Hamilton's choice of wife (the very devoted and religious Elizabeth) and Hamilton's outreach to the widows and orphans speak for themselves about his Christian beliefs.

It is amazing to me that non-Christian skeptics will pick apart the letters and behavior of a man when these skeptics have no idea what is a true Christian or not. Grr.

I don't spout religion and Christianity in everything I write. Reading your post made me realize just how little I do, actually! But a Christian is not determined by how he writes; it is his conduct and the written records of his conduct that make that determination.

People who think Hamilton was not a Christian are afflicted with wishful thinking. It's pretty obvious he wasn't like Aaron Burr, who, as Hamilton himself said, was an atheist. If anything, the Founders questioned their religion (aka denominational organizations) and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi, Anonymous. Thanks for visiting my blog, and leaving your thoughtful comment.

I think Hamilton's choice of wife (the very devoted and religious Elizabeth) and Hamilton's outreach to the widows and orphans speak for themselves about his Christian beliefs.

You're exactly right. In my next post, this will be exhibited, through Hamilton's own writings, and the historical record of his deeds. You may be surprised, but Hamilton spoke a lot more about Christianity than people know! I'll present these in "Alexander Hamilton's Religion" Parts 5 and 6.


I don't spout religion and Christianity in everything I write. Reading your post made me realize just how little I do, actually! But a Christian is not determined by how he writes; it is his conduct and the written records of his conduct that make that determination.


Exactly.

If anything, the Founders questioned their religion (aka denominational organizations) and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Right again! If I may point out, even more "outspoken" Christians among the Founders,like Benjamin Rush, avoided being associated with any particular denomination of Christianity. And yet he was a Christian, and that is not contested! So, judging anyone's relationship to Christianity based on their relationship to a denomination is not a reliable method.

Thanks again for leaving your very insightful comment.

Our Founding Truth said...

Herc,

Excellent work again, as usual! Is that pic of a young Hamilton or Troup, I've never seen it before?

I've never seen those rebuttals you use for that "whore" quote in 1780. When you really think about it, why would anyone make a comment like that about a Chaplain? It doesn't make sense, he had to have been exaggerating.

You are correct, Hamilton's quotes on Christianity in the 1790's are completely consistent with anything else he wrote prior to that, there is no discrepancy.

Another indication Hamilton was orthodox is the friends he hung out with, like Boudinot, one of most orthodox Christians this country as ever seen.

I read something a while ago that late in his life, he tried to prove the Indians were the ten lost tribes of Israel! DNA has since shot that one down.

your obedient and faithful servant

OTF

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi OFT. Nice to hear from you again.

Yes, that is a picture of Hamilton, done in 1779 by James Peale, the brother/artist of the famous painter Charles Wilson Peale. Hamilton was a member of Gen. Washington's staff at the time this portrait was taken, and if you use the 1757 date-of-birth, Hamilton was 22 years old.

That's a good point about Hamilton's closest friends being a predominantly orthodox group. He had many friends, and made friends just about as easily as he made enemies. But for the most part, his closest friends were unquestionably orthodox Christians.

Talk with you later. God bless you and your family.

Brad Hart said...

Herc.

Long time no see. How have you been? Where have you been? We've all missed you.

Whenever you get a chance you should stop over at the new blog (american creation) and say hi. We've had a TON of good discussions over there!

Danae Cromwell said...

A google search brought me to this post because I am doing an essay about Hamilton's life and views about government/Christianity and I found this to be very helpful. You obviously put a lot of thought into this.
When researching evidence for Hamilton's apparent Christianity, it really surprises me that it seems almost obvious that he was a "Christian", at least in head knowledge. Whether or not those beliefs ever made it to his heart, we'll never know. Hamilton's life really doesn't seem to show his faith much, and that's why I'm surprised and I doubt that he really let the truth of God change him.
The information you have presented along with this quote I've also found really makes me wonder:
"I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me." (He allegedly said this on his deathbed.)
Thanks so much for your thoughts!

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello Danae, thank you for your thoughts. I'm glad you've found this site helpful. I hope my thoughts on this meet with your satisfaction. I’m going to break up my reply into two parts, since together it’s too long to post. This is part one.

You're very correct that someone may be a Christian in their head, without actually being transformed by God. Jesus said that "By their fruits you will know them," and that out of the heart proceed the issues of life (Matt.7, Prov.4). So I think that we
can know whether or not the truth of God made it to Hamilton's heart, because his character would have been affected by it.

I don't know if you have time/inclination to discuss this topic in more detail, but could you give examples of how Hamilton's life, in your opinion, does not exhibit his professed faith?

I think that I can present evidence that it did. For example, Hamilton's political beliefs (grossly misrepresented today) exhibited his biblical view of human nature. Unlike Jefferson, who was more influenced by the humanists of the French Enlightenment, Hamilton believed that all men, rich or poor, aristocrat or plowman, shared the same basic sinful human nature. Therefore, the extremes of plutocracy and democracy must both be checked by the just exercise of the law. Hamilton wrote, quoting Blackstone, that human law is only valid when it does not contradict God’s Law.

In his business as a lawyer, he refused to take money that he did not earn, cases in which he was offered bribes; opting many times to take the cases of the poor who couldn't afford a lawyer, and sometimes even his enemies, for free. His law career provides us with numerous instances of him exercising very clear biblical principles: love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, give to those who ask without asking for anything in return, forgive and you will be forgiven, plead the cause of the orphan and widow, etc.

He was poor by some modern standards, not even owning his own home until the last two years of his life, and constantly owing debt. And yet he refused to accept money which he did not believe he earned, turning down lucrative but shady speculation deals.

In his personal life, he encouraged the faith of his very devout wife, and raised his children to read the Bible. One of his sons taught how he learned the Lords Prayer from his father. He also relates the many evidences of his father's faith expressed in the home. (See this post:
http://ahpatriot.blogspot.com/2007/06/contemporary-testimony.html )

Space does not allow me to go into further detail, even though I could go on.

Hercules Mulligan said...

PART 2

The quote you provided is genuine. It comes from the eyewitness account of Rev. John M. Mason, which you will find on this site (see left sidebar for a link to the full letter). Hamilton’s statement “I am a sinner” was in reference to the sin of dueling that had brought him to his end. He explained elsewhere that his “religious and moral principles” explicitly condemned the practice. But if he did not attend the duel, he knew he would be disgraced and never again eligible for public office. He worked a compromise with his conscience: he would attend the duel, but he would not fight it. He knew Burr would shoot to kill, but Hamilton did not want the stain of bloodshed on his conscience. But as he agonized on his deathbed, the reality of the flimsy compromise he had made weighed upon him, and the guilt of bereaving his family was unbearable. He confessed the sin to God, and said he trusted only in the merits of Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Hence the quote.

There is one other incident in his life that raises doubts about his Christianity, and that was his adultery with Maria Reynolds. This case represents an exception, and not the rule of Hamilton’s conduct, in my view; I don’t think the evidence lends sufficient support to the portrait of Hamilton as a habitual philanderer. Nevertheless, Hamilton grossly sinned. However, the evidence, including his contrite and honest account of the affair (which is how we know it happened at all), points toward a sincere and dramatic repentance. His life after the affair’s termination in c. 1792, in my view, point to his spiritual growth.

I hope this information is satisfactory. Really, the documentation on this site is quite partial. If you need specific sources/information for your research, I'll be happy to do my best to supply them.

Danae Cromwell said...

Wow, thank you for going into the depth that you did in response to my comment. It was even more revealing and helpful. When I posted about not seeing evidence that Hamilton was sold out to God, I was thinking of his extra-marital affair, and about other incidents I heard of in my reading. It seemed to me that he was a troublemaker who just couldn't get along with people, and that that trait eventually let to his demise. Your response really gave me more to think on though. What evidence do I have that he wasn't truly a Christian? Because he did a "major sin"? How silly of me. It is impossible for man not to sin, whether or not he is a Christian. Only if he knowingly and repeatedly continues the same sin when he knows it is wrong does that indicate that there was never a true transformation.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I’m very glad that you found the information helpful. Thank you also for explaining.

When I first started studying Hamilton’s life, I thought I would probably see a bull-headed and indiscreet person, but now that I have studied his writings, I see matters differently. Most of his rivalries with people originated out of his principles and stands which he did not easily back down from. The world today looks at this as stubbornness and foolishness, because “open-mindedness,” quickness to compromise or back down in the face of opposition or controversy, just so long as “everyone gets along” is highly esteemed. The truth is that Hamilton carefully examined issues and came to conclusions which then turned into strong convictions, and he argued them passionately when he thought the occasion required it. It’s not a sin to not get along with people; but it is a sin to be quarrelsome, and I don’t think that Hamilton’s record shows someone who was characteristically quarrelsome. There was of course his falling-out with John Adams. But I think that this was a result of a genuine, though serious, misunderstanding between the two men.

I’m sorry if all of this is too general; if I included specifics, my comment would be too long! If you are interested in learning more specifics, I recommend reading some of the older books on Hamilton, especially those by John C. Hamilton and James A. Hamilton, which you can read for free on www.books.google.com. I also highly recommend reading books on that sight which contain his works and selected writings.

In the case of his demise (if by that you mean his death at the hands of Burr), I seriously doubt the conflict was a result of Hamilton’s indiscretion (though Hamilton was ready to admit error if evidence were offered). It was due to a clash of Hamilton’s principles and Burr’s apparent scheming ambitions. He proved everything that Hamilton had said when he committed treason in 1807. (Though he was acquitted by the courts on lack of evidence, we now have the documents to prove that he was trying to effect secession, at the request of the British government.) So, Hamilton died for taking a right stand where Burr was concerned.

If I may add one final remark? I don’t think that it was silly at all to question Hamilton’s Christianity because of the “one major sin” at all. I think that the question is perfectly warranted; without questions there won’t be any answers. I also don’t think that the Bible teaches that it is impossible for someone not to sin, at least not to sin deliberately – especially for someone who is a Christian. God even told Cain (who was obviously not a Christian) that he must master sin (namely, hatred in his heart and murder – Gen. 4) and the epistle of First John is full of statements that true Christians are not sinning deliberately. The fact that Hamilton did this raises serious questions. I think it is evidence that over a period of time he had departed from his First Love (Eph. 2), by whatever means. Hamilton had probably grown pretty comfortable and self-sufficient after years of successfully achieving triumph and gaining honor. Pride always goes before a fall. Then, having fallen flat on his face and having done the thing he was certain he would never do, he got a striking reality-check and realized his need for God again. This gave him a great deal of insight into America’s need for God as well, for it was during his turn-around that he gained clear insight into the influence of the French Revolution (and of those maneuvering it), and its consequences for the world. He even foretold and described accurately the rise of atheistical regimes – astonishing portraits of the horrific Communist powers that rose during the 20th century.

Well, I hope all of this is helpful. Good luck on your essay! I think you are off to a great start – honestly examining the evidence, and asking hard questions, and looking for answers. Thank you again so much for your thoughtful comments.

Thanks for Reading!