Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Little Saint

After an extended absence, I shall now resume the discussion of Alexander Hamilton's religion. In this installment on Hamilton's religion, we will focus singly upon Hamilton's marriage, which I believe will do much to point us to the true nature of Hamilton's religious convictions.

It is generally well-known, that Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton's wife, was a very devout woman. It is also known that her character, morals, and activities savored of her strong Christian faith. There was not a person the most distantly acquainted with her, who was not aware of her firm and open faith. Even today, it is an undisputed fact.

As mentioned in a previous post, one objection to Hamilton's orthodoxy has been founded on a portion of a letter that Hamilton wrote to Lt. Col. John Laurens, naming several of the qualifications his would-be wife should have. It has been claimed that Hamilton's words "as to religion, a moderate stock will satisfy me," and "she must believe in God and hate a saint" strongly indicate that his Christian faith had waned. However, that theory seems to be groundless when the fact that the one Hamilton married was not only an openly devout Christian, but she was nicknamed "the little saint" by one of Hamilton's friends (1), at about the time they were engaged. What an interesting irony!

But to answer that, some have objected that the marriage was pure happenstance -- "you don't know who you might wind up marrying." In light of the facts of Hamilton's history, this is a very weak objection. First of all, in answer to this objection, must be noticed that Hamilton's general distrust of human nature often made him err on the side of being too careful in entrusting his affection and confidence in anyone. Hamilton knew the dangers of not being wise in marriage and in family. As a child, he experienced these dangers firsthand. Because he had neither the security of a moral mother nor a faithful father, Hamilton knew the pain of selfish and unwise choices in the family. He was determined, that if he started a family of his own, it would be entirely different from the makeshift family he had when young. He had learned from the mistakes of his parents, and was determined not to repeat them. In conclusion, then, it was not likely that he would be too careless in a selection of a wife.

This argument is aided by the fact that sometime after Philip Schuyler had given Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler his permission to marry, Hamilton still was still cautious about rushing into decisions. As things stood, he was a penniless man, with nothing to offer their marriage other than a quiet and happy family life. On the other hand, she had been accustomed to comfort and security, and the luxuries that her aristocratic upbringing afforded her. Would she be willing to permanently say goodbye to those things, without envying her sisters and friends, who would doubtless marry into more wealth?

"Do you soberly relish the pleasure of being a poor man's wife? Have you learned to think a homespun preferable to a brocade and the rumbling of a wagon wheel to the musical rattling of a coach and six? Will you be able to see with perfect composure your old acquaintances, flaunting it in gay life, tripping it along in elegance and splendor, whil you hold a humble station and have no other enjoyments than the sober comforts of a good wife?" (To Elizabeth Schuyler, August. 1780; Papers of Hamilton, vol. 2, p. 398)

Apparently, her answer was yes.

Above is a photo of Mrs. Hamilton's wedding ring, preserved at Columbia University Library.

So the objection that their marriage was accidental or on a whim is hardly possible; Hamilton made every effort to avoid an unscrupulous decision. But the question that must then be asked is, what was the motive for marriage in the first place? The answer must be taken from Hamilton's own writings.

Elizabeth Schuyler, according to the accounts of those who knew and met her, was not terribly competitive in the areas of education or beauty, in which her sisters and cousins seem to have excelled her. She did, however, as alluded to previously, hold quite a monopoly when it came to the saintly and feminine virtues of a Christian. She was renowned for her piety, charity, generosity, hospitality, industry, selfless devotion, and her plain and simple common sense. Hamilton's earliest descriptions of her acknowledge these traits. He described her as having "good sense," as lacking "vanity and ostentation," possessing "good nature, affability, and vivacity" (2); he also spoke of "that delicacy which suits to purity of her mind, and which is so conspicuous in whatever she does." (3)

To her, he wrote that "the
sweet softness and delicacy of your mind and manners, the elevation of your sentiments, the real goodness of your heart, its tenderness to me, the beauties of your face and person, your unpretending good sense and that innocent simplicity and frankness which pervade your actions" were what placed her, in his view, above all other women. (4)

Apparently, it was character that was most important to Hamilton. And it was apparent to all, that Elizabeth's virtues sprung directly out of her Christian faith. Again, this fact stands in opposition to the claim that when Hamilton married a devout Christian, he just didn't know what he was doing.

But this brings up yet another question: What about Elizabeth Schuyler's choice? When most discuss Hamilton's faith in light of his marriage, the issue of Miss Schuyler's consent is rarely discussed. Her own Christian faith and convictions are obvious. Would she then marry someone unless she had good reason to believe that he shared her faith and virtue? I think not; it is highly improbable. She certainly did not gain much in any other way through the marriage; if anything, she willingly suffered the "loss" of the comforts of her youth. Why?

Hamilton no doubt had several things standing in his favor. He was ambitious to excel in whatever he did, and he was a hard worker. He was bright, keen, perceptive, and talented. He was the favorite aide-de-camp of the venerated General Washington, and well-spoken of everywhere for his devotion and patriotism. Personally, he was affable, gracious, and winning; his warm smile and friendly manner won him friends quickly and usually for life. And, he had a very apparent love for children.

But all these things were trifling extras when compared to his real qualities, which she recalled in later life as being "the elasticity of his mind, variety of his knowledge, playfulness of his wit, excellence of his heart, firmness, forbearance, virtues." (5) The little amount that she wrote, and the memoirs she left behind, show that she always believed that her husband shared her Christian faith.

In summary of all that has been said so far, we must come to the conclusion that the evidence points strongly in favor of Hamilton's Christianity. We cannot prove with the evidence from that period that he was born again; however, such a claim can only be inferred in the study of any person. In this case, we have done only what any historian can do -- examine the evidence and determine whether or not someone professed the Christian faith, and lived up to their profession on a relatively consistent basis. So far, our examination of Alexander Hamilton has declared the answer to be affirmative.

In the next installment, we will look at how Hamilton's Christian worldview went to work in the realm of law and politics.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Is "Hamilton's Curse" a New Version of the Same Old Lie? Part 1

Note: This post is a brief interruption from my series of posts on Hamilton's religion, which series I promise to continue. Stay tuned for an update on that series, which will discuss Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, her faith, and how their relationship points to Hamilton's true religious convictions. I would like to thank my good friend Jean from Yeah, Right ... for pointing out this interesting piece of news to me. I thought it best that I deal with this subject here and now, while the book in question is still fresh on the shelves, and is likely to be a center of public attention.

Well, it's official. Thomas DiLorenzo's latest release, Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution, has hit the bookshelves during the past month. How timely it is that this book should arrive just when American citizens are still in shock at the recent bailout decision passed by the federal government. For this reason, DiLorenzo's book may give a greater springboard for those who blame big American government on Hamilton, to more effectively vocalize their view, and shape public opinion regarding the forces of good and evil at work in the Founding Era.

As the title of this series of posts (and of my blog for that matter) may indicate, I do not agree with several of DiLorenzo's key conclusions on some historical points. Having studied Hamilton's life through his writings and the writings of his immediate contemporaries, I find several of the key elements in DiLorenzo's portrait of Hamilton to be faulty, or at best, lacking. However, before I advance my counter-argument, let me make my position – where I stand, and where I am coming from – clear to my audience:

  • I believe that the Constitution limits government, by expressly forbidding it to do certain things; however, it also widened the fence a little for the federal government, so that it would not feel obligated to over-leap the fence in times of crisis. Sometimes, cramped space can give anyone an excuse to jump over the fence. And once the fence is behind them, they are without any bounds at all. This is the argument that Hamilton and James Wilson made at the Constitutional Convention.
  • I believe that our government has gone way to far from the limits of the Constitution, and has created for itself a new standard – the standard of administrative law. We are in effect, a government by man, and not a government of law.
  • I do not believe that the Federal Reserve System, or central banking, huge national debt, etc., are good or useful, or healthy to our country. So this post is not meant to defend them.
Having said that, let me introduce what I believe is the key issue in this “debate.” For decades, Americans have been greatly mistaken in classifying Jefferson and the Jeffersonians as believing in “small or limited government,” and Hamilton and the Federalists as believing in “big or elastic government.” In fact, in almost every textbook from the 20th century to the present, that tries to summarize Hamilton's political beliefs is found a sentence that reads, without fail, something much like this: “Hamilton and the Federalist Party believed in a strong central government to keep the nation strong and united.”

This phrase “strong central government” has been so often repeated in association with Hamilton during the 20th century, that it has become ingrained in us that this is what Hamilton wanted. However, Hamilton's own words stand to contradict the “just-so” notions we have accepted about his beliefs. First of all, it was not the fashion with Hamilton to refer to the federal government as a “central” government. He never referred to it as a central government, or that power needed to be “centralized.” He referred to the federal government as either “federal,” “national” (but that only as opposed to “state” governments), and even “general.” These terms that Hamilton faithfully used do not denote the same degree of political power as the term “strong central government,” which 20th century authors have, for all practical purposes, put into Hamilton's mouth.

This is the whole issue that has never been argued or emphasized for some time. Until now, the argument that has taken place in broad public view has been “Was Hamilton or Jefferson right about the proper place of government?” The debate has rarely ever been “What did Hamilton and Jefferson really believe about government, and other issues like human nature and liberty?” Unfortunately, I think that DiLorenzo has focused on the “right or wrong” issue, without first insuring that the question of “what” -- which should be asked first before we can get the second question right – has been answered correctly.

After having studied the Founder's writings for about 5 years, and Hamilton's and Jefferson's writings for slightly less than that, I have come to realize that Americans have not been taught the truth about our history, and that many of the “historical truths” that have been passed down to us through our public school classes, mainstream history textbooks, and popular documentaries, contain some fundamental errors. While there have definitely been some excellent things taught, and even authors who may often have some erroneous conclusions have at other times discerned other facts brilliantly, I have come to the conclusion that it is safer for Americans to trust the primary sources, and books which contain considerable selections from them. I hope that this series of posts will help to clear up some of the fog that has been cast over this issue, and that it will effectively shed the light of truth upon this discussion.

These have been only my introductory remarks. In the following posts of this series, I will cover the specifics. In the meantime, here are some links that will introduce those unfamiliar, to DiLorenzo's opinion of Hamilton:

Thanks for Reading!