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.


Anonymous said...

How interesting, Herky. I didn't know any of this. Was she from the upstate New York Schuyler's that permeated this area? And to be known as "the little saint." What a tribute.

I, however, don't need to be convinced that Hamilton was a Christian. His "Soul Ascending into Bliss" told me all I need to know on that subject. :)

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Jean. Glad to see you drop by, and had a chance to read.

Yes, it is pretty neat information. And yes, she was from the Upstate Schuylers. Her father, Gen. Philip Schuyler, owned much land across central upstate, where I live, and no doubt where you live. Elizabeth inherited much of this land, but wound up selling it for the benefit of charities (some of which she herself organized) and other purposes.

If I may add another point of interest, the portrait of her (seen at the top of the post) was itself an act of charity. This has been said to be the only portrait done of her during her husband's lifetime, and it was at his insistence that it was painted. Hamilton had heard that a distinguished artist, Ralph Earle, had landed in debtor's prison, and decided to give him some business in order to help the man pay his way out of jail.

But since Elizabeth had never sat for a portrait before, Hamilton instructed her to give the artist business -- in his own prison cell. Being pleased with the final result, Elizabeth advised her other friends to sit for portraits in this man's cell, and the man's debts were paid by this act of charity.

Yes, "the little saint" is a fitting tribute.

Thanks for your comment!

Mrs. Mecomber said...

I just love Elizabeth Schuyler. You do her memory great justice. :)

Hercules Mulligan said...

Thanks, Mrs. Mecomber. :)

I will consider writing a biography. I already have two other books in mind, so hopefully I will find time for that! But she sure could use a biography, though she'd probably scold me for saying that!

Anyway, thanks for reading, and for your comment!

Kieran said...

It must be pretty depressing to outlive your husband by 50 years.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Kieran. Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment!

Yes, I guess it could be very depressing. It was no easy thing for her to do. But her faith in God strengthened her through those difficult times. Earlier, I wrote a post here contains a prayer she wrote not long after he died.

I think that the incredible life she lived in the years after Hamilton's death are proof that her faith was well-founded. She believed that God had a plan for the remainder of her life, and that the years were to be spent for His glory, not for her self-pity.

Thanks for reading, and for leaving your comment!

Brad Hart said...

Hi Herc.

Again, long time no see! Hope things are good.

We've been having an interesting debate over Alexander Hamilton's religion at American Creation ( and I would love to have your insight!

Stop by if you can!

free man said...

I don't accuse Hamilton of bad intention. He most probably meant good but violated free market principles. By having the government creating banks that were suposse to be private is a violation of what governmnet's duties suposse to be. Even though he believed in the Narural Law, he violated that. His creation is now The Federal Reserve System. And if you know about the debt you can't argue we are not in a huge mess because of it. This is Hamilton mess and you know it.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hello Free Man. Welcome to my blog, and thanks for reading and leaving your comment.

I'm afraid I am not convinced that the problem is Hamilton's. There are disadvantages to banks in general -- to those owned by the government and to those privately owned. But at the time, the US govt had no money (and borrowing more from overseas was out of the question), and so the only other option was to either tax the people of America to the gills (also out of the question) or get the rich men of America interested in donating to the cause -- and a bank was just the way to do it. Now if you have read any of Hamilton's writings on the bank (which I have) then you know that Hamilton did place govt restrictions on the First BUS, and institute periodic govt investigations, etc., to make sure that corruption was, at least, kept to a minimum.

If he violated the laws of nature, free market principles, I would like to see evidence of it. I do not disagree with writers like Dilorenzo because I think Hamilton was a great guy -- even good men, as you said, are capable of great error. I disagree with Dilorenzo because he has failed to present anything slightly conclusive; anything that he has presented is either false or placed out of context.

So no, I don't know that Hamilton made the economic mess we are in. If you could present conclusive evidence, on the other hand, I would change my views. Until then, I contest the claim.

Anton Chaitkin said...

I am Anton Chaitkin, history editor for Lyndon LaRouche's magazine Executive Intelligence Review. I wrote the book, {Treason in America, from Aaron Burr to Averell Harriman}, which begins by going deeply into Burr as a traitor and British asset. I'm quite interested in the upstate New York Hamilton associations including Samuel Kirkland and the missionary movement. I wrote a play about Dan Beach Bradley, missionary to Siam, initially set in and around Hamilton College. My e-mail is -- please get in touch with me.

Thanks for Reading!