Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Two

In "Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part One," we left off on Hamilton's trip the United States, where he was to attend an American university. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1773, where he finished up some business for his former employer Nicholas Cruger, and collected his wages. He then took a trip to New York City, where he presented the introductory letters from Doctor Knox to the Reverends Mason and Rodgers, who were to become valuable friends of Hamilton. Hamilton boarded in the house of Hercules Mulligan, a friend of both the ministers and possible of Hugh Knox. Hamilton and Mulligan became instant friends, and Mulligan recollected much of this friendship in his "Narrative of Alexander Hamilton" many years later. Hamilton's education, however, had hence far been so menial, that he needed to attend an academy in order to prepare himself for college. Hamilton continued his journey to New Jersey, where he attended Francis Barber's Academy, and hoped to attend a university. Upon his arrival in Elizabethtown (now just "Elizabeth"), New Jersey -- the hometown of the academy -- Hamilton gave the introductory letters that Knox had sent with him to William Livingston and Elias Boudinot, two influential (would-be) Founding Fathers and New Jersey statesmen. Hamilton spent time among the families of both these men, and both had a deep impact upon his education, and perhaps even his religious temperament. Both of these men were dedicated Christians, and even spent parts of their lives in some sort of ministry or theological pursuit.

William Livingston, though known for his statesmanship on behalf in New Jersey, grew up in New York state, along with his brother Philip Livingston (who signed the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from New York) and their cousin Robert R. Livingston (who was on the Committee which drafted the Declaration, and swore George Washington in as first United States President). At the tender age of fourteen, William ventured into the wilderness of western New York as an aide to a Christian missionary to the Mohawk Indians. William later moved to New Jersey, where he was apparently swept up in the fervor of the Great Awakening, and changed his denomination from the family denomination of Dutch Reformed to Presbyterian. He even went to the dangerous extent of publicly criticizing the Anglicans who opposed the leaders of the Great Awakening. This deed was indeed very dangerous because the Anglican denomination was the established church of England -- mother country -- and the head of that church was none other that the King of England; therefore, to publicly criticize his denomination came very close to committing an act of treason against the crown. William Livingston settled down in the town of Elizabethtown, where he lived at the time he boarded Hamilton in his home. Livingston, although not a licensed preacher, was nevertheless a layman pastor of a congregation in that town. Interestingly, he called himself a Calvinist, but openly rejected John Calvin's philosophy of predestination as unscriptural and reducing men to "mere machines" (On Two Wings, by Michael Novak; p. 153). So Livingston, who probably had a part in Hamilton's early education, most likely left the indelible stain of Christianity on young Hamilton.

Elias Boudinot had much in common with Livingston. Elias Boudinot,
too, was greatly influenced in favor of the Great Awakening. Like Hamilton, Boudinot was a direct descendant of a French Huguenot family, who had immigrated not to the West Indies, but to America, to escape the horrific persecution of Christians under the rule of Louis XIV. Boudinot was converted under the preaching of George Whitefield, and was baptized by Whitefield himself (1). Elias Boudinot went on to display himself as a strong believer in the Bible and in Christian evangelism. In later life, Boudinot became the first President of the American Bible Society (2), and earlier in life, he defended the Bible from the attacks of skeptics such as Thomas Paine. Boudinot appears to have been very familiar with the events of the Great Awakening as they occurred in New Jersey, for he wrote a biography of William Tennet, which is available from the New York State Library and elsewhere. Boudinot and Hamilton remained good friends for life. During the time when Hamilton was soldiering during the Revolutionary War, he and Boudinot, who was a member of the War Committee of the Continental Congress, often exchanged letters as to what really happened on the battlefield. Boudinot also served under Hamilton in the early years of the United States under the Constitution, as the director of the United States Mint. Boudinot, too, no doubt, left an indelible impression upon Hamilton's mind and soul concerning Christianity. John Church Hamilton wrote a footnote on page 48 of his History of the Republic of the United States, volume 1 (which book was a look at the Founding Era through the life and eyes of Alexander Hamilton and the writings of his contemporaries):

The excellent family of the Boudinots relate that he [Hamilton] occasionally made a family prayer in their presence.
Hamilton, after finishing a year at the academy, and now ready for college, had only to choose a university. According to Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton desired to attend Princeton University, for it was more "republican" in principle than the other colleges open to him in New York. Mulligan prepared an interview for Hamilton with the prestigious president of Princeton, the Reverend Doctor John Witherspoon, who was, like most of Hamilton's other mentors, a Presbyterian American patriot. During the interview, Witherspoon became deeply aware of Hamilton's intense mind and love for hard work, discipline, and study. Hamilton, however, made a request that Witherspoon was not certain would be granted: Hamilton said that it was his great desire that he would be able to work at his own pace, and be allowed to speed as quickly as his abilities permitted him through the course. Witherspoon, knowing that such was strictly against the policies of the university, presented Hamilton's request before the college board in hopes of squeezing Hamilton in as a unique admission to the university. His efforts failed, and a disappointed Witherspoon gave Hamilton his apologies, because he believed that Hamilton would have been "an ornament" to the academy.

And so Hamilton returned to New York City, where he attended King's College (after the Revolutionary War it was renamed Columbia University). Here, he would make a host of friends who would prove invaluable to him, and him to them. Among those friends was Robert Troup, who was Hamilton's roommate at the university. Years later, he recounted about Hamilton's character at college, to Hamilton's son John, who said:
'At this time,' Troup relates, 'the "General" was attentive to public worship, and in the habit of praying on his knees night and morning. I lived in the same room with him for some time, and I have often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of his prayers. He had read many of the polemical writers on religious subjects, and he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. I confess that the arguments with which he was accustomed to justify his belief, have tended in no small degree to confirm my own faith in revealed religion.' (3)
This is not the description of a deist or a theistic rationalist. Anyone who lives a life of prayer -- not just religious prayer, but powerful prayer, as Hamilton's were described above as being -- and defends the "Christianity", its "fundamental doctrines," and has the ability to defend "revealed religion" so as to strengthen someone else's faith in it, has to be a fervent Christian.

John Church Hamilton writes that "
a hymn of some merit written at this time, entitled 'The soul entering into bliss,' is preserved." (4) The exact date of writing is uncertain; John C. Hamilton dates it at the time that Hamilton was attending school in America, but the editors of The Papers of Alexander Hamilton date it October 10, 1772 (read their footnote at the bottom of the page) when Hamilton was still in the West Indies. Whatever the case, it was written after the 1772 hurricane, and, combined with the testimony of Troup, this writing refutes the theory, advocated by David Loth (discussed in the previous post) that Hamilton was insincere in his sudden outburst of Christian fervor in his "hurricane letter." Troup's testimony also collaborates with the claim of the Boudinot family that Hamilton was a praying man.

Samuel Smucker, a biographer of Hamilton, commented on Hamilton's college years. His comments were obviously based upon the evidence presented above:
Now also he experienced the most fervent religious emotions, examined the evidences of Christianity, and gave utterance to devotional feeling in prayers and hymns whose eloquence was long traditional. There was nothing morbid or fanatical in this phase of his college career; but, as with all natures rich alike in sensibility and in intelligence, as life and consciousness awakened, and their problems demanded solution, he meekly and ardently, and from a spiritual necessity, sought communion with Eternal Truth; and amid the excitements, the ambition, the daring speculations, the brave and absorbing enterprise, the glory and the errors of after years, the convictions thus borne in upon his youthful heart were never effaced. (5)
The next post, "Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Three," will explore two important changes that occurred in Hamilton's life during his college years, and shall explore the religious basis of his early political expression.

(1) Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, and Religion, by David Barton; Appendix C: "Boudinot, Elias"


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