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:

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Six

So far, we have been examining the religious beliefs of Alexander Hamilton, by going through certain time periods in his life, and doing our detective work in those areas. However, we are arriving at a time in his life (the 1780s through the 1790s) which involves more controversy than I think I can cover on a blog. I do, however, plan to write a book on the subject (although it will encompass more than just figuring out Hamilton's religious beliefs through life). I think that a book would give me the better opportunity, space, and time, than a blog would, to dealing with such a complicated issue. But do not get me wrong; I am not of the persuasion that Hamilton's faith was complicated, in the sense that many experts use that term today.

So instead of continuing the "Alexander Hamilton's Religion" series, I will just be writing posts (as I find the leisure) which will deal with certain aspects of the question and the debate, and which will serve to inform the reader, without going into all the detail that my upcoming book will.

Today, I will start by shedding some light on a "tale" that has been "prowling" around the history books of late, and which has been used by some on the opposite side of the "religion of Hamilton" debate, to smear his character and throw the genuineness of his faith into doubt. You may be familiar with it.

Many people now reading have no doubt heard of the story told by several authors, that Martha Washington, while staying with her husband in the winter months of the War (which was also a time of frequent social festivities for Washington and his officers, and in which Hamilton participated), had a mischievous, rambunctious tomcat. It is said that Mrs. Washington, upon observing the similar character of her tomcat and “General Washington's boy” (Washington is said to have referred to Hamilton as “Alexander, my boy”)(1), she dubbed her cat “Hamilton.”

There is a slight, or rather serious, problem with this tradition; it's not even tradition! At least, not that I can find. Let me just illustrate my point by telling the story of how I discovered what I did.

Like many so many, I had picked up this story from several books written by modern scholars. No footnotes or references or indication of sources really followed this little anecdote, and so I simply took it for granted, with the thought in the back of my mind that modern historians can sometimes be a little too generous with the rumors and urban legends, especially the convenient sappy ones. (I'll just forewarn those who are about to criticize me for that statement to pay careful attention to the case now in question).

While reading a biography of Hamilton (David Loth's 1939 biography – the oldest one I could get my hands on at the time), which, I must admit, has been the worst biography of Hamilton I have never finished – this anecdote was cited, with a reference that it was found in a newspaper reported run by tories. (2) Aha! Considering that Mr. Loth was anything but biased in Hamilton's favor, I found this juicy little tidbit a good reason not to put too much weight on the “'tomcat' tale.”

But there's more. While looking through an old book (from the 19th century) on the American Revolution, I found what was apparently a snippet from the above-mentioned paper. It was reprinted in several books, the words being quoted exactly alike in each book. Here is an excerpt of it, presented in the History of the Flag of the United States of America, by George Henry Preble (1882), page 264 {footnote}:

An English writer, a few years later, thus ridicules the fondness of the American colonists for the number thirteen [the new American flag has thirteen stripes and stars].: --
“Thirteen is a number particularly belonging to the rebels. A party of naval prisoners lately returned from Jersey say that the nations among the rebels are thirteen dried clams per day; that the titular Lord Stirling takes thirteen glasses of grog every morning, ... that Mr. Washington has thirteen toes to his feet (the extra ones having grown since the Declaration of Independence), and that same number of teeth in each jaw; that the Sachem Schuyler has a topknot of thirteen stiff hairs, which erect themselves on the crown of his head when he grows mad; ... that Polly Wayne was just thirteen hours in subduing Stony Point, and as many seconds in leaving in; that a well-organized rebel household has thirteen children, all of whom expect to be generals and members of the high and mighty Congress of the 'thirteen united States' when they attain thirteen years; that Mrs. Washington has a mottled tomcat (which she calls in a complementary way Hamilton) with thirteen yellow rings around his tail, that his flaunting it suggested to the Congress the adoption of the same number of stripes for the rebel flag.” -- Journal of Captain Smythe, R. A., January, 1780 (3)
Unless there is some other account with a better correspondence to the “tale” that keeps “prowling” around the history books (as if it were proof of something historical), than we may conclude that it is, at best, based upon the least reliable of sources. Why? You don't get information about the personal lives of the Founders (particularly those who had not really achieved international fame yet) from 3,000 miles across the ocean, written by their enemies, merely as fictitious political satire! And even if you did take the above selection as viable historical evidence (please enlighten me), where is the connection between Hamilton and a tomcat with immorality? None would seem apparent to the casual reader. Nor has any connection ever been given, until recent decades, the last I checked. Someone must have had a very polluted mind to seriously imagine that there could have been such a connection intended in this selection. And by the way, Loth's aforementioned biography is the earliest source I could find, that makes such a connection. I am therefore of the opinion, that the current legend is an invention hardly 70 years old.

In the future, we will examine how other areas of Hamilton's life and faith have been distorted in recent years, and how those distortions are indebted to apocryphal legends like this one.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Five

In Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Four, we examined the evidence (in two of his letters) commonly used to oppose the claim that he was not a Christian. Now we shall examine and see if there is any evidence affirmatively supporting his faith. As alluded previously, there is no outright expression of orthodox faith (the mention of the divinity and atonement of Christ, the Trinity, inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, etc.) from this time period. This, however, is not a problem, because, according to the Scriptures, being a Christian has much more to do with deeds than just words. A lack of words on Hamilton's part, particularly during a time when he was greatly absorbed in public affairs, does not at all detract from the argument that Hamilton was a Bible-believer. Even many strong Christians do not always wear their faith on their sleeve; they don't go around boasting of their correct orthodoxy and straight theology. True Christians will have a humble attitude before God and man, and will manifest their faith through the purity of their character and through virtue, not just words and confessions of faith. The question we need to ask and answer in our investigation is, “Did Hamilton's life and character reflect a faith in Christ, and a conscious desire to do justice before God? Or was he, as many claim today, a man of corruption and loose morals?” This is the question that will form the center of this investigation in the next several posts on Hamilton's religion.

Now, when those skeptical of Hamilton's faith claim that the absence of an outright profession of Christian faith in Hamilton's writings during this time proves his doubtfulness of the tenets of Christianity, they are making a major logical error. The absence of evidence on the one side of an argument does not prove the absolute contrary of that argument; you do not assume that because one does not continually affirm his like of golf affirms that he likes baseball instead, because there are numerous conclusions that one may draw from silence. Hamilton's silence (or appearance of silence) on the particulars of his religious beliefs does not prove that he did not believe them during the time he did not mention them or discuss them. Christians do not always profess their faith with words, or with words only. Christians profess their faith by their godly conduct and character. The purpose of this post is to investigate Hamilton's character, and how that reflects his religious beliefs.

And indeed, it was not unusual for people to avoid freely discussing the particulars of their religion, because in the 18th-century, religion was considered largely a matter between a man and his God, since religion was man's obligation to God. Also, since denominational tensions were stressful during this period of our history, creating a source of social as well as political division, our Founders wished to avoid entanglement with such quarrels, and it was for this reason that many remained aloof from formal attachment to any particular denomination. Given this important fact, it is not right to conclude that because a Founder, like Hamilton, was not a regular communicant in a church or a confirmed member, that he must have been irreligious or an unbeliever. That is a possibility, but it is more probable, especially in light of the overall religiousness of the context of Hamilton's life, that such actions were not motivated by unorthodoxy.

Let us then examine the evidence that points to Hamilton still maintaining his Christian beliefs.

It is noteworthy that Alexander Hamilton, at least up to the time that he became General Washington's aide-de-camp, was still seen and heard praying in his usual manner as he did when he attended King's College. Again, it was his friend Robert Troup who bore testimony of this:

When [Hamilton] commanded a company of Artillery in the summer of 1776, I paid him a visit; and at night, and in the morning, he want to prayer in his usual mode. Soon after this visit we were parted by our respective duties in the Army, and we did not meet again before 1779. (1)

From the evidence presented in the previous posts, it is clear that Hamilton was a devout Christian in his youth. But did he fall away? Was he distracted by other things? Did he put his faith on the back burner, or did the light flicker out? Some of these questions are hard to answer, because we would need evidence about intimate specifics in Hamilton's spiritual life that we do not have (and I never was terribly fond of employing psychoanalysis, because most of the time, it never works). Other questions are much easier to answer, because we have the evidence requisite to answer them. The question we will focus on is the question of “Did Hamilton 'fall away'? Did he change from being a Christian in belief to something else?”

As I have pointed out many times, there is not evidence that Hamilton rejected or changed his beliefs; he was obviously orthodox in his youth, and there is no affirmative evidence that that changed. Moreover, people do not change their beliefs without experiencing some watershed event which should greatly motivate them to do so. People who hold to their beliefs with firmness and conviction, and who passionately and publicly defend their beliefs, are even less likely to change them, and it is this category of people in whom we find Hamilton. And yet, there was not great watershed event in his life at this time that would have been enough to change his religious beliefs. Furthermore, a life in General Washington's personal staff, in an environment of hard work and stringent discipline is hardly the kind of environment in which faith and morals dwindle. The rigorous work that Hamilton and his fellow aides-de-camp performed almost 24 four hours a day (in Hamilton's case, for a period of about four years) probably left him little time to mediate or write about religious subjects. However, every now and then in his letters there is a statement that leaks out Hamilton's real beliefs.

Was Hamilton's character based on his religious principles? Well, that is very likely to be the case.

First of all, he recognized the necessity of morality and humanity upon religion. When he was Captain of the New-York Artillery Company, he kept a journal of his expenses, as well as took notes from his readings – he happened to be reading Plutarch's Lives at the time. He commented on one of the rulers of the Roman republic:

He (Numa) was a wise prince and went a great way in civilizing the Romans. The chief engine he employed for this purpose was religion, which could have alone sufficient empire over the minds of a barbarous and warlike people to engage them to cultivate the arts of peace. (2)

In light of this comment on the use of religion to tame the violence of the early Romans, it is interesting to observe Hamilton's own humane conduct during the progress of the War. As can be seen in the cases of the execution of Major John Andre (1780) and the saving of a British officer's life when the Americans, led by Hamilton, stormed the redoubts at Yorktown (1781) (3), Hamilton was exceptionally humane, preferring mercy and lenience to violence and revenge. No doubt it was his own religious and moral convictions that led to this trait which proved steadfast throughout his life, as is indicated by the selection above.

Some may object and say that the Roman prince Numa did not use Christianity, but some other pagan religion, to encourage humanity in his countrymen. Would not then Hamilton be considering all religions equal, by implying that religion in general is only good for civilizing men?

I answer that, as in all similar cases, it is important to look at Hamilton's statements in light of the whole context of his writings. True, Hamilton noticed that religion in general may serve to civilize society; however, that does not mean that he thought all religions were equal, or that all religions did nearly as good a job as Christianity does in civilizing men. Look at the words he wrote in 1799 (*ahem* -- before “his son died”). He credits only one religion for civilizing his modern world: Christianity.

How clearly is it proved by this that the praise of a civilized world is justly due to Christianity;—war, by the influence of the humane principles of that religion, has been stripped of half its horrors. The French renounce Christianity, and they relapse into barbarism;—war resumes the same hideous and savage form which it wore in the ages of Gothic and Roman violence. (4)

Later on in our investigation, we will examine Hamilton's views on Christianity, and violent religious intolerance. I will, however, say in advance, that Hamilton thought religious intolerance the fault of man, and not of Christianity. Therefore, he rejected denominational bias, remaining loyal to the true spirit of Christianity.

At one point during the war, Hamilton once made a statement, inferring that some of his moral standpoints were an outgrowth of his religious convictions, but first, some background for the letter which I will quote.

The Reverend William Gordon had heard a rumor that Hamilton had made a speech in a public coffee house, urging the Continental troops to march on Congress and set up General Washington as dictator of the United States. Gordon sent a letter to Hamilton to ascertain the truth of this rumor, but refused to divulge the source of his information. Towards the conclusion of his letter, Gordon, as if anticipating the irritation the tone of his letter would cause, pleaded with Hamilton not to consider a duel, on account of Gordon's being a minister, and his disbelief in the practice.

As Gordon may well have anticipated, Hamilton was quite perturbed. While frank (Hamilton thought that Gordon had been very provocative, and he had), Hamilton nevertheless showed respect for the man as a minister. Hamilton wrote near the beginning of his letter:

Your entering a volunteer to apologise [sic] for me is, no doubt, a mark of your condescension & of your benevolence, & would make it ungrateful, as well as indecent, to suspect, that the conditions, with which your fetter your compliance to my request, proceed from any other cause than a laudable, though, perhaps, in this instance, an officious zeal for the interests of religion & for the good of society.” (5)

Hamilton's displeasure with the man's condescending attitude was quite apparent, however:

... The good sense of the present times has happily found out, that to prove your own innocence, or the malice of an accuser, the worst method, you can take, is to run him through the body, or shoot him through the head. And permit me to add, that while you felt an aversion to duelling [sic], on the principles of religion, you ought, in charity, to have supposed other possessed of the same scruples, -- of whose impiety you had no proofs. But whatever may be my final determination, on this point, ought to be a matter of indifference. 'Tis a good old maxim, to which we may safely adhere in most cases, that we ought to do our duty, & leave the rest to the care of heaven. The crime alleged against me is of such enormity, that, if I am guilty, it ought not to go unpunished; &, if I am innocent I should have an opportunity of indicating my innocence. (6)

It is quite apparent that Hamilton took a considerable deal of offense at those who assumed his impiety and lack of moral and religious principle. Quite a thought for those who wish to portray Hamilton as some kind of imp.

Another instance of Hamilton's moral convictions springing from his religious ones, was his opposition to slavery, and his belief that blacks had the same rights as whites, because they were the single human race; therefore, all were equally God's special creation. Hamilton and John Laurens formulated a plan that would encourage plantation owners to allow several of their slaves to go free, on condition that these blacks would fight in the American lines for American independence. After some procrastination, the Continental Congress finally adopted the measure.

We will discuss the Christian basis of Hamilton's anti-slavery sentiments when we discuss his part in the formation of the New York Manumission Society (1785), in a future post, in its own chronological order.

In the next post, we will finish our examination of the evidences for Hamilton's Christian belief during the time he served in the American army.


(1) Taken from Alexander Hamilton: How the Mighty Are Redeemed, by Christopher Yates (2000), p. 28; quoted "Hamilton Viewed by His Friends," by Nathan Schachner, p. 213

(2) Yates, pp. 27-28; quoting "Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?" by Douglas Adair and Marvin Harvey, p. 317

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.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Alexander Hamilton Patriot is an "Interesting Blog"

Today I am honored to announce that this blog has received the "Interesting Blog Award," from Mrs. Mecomber of Mrs. Mecomber's Scrapbook, a very "interesting," educated, and simple blog meant for helping computer and internet illiterates, or simply those frustrated and bewildered consumers for whom "professional" tutorials are just not enough. Mrs. Mecomber's Scrapbook received this award, and this blog, Alexander Hamilton Patriot is one of the several blogs which Mrs. Mecomber has passed the award.

Thank you, Mrs. Mecomber! This is an honor.

Now, I get to pass on the award to several people. There are many blogs I could choose from, but I will pass it to some blogs that I think are interesting:

Our Founding Truth

The Hamiltonian Federalist Forum

In God We Trust Blog

Life in a Shoe

The Cause of Liberty

Arkansas Watch

Blogging the Federalist Papers

Defending Christianity

Winners, unfortunately this award only comes with this nifty badge and my complements ... and the privilege you now possess to pass this award on to other blogs!

P.S. I promise that I will continue to update this blog in the near future. Stay tuned for "Alexander Hamilton's Religion: Part Four."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Happy Birthday Dear Hamilton...

Although not an official holiday, as the birthday's of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, today is the birthday of (IMHO) America's second-greatest Founder -- Alexander Hamilton (second only the Washington).

We know that Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, but the year of his birth remains in dispute. Some contend that Hamilton was born in 1755, because a legal document, written after the death of Hamilton's mother, was located in the 20th century in the Caribbean Islands, where Hamilton was born, which speculated that he was born in 1755.

Alexander Hamilton himself always seemed to be of the opinion that he was born in 1757, because he calculated his age based upon that date in several documents he wrote.

But whatever year he was born, January 11 is definitely his birthday.

Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton. Your country has not yet forgotten you.


"Alexander Hamilton bequeathed to his country a great heritage ... We may not know the source of [his] greatness, but once it is revealed, we discard it at our peril. ... When America ceases to remember his greatness, America will cease to be great."
~President Calvin Coolidge, January 11, 1922~

Thanks for Reading!