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.

Thanks for Reading!