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

Thanks for Reading!