Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton has been and always will be an enigma. He and his legacy go through moments of great glory spread out between periods of forgottenness. But what makes this sounding father great? What makes him significant? What makes him memorable? These are all questions that the playwright Lin Manuel Miranda tried to answer and encapsulate in his world-renowned playing titled Hamilton. Throughout this series, we will be using Miranda’s play to travel through history and learn more about Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founding fathers. We will discuss fact versus fiction while also digging deeper behind the songs to get a better understanding of what they are about.

We start today with the play’s first song, Alexander Hamilton…

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

Alexander Hamilton was born in Charleston, on the island of Nevis. This island had a deep connection with the institution of slavery. Between the years 1675 and 1730, the island of Nevis headquartered the slave trade for the islands around it, the Leeward Islands. During this time an estimated six to seven thousand enslaved peoples passed through the island on the way to their future life in bondage.[1] By the year 1780, ninety percent of the population on the island of Nevis was of African descent.[2] Growing up in this environment would help a young Alexander Hamilton develop into the man he would one day become.

Alexander Hamilton and his older brother, James Jr, were born to Rachel Faucette and James A. Hamilton. James Hamilton was the fourth son of the Scottish laird, Alexander Hamilton, Laird of Grange, Ayrshire. The Hamilton’s had many issues, stemming from the beginning of James and Rachel’s relationship. The pair were considered to be a common-law couple. However, Rachel Faucette was legally married to Johann Michael Lavien.

Most of what we know about all parties involved comes from Alexander Hamilton himself, who very clearly had a tender spot for his mother. He would write that “A Dane, a fortune hunter of the name Lavine, came to Nevis bedizzened with gold and paid his addresses to my mother, then a handsome young woman having a snug fortune.”[3] Rachel’s mother, Mary, was dazzled by the Dane and consented to a match between her sixteen-year-old daughter and Johann, who was a good dozen years older than the teenager. The pair were married in 1745 and their one and only son, Peter, was born a year later.

The marriage between Rachel and Johann was not a happy one. He spent her inheritance and, overall, they were very unhappy. By 1750, their marriage had deteriorated to the point that the now twenty-one-year-old simply abandoned her family. Johann was extremely unhappy with the idea that Rachel believed that she could simply run away from him. He wanted her embarrassed and quoted an old Danish law that allowed a husband whose wife had cheated and no longer lived with him to be sent to jail. He had her sent to Fort Christiansvaern, which doubled as the local jail, where she was imprisoned for several months.[4] Upon release, Lavine had most likely assumed that, upon release, his wife would finally submit to his every whim. Instead, she fled the island.[5]

Rachel Faucette met James Hamilton in the early 1750s. “Hamilton’s father does not appear to have been successful in any pursuit, but in many ways was a good deal of a dreamer…”[6] The pair had a lot in common, most of which could be categorized as similar failures. “Their liaison was the sort of match that could easily produce a son hypersensitive about class and status and painfully conscious that social hierarchies ruled the world.”[7]

Alexander Hamilton was born in either 1755 or 1757, much debate circulates about his actual birth year. The young Hamilton most likely never received a formal education because of his illegitimacy, but he did have a private tutor. Where he may have lacked in education he certainly made up for in imagination.

Not much is known about his childhood but it is thought to have started off in a happy-ish family dynamic. All of this changed when Rachel received a divorce summons from Lavine on February 26, 1759. One document stated that Rachel “absented herself from [Lavien] for nine years and gone elsewhere, where she has begotten several illegitimate children, so that such an action is believed to be more than sufficient for him to obtain a divorce from her.”[8] Within these documents, Alexander and James Jr. were referred to as “whore-children.”[9] This stigma would never leave him, nor would it leave his mother, who would be forced to pay the price of her freedom time and time again. Their divorce was finalized on June 26, 1759. Although it may have relieved some of Rachel’s fears it also most certainly came with new realizations. The divorce allowed Lavien to get remarried but prohibited her from doing so. Alexander and his brother could never be legitimized.

In April of 1765, James Hamilton received a business assignment in Christiansted, right near where Rachel had been imprisoned years before. By this point, Lavine had moved to the other side of the island and their son, Peter, had moved to South Carolina.[10] Therefore, James and Rachel could move back to St. Croix without worrying about seeing either Rachel’s ex-husband or the son she abandoned. However, any semblance of legitimacy that Alexander and James Jr. had been able to hide behind would be forever gone, Rachel could no longer call herself Mrs. Hamilton.

“When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden”

The family moved to St. Croix but James did not stay long. Not long after their arrival, James left. The reason for James’s departure has long been debated by historians. Some believe that Rachel’s divorce and the stigma around it were too difficult for James to handle. Others believe that he left in the hopes that Rachel would have a better life without the constant reminder of the stigma that surrounded her. Others still believe that it was James’ business failings that caused his departure. The truth is that we will most likely never know exactly why James Hamilton abandoned his family. What is known is that he did not remain in St. Croix long enough for his name to appear on any tax records.[11]
Alexander Hamilton would later write, “You no doubt have understood that my father’s affairs at a very early day went to wreck, so as to have rendered his situation during the greatest part of his life far from eligible. This state of things occasioned a separation between him and me, when I was very young.”[12] Hamilton himself was only ten years old when his father left. He would often refer to his father in an almost pitiful tone. Even he most likely never had the full story of why his father left, nor why he never came back. If he ever did, he did not leave it for the world to know.

It is known that James Hamilton lived in the Caribbean for the rest of his life. He stayed in contact with his youngest son with Rachel, Alexander. However, the two most likely never set eyes on each other again. Having been abandoned by his father at such a young age it is easy to see how Hamilton was so easily drawn to a parental figure such as George Washington.

“And Alex got better but his mother went quick.”

Rachel Faucette took a two-story house on 34 Company Street. She and her children lived on the top floor while simultaneously running a shop out of the bottom floor. Rachel was one of the very few female shopkeepers on the island. Although she appears to have done well enough as a shopkeeper, she most certainly supplemented her income by renting out slaves.

St. Croix was a slave-oriented population. Rachel Faucette herself owned nine slaves that she inherited when her mother passed away. Out of the nine slaves, five were adult females and four were children. A slave named Ajax was assigned as a house boy to Alexander.

In late 1767, thirty-eight-year-old Rachel moved her family to 23 Company Street and, right after New Years, moved them back to number 34.[13] It was there that she became sick. A woman named Ann McDonell took care of her before calling for a doctor. By the time the doctor got there, Alexander had also become deathly sick.

Dr. Heering was called for on February 17. Alexander and his mother were subjected to numerous medieval practices; including bloodletting, enema, emetic (causing a person to vomit), and medical herbs. Nothing seemed to be working on Rachel and she, unfortunately, succumbed to her illness at nine o’clock in the evening on February 19, 1768.[14] Even though she passed away at such a late hour, that did not stop the probate court from taking stock of what the now-deceased woman owned. Even with her sick child still laying in bed, five agents from the probate court showed up that night and examined the property. They sealed off one chamber, an attic, and two storage units in the yard.[15]

Rachel was buried under a tree on the Grange estate she had once been married on. She left behind James Jr. and Alexander, who were now considered to be orphans. Alexander was about thirteen years old.

Not long after their mother’s funeral, James and Alexander began receiving bills that they could not pay. The probate officers came again to appraise the estate. The court decided that they had to take into account three possible heirs to Rachel Faucette’s estate, including Peter Lavien. A court case took place in which James and Alexander were referred to as “obscene children born after the deceased person’s divorce.”[16] It is safe to say that Alexander and James were left with nothing after their mother passed. Alexander was left to be the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and a Scotsman.”[17]

“Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride”

Alexander and James were sent to live with their cousin, Peter Lytton. Peter was a thirty-two-year-old widower whose own brother would one day say that he had been “insane.”[18] Peter had a black mistress who had recently given birth to their son, Don Alvarez de Valesco. On July 16, 1769, Peter was found dead in a pool of his blood. It was determined by authorities that he had either “stabbed or shot himself to death.”[19] Peter’s father, James Lytton, attempted to help the two brothers. However, on August 12, 1769, James Lytton passed away. The boys were on their own again.[20] Alexander would be taken in by a merchant from Nevis named Thomas Stevens and James would be taken in by a local carpenter, Thomas McNobeny.

“A hurricane came, and devastation reigned”

Hamilton’s time apprenticing for Beekman and Cruger taught him a lot. His son, John, would later say, “Amid his various engagements in later years, he adverted to [this time] as the most useful part of his education.”[21] They provided him with a link to his future home, New York, and taught him everything from penmanship to diplomacy.

It was during this period that Alexander Hamilton began to grow into the man we recognize as one of our most vocal founding fathers. During this time when he was working for Beekman and Cruger, the fourteen-year-old became vocal about hoping for a war. He expressed in a letter “… I wish there was a war.”[22] He knew that the best way for him to climb the social ladder would be to outperform and outrank others in a time of war. Although it was quickly approaching, the Revolutionary War would not break out for a few years. First, Alexander had to show his community just how brilliant his mind was…

In October 1771, Nicholas Cruger returned to New York for medical reasons. He left his apprentice, Alexander, in charge. Alexander collected money owed to the firm and overall did a fantastic job taking care of the business. He did such a strong job that he was most likely disappointed when Cruger returned to St. Croix in March 1772.[23]

During this time, Hamilton also began to write and publish poetry. Through his published works he caught the attention of a Presbyterian minister named Hugh Knox. Knox was also a journalist who sometimes filled in as editor of the Royal Danish American Gazette.[24] This proved to be consequential to Alexander’s life when, on August 31, 1772, a hurricane tore through the island of St. Croix and other nearby islands. Knox helped publish Hamilton’s infamous letter:
“Good God! what horror and destruction. Its impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.”[25]
This letter helped Hamilton, very literally, write his way out of poverty. The hurricane letter generated so much attention that a subscription fund was taken up by local businessmen to send its author to be schooled in North America.[26] Taking into account that the young Hamilton had just written a letter describing such dismal destruction, the idea that so many people donated to a fund to better a young man’s life tells you just how highly they thought of this young man.

Alexander Hamilton soon sailed away from St. Croix on a boat headed to Boston. From there he traveled on to New York because “In New York you can be a new man.”

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Well, the word got around, they said,
“This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland.
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

Alexander Hamilton.
My name is Alexander Hamilton.
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait…

When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed-ridden
Half-dead sittin’ in their own sick,
The scent thick

And Alex got better but his mother went quick.

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide.
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside,
A voice saying,
“Alex, you gotta fend for yourself.”
He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute,
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution,
Started workin’, – clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord,
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on (ooh)
The bow of a ship headed for a new land.
In New York you can be a new man.

In New York you can be a new man – (Just you wait!)
In New York you can be a new man – (Just you wait!)
In New York you can be a new man –

In New York, New York
Just you wait!

Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)
We are waiting in the wings for you. (Waiting in the wings for you.)
You could never back down.
You never learned to take your time!
Oh, Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)
When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote the game?
The world will never be the same, oh

The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him (Just you wait)
Another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom (Just you wait)
His enemies destroyed his rep
America forgot him.

We fought with him.

Me? I died for him.

Me? I trusted him.

Me? I loved him.

And me?
I’m the damn fool that shot him.

There’s a million things I haven’t done,
But just you wait!

What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton!

[1] Vincent K. Hubbard, Swords Ships and Sugar: A History of Nevis (Premiere Editions International, 2002), 211.
[2] Ibid., 79.
[4] Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: Youth to Majority, p. 7
[5] Chernow, 12
[6] Hamilton, Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, p.13.
[7] Chernow, 16
[8] The william and mary quarterly, April 1952
[9] Ramsing, Alexander Hamilton’s Birth and Parentage, p.8
[10] Chernow, 21
[11] Chernow, 21
[13] Chernow 24
[14] Brockenbrough, Martha (2017). Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-250-12319-0.
[15] Chernow 24
[16] Flexner, Young Hamilton, p. 31
[17] Miranda, Alexander Hamilton
[18] PAH, vol. 20, p.458, “From Ann Mitchell” [1796].
[19] Ramsing, Alexander Hamilton’s Birth and Parentage, p.28
[20] Chernow 26
[21] Hamilton, Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, p.13.
[22] PAH, vol. 1, p.4, letter to Edward Stevens, November 11, 1769.
[23] “To Alexander Hamilton from Walton and Cruger, [19 October 1771]”. Founders Online (Letter). National Archives. fn. 1. Archived from Syrett, Harold C., ed. (1961) [1768–1778]. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 8 n.1.
[24] Chernow, 36
[25] “From Alexander Hamilton to The Royal Danish American Gazette, 6 September 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 1, 1768–1778, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, pp. 34–38.]
[26] Chernow, 37

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