With the success of Hamilton comes speculation the Founding Father may have been Jewish.
By Alice Burdick Schweiger
A preponderance of research indicates that Hamilton was a Jew,” says Andrew Porwancher, a legal historian and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who is writing The Jewish Life of Alexander Hamilton, a working title under contract with the Harvard University Press to be published as early as January 2020.
Porwancher, who earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge and a fellowship at Yeshiva University in New York, points to evidence that Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucett, a French Huguenot, converted to Judaism when she married Danish merchant Johann Michael Lavien (a variant of Levine) on the island of St. Croix in 1745. At the time, marriage was prohibited between Christians and Jews.
She soon left him and began living with James Hamilton, bearing him two illegitimate sons. Alexander, the youngest, was born in 1755, before Lavien divorced her.
While some biographers question Lavien’s Jewish heritage, “his name appears in a variety of spellings consistent with the way Jews were permitted to spell their surnames in the 18th-century Caribbean,” Porwancher says. “And Hamilton’s own grandson referred to Lavien as a ‘rich Danish Jew.’”
Porwancher asserts Rachel was legally still Jewish after her separation from Lavien because “according to the Talmud, if a gentile woman converts to Judaism and goes back to her gentile ways, she is still considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish law.”
When Hamilton was a young boy on Nevis, his mother enrolled him in a Jewish school, where he studied Torah from a Jewess by learning the Ten Commandants in the original Hebrew, Porwancher says.
Some skeptics maintain Hamilton went to a Jewish school because he was illegitimate and thus not allowed in a Christian school, but, says Porwancher, “there’s a talmudic prohibition against Jews teaching non-Jews the Torah.”
Porwancher, raised in a Conservative Jewish home, began investigating Hamilton’s religious affiliations in 2014, and traveled abroad for his research to Nevis, St. Croix, London and Copenhagen. “I explored sources in a wide array of languages and reviewed thousands of documents from the Danish West Indies.”
What particularly struck Porwancher was that after Hamilton arrived in New York City, he became an outspoken supporter of the Jews.
“Hamilton became an advocate in court for nearly every leading Jewish citizen in New York City,” he notes. “In one case, he had a couple of Jewish witnesses, and the opposing counsel attacked them purely on the basis of their religion.
“Hamilton issued a scathing denunciation of anti-Semitism in his closing remarks before the highest court in the state of New York. It was a legal performance that his admirers considered to be one of the most powerful and forceful of his entire illustrious legal career.”
As an alumnus of what is now Columbia University, Hamilton helped institute the principle that non-Christians would be eligible for the college presidency. He was behind the appointment of Gershom Seixas, the first Jew appointed to the board of an American college.
“He also found Jewish merchants to be key partners in his plan to invigorate the American financial system and make the U.S. a major center of global finance,” Porwancher says.
By the time Hamilton came to America, he identified himself as a Christian. “I suspect he abandons his Jewish identity because Jews had second-class religious status,” Porwancher says.
“But, in nearly every realm of his adult professional life, we can see echoes from his exposure to Judaism in childhood. One thing is for sure: Hamilton had closer ties with the Jewish community than any other Founding Father.”