Monday, August 20, 2007

Alexander Hamilton Died a Newbie Christian:

Before his son Philip died in in 1801, Hamilton was, for all the years he did his work "Founding" America, like the other key Founders, a theistic rationalist.

Douglas Adair and Marvin Harvey wrote an excellent article in the William & Mary Quarterly in 1955 entitled Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman? Adair and Harvey identify four religious phases in Hamilton's life: He had a conventionally religious youth. From 1777 to 1792, he seemed totally indifferent to religion. From the period of the French Revolution onward, he had an "opportunistic religiosity", seeking to use Christianity for political ends, and then after the death of his son Philip in 1801, truly became a repentant orthodox Christian. The first three phases of his life were consistent with theistic rationalism.

In the Farmer Refuted he spoke the following like a true theistic rationalist:

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.


During the period from 1777 to 1792 is supposedly when he made two wisecracks about God. When asked why God wasn't mentioned in the US Constitution Hamilton supposedly said, "We forgot." The other was Hamilton supposedly didn't agree to Franklin's call for prayer because he didn't think the Constitutional Convention needed "foreign aid." Both of these may turn out be apocryphal. They are, as David Barton would put it, "unconfirmed" in the primary source record.

However, during that period, he said something arguably much worse. From 1777 to 1792 there are, according to Adair and Harvey, only two letters where Hamilton mentions God or religion at all. One of them, a letter to Anthony Wayne July 6, 1780, he discusses a military chaplain:

“He is just what I should like for a military parson except that he does not whore or drink. He will fight, and he will not insist upon your going to heaven whether you will or not."


[Here is Ron Chernow discussing the quotation in his award winning book on Hamilton.]

I've been challenged with a version of that letter that didn't include the "whore" part. Adair and Harvey inform us exactly of the whereabouts of the original and that the Henry Cabot Lodge version from 1904 had been "bowdlerized" probably to make Hamilton look not so creepy. I've uploaded the page from Adair's and Harvey's article with the information about the quotation in question:



Is this the kind of thing a "Christian Statesman" says? Hamilton had a reputation for being a rake among other Founders as well. John Adams called Alexander Hamilton a “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” who had a “superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off.” Finally Adams decried “the profligacy of his life; his fornications, adulteries and his incests.”

Abigail wasn’t much nicer. “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself.”

And of course Hamilton was caught having an affair with Maria Reynolds, a grifter. And he made a self-serving, less than forthcoming apology about the matter.

Hamilton's only other reference to religion in the period from 1777-92 concerned what he desired in a wife. As he wrote to John Laurens in Dec. 1779: "As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint." Certainly not the words of a devout orthodox Christian. (Ironically, the woman he ended up marrying, Eliza Schuyler, was devoutly religious.)

As noted, after his son died in 1801 Hamilton did begin to display, for the first time in his public career true humility and a likely then became orthodox Trinitarian Christian. I say there is evidence that he was a Christian because instead of talking about "the Deity" in generic or philosophical sense, for the first time in his public life he uses actual specific Christian language about God. Though, he was refused communion at his death, which he begged for, because he hadn't yet joined a Church -- more evidence of his being a "newbie" Christian at the end of his life.

14 comments:

Rob Scot said...

A word about Hamilton and his morality according to John Adams: surely a politician (Adams, who was, of course, notorious for outbursts of anger) who directed such foul and vehement language against a political opponent (Hamilton) is not to be trusted as a reliable source when judging that man's character.

I am not convinced that Hamilton was a theistic rationalist up until the end of his life, though he certainly did betray an orthodox Christian faith more openly during his last years. Incidentally, though he was at first denied the Sacrament on his death bed, the minister later relented and administered it, convinced of his sincerity of faith.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Rob.

As the post notes, I believe Hamilton was, without question, an orthodox Christian when he died.

Hercules Mulligan said...

As to the quote from 1779:

"As to religion, a moderate streak will satisfy me [Most "moderately religious" folk back then were much more religious than in these days]. She must believe in god [What woman in America didn't, I wonder?] and hate a saint [Probably means she can't be a Catholic; Hamilton's ancestors were Scotch Covenanters and Protestants, and Hamilton had a great dislike for Catholicism]."

"Not the words of an orthodox Christian," you say? Jon, I think you have your own stereotype of all the things a Christian should be doing.

"Ironically, the woman he ended up marrying, Eliza Schuyler, was devoutly religious." Gee, wonder why! I can't know for sure that he consciously thought "Wow, this lady's a great Christian; guess we'll get married," but he chose her out of all the others that were entertaining and nursing Washington's officers and army. He made that conscious decision, and he never regretted it. From the earliest days of their marriage till the latest, Hamilton would tell her that the more he compared his wife to others, the more convinced he was of "the judiciousness of his choice."

As for him not joining a church and all, he may have not done that for many reasons, but it is a lame argument in opposition to his Christianity (according to his sons, they had "church" at home on Sundays, and Hamilton even wanted to build a chapel on his property).

P.S. Jesus never joined a Christian church, and His disciples never celebrated the Eucharist (they just had a common meal together, "in remembrance of Him," according to the Book of Acts and Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians)!

Jonathan said...

So your interpretation of the "hate a saint" line is that he wanted his wife to be an anti-Catholic bigot like he was?

Jonathan said...

As for him not joining a church and all, he may have not done that for many reasons, but it is a lame argument in opposition to his Christianity.

Not opposition to; but yes, being "unchurched" is a big sign of a nominal or otherwise not orthodox creed.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jonathan said...
So your interpretation of the "hate a saint" line is that he wanted his wife to be an anti-Catholic bigot like he was?>>

Is the word "bigot" the correct reference? Is there other evidence of Hamilton being a bigot towards Catholicism?

being "unchurched" is a big sign of a nominal or otherwise not orthodox creed.>>

No doubt separation from the flock hurt his maturity, and development, but not his salvation.
Attending church is definitely orthodox, but not mandatory to be a Christian.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Our Founding Truth answered well.

"So your interpretation of the "hate a saint" line is that he wanted his wife to be an anti-Catholic bigot like he was?"

Mmph! Of course Hamilton would want his wife to believe just like he did (bigot or no bigot) -- doesn't every guy???

Jonathan said...

I am still not convinced that "hate a saint" meant hate Catholic saints as opposed to someone who believed in God but was otherwise moderate or indifferent towards doctrine, which a key feature of theistic rationalism.

By the way, Eliza's knickname was
"saint," which had something to do with her devout religiosity, not her being Roman Catholic.

Enlightened Despot said...

I've been reading your posts here and on Hercules's blog. Very informative. No doubt Betsey Schuyler, Hamilton's devout wife, had an influence on his beliefs, and clearly he went to Christianity for comfort after Phillip was killed. No doubt he felt guilty as well as grieved by Phillip's death; he had trusted in Phillip's uncle to prevent the duel, and it took place in his defense. But in his younger days, he was clearly a playful, witty, and irreverent fellow, so I see no reason to doubt the anecdotes about him at the Convention (there's another one I'm sure you know in which he dared G. Morris to slap Washington in an overly familiar greeting). It seems to me possible that Hamilton sought communion on his deathbed in order to ease Betsey's pain (after all, he could have attended church before the duel, which took place 2 weeks after the challenge.) No doubt he felt guilty for putting her through yet another premature death caused by a duel, caused his political views. He may well have been clinically depressed; he had had a couple of bouts of depression, even suicidal depression, in his youth. This same depression (which Chernow speculates about and which seems visible in a late portrait of AH with his gaze downcast) may account for occasional negative outbursts to his friend G. Morris.

Enlightened Despot said...

P.S. I wouldn't call him an "anti-Catholic bigot." He made a couple of conventional remarks against "popery," evincing attitudes that were widespread at the time. His maternal grandfather was a Hugenot who had fled France for the West Indies after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Enlightened Despot said...

Hamilton was apparently quite a flirt at the dinner table, to the dismay of the prudish John and Abigail. No doubt the portly, balding, and blunt Adams was jealous of Hamilton's youth, good looks, and personal charisma. Jealousy rather than insight may well account for some of the Founders' critical remarks about each other. Adams, for example, worried that he would be forgotten.

The "whore" reference doesn't strike me as shocking, and the Mrs. Reynolds letter was regarded in its day as far too frank. One of Hamilton's faults, according to G. Morris and others, was his "excess of candor." There was much raciness in the 18th century--Fielding's novels, Richardson's, French salons, etc. Morris really was a rake. Jefferson was more "wicked" than Hamilton, not only taking advantage of Sally Hemings but also sexually harassing his neighbor's wife. Washington complained of his marriage to Martha that there was no "fire between the sheets." Surely we don't want the Founders to be thought of only as marble statues, immune to human passions.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Please not that I said "probably" in my reference to the connection of Catholicism and Hamilton's phrase "hate a saint." This was some speculation upon my part, but it was not meant to breed a big discussion.

Enlightened Despot:

I promise I will write in greater detail later, but I have discussed in my comments all over the place on Hamilton's Christianity, that to do so again here would be repetition.

I think that your estimation of Hamilton's morality (and the Founders' morality in general) is, well, hardly enough to be an estimation. As for Jefferson and Hemmings, this ordeal has is inconclusive. Some DNA tests performed in the '90s which supposedly proved it were admitted a year later to have been fraudulent and they failed to establish this rumor. As to Washington, just because this statement that you quoted (I wonder where in the world you got it), it doesn't prove adultery in the slightest degree. I agree that the Founders were not immune to "human passions," however, it is just as well to accuse the Founders of the grossest hypocrisy, because they believed that virtue and morality were essential not only to republican government, but to the existence of human society itself. Interestingly, the Founders whom you named as being "flirts" (Hamilton, John Adams, Washington, and Jefferson) had much to say on this very subject, and emphasized this point in their writings. Here is an interesting quote from Hamilton:

"Equal pains have been taken to deprave the morals as to extinguish the religion of the country, if indeed morality in a community can be separated from religion. It is among the singular and fantastic vagaries of the French Revolution, that while the Duke of Brunswick was marching to Paris a new law of divorce was passed, which makes it as easy for a husband to get rid of his wife, and a wife of her husband, as to discard a worn-out habit.1 To complete the dissolution of those ties, which are the chief links of domestic and ultimately of social attachment, the journals of the convention record with guilty applause the accusations preferred by children against their parents." The Stand, No. III

"A...virtuous citizen will regard his own country as a wife, to whom he is bound to be exclusively faithful and affectionate; and he will watch...every propensity of his heart to wander towards a foreign country, which he will regard as a mistress that may pervert his fidelity."

Your comment about Adams' jealousy of Hamilton is outrageous. I am not the all-knowing professor, but I have intensely studied the writings of the Founding Fathers, and I cannot resist John Adams letters (even though not everything he said was correct). Adams discouraged such vice openly and privately. You won't get the image of the Founders as they really are from reading historical fiction; you will only get it through judging historical fiction by the original writings themselves, and by judging the original writings out of a "modern culture" context.

Hercules Mulligan said...

Whoops. That "not" at the beginning is supposed to be "note." Sorry guys.

Jonathan said...

Even though he wasn't nearly as good of a writer as Jefferson, John Adams's opinions, I find, oddly fascinating.

His religious opinions were far more heterodox than most people realize. For instance, most people consider Franklin's beliefs to be more "deistic" than Adams' and perhaps in some way they were. Adams could also sound real pious at times. Yet, Adams attacked the Trinity and other doctrines of orthodox Christianity far more savagley than Franklin ever did. For instance:

"If I understand the Doctrine, it is, that if God the first second or third or all three together are united with or in a Man, the whole Animal becomes a God and his Mother is the Mother of God.

"It grieves me: it shocks me to write in this stile upon a subject the most adorable that any finite Intelligence can contemplate or embrace: but if ever Mankind are to be superior to the Brutes, sacerdotal Impostures must be exposed."

– John Adams to Francis van der Kemp, October 23, 1816. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 122, Library of Congress. Taken from Hutson, The Founders on Religion, p. 223.