I believe Alexander Hamilton was part Jewish.
The evidence is all circumstantial, so it’s certainly a subject on which reasonable people can disagree, but in my opinion it’s the most likely (or at least, there isn’t any likelier) explanation for the facts.
I’ve seen a few puff pieces on the subject, but I haven’t seen all the information gathered in one place, so that’s what this post is. (If you know of another one, let me know so I can link!)
I’m not really interested in debating about it, because I’m not insisting I’m right; I’ve already acknowledged there’s no conclusive proof and there are plausible alternate explanations for everything.
In the end, history is a little like fandom. Everybody has their headcanon. This is mine.
For context, it’s important to understand how many Anusim (forced converts) and crypto-Jews (secretly practicing Jews) were in the Caribbean in the 18th century. (This is a topic I happen to have researched a bunch recently for my Anusim heroine in “All or Nothing“.) Spain and Portugal’s large Jewish populations were forced to convert or pretend to convert by the Inquisition, and many fled to Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World hoping to escape the Inquisition’s reach. However, they still couldn’t just live openly as Jews in most places: they often traveled between the colonies and Europe for work; there were local Inquisition offices in the colonies; and they frequently had family members in the Old Country whom they would endanger by publicly “backsliding.” Because of this context, I’m not suggesting that any of these people were openly practicing Jews. However, I believe they had Jewish ancestry and possibly even considered themselves to be Jews, which Hamilton may or may not have known (on that point I have no particular opinion).
There was also a significant openly Jewish community in Nevis when Hamilton was a kid.
First of all, let’s address the evidence that his mother’s husband, John Lavien, a merchant, was Jewish.
A. His name may be a variant of Levine, a common Jewish name. Name spellings were not standardized in the 18th century so the name appears in different documents spelled MANY different ways (sometimes multiple ways in the same document), but Hamilton himself spelled it Lavine, and Alexander Hamilton: the Formative Years by Michael E. Newton (have I mentioned I recommend that book highly for people who want as much of the available information as possible?) notes, “Poll-tax lists recorded the name as Lewine. A probate record from 1768 also recorded the name as Lewine, although spellings of Lavine and Levin are also to be found in that document.”
John Lavien and his son consistently spelled it “Lavien,” however.
B. His country of origin. Alexander Hamilton described him as “a Dane”. However there is no evidence backing this; the languages he used in his business were Dutch, English and German (he wrote to Danish associates in German, not Danish). According to Newton, “it is now believed that John Lavien was from Germany”, with at least one scholar making the case that Lavien’s name originally derives from the town of Lowien in Poland “or from one of the many other towns with similar names spread throughout Eastern Europe.”
There were many Jewish German and Eastern European merchants in the New World, although certainly there were also many who were not Jewish. Moreover, if Lavien was indeed born in Germany with a Polish name, his chances of being Jewish increase.
C. Somebody in St. Croix told researcher Gertrude Atherton that Lavien “probably was a Jew by birth,” however what they based this on is lost to history and may have simply been his name.
D. According to Chernow, he got his start peddling household goods. Peddling was a profession associated strongly (though again, not exclusively) with Jews in the 18th century.
E. To me the most compelling piece of the puzzle is this, reported by Ron Chernow: In 1768 Peter Lavien, John Lavien’s son with Hamilton’s mother Rachel, was appointed to a prominent position in his parish church in South Carolina. On a brief visit to St. Croix in 1769, he had himself “quietly baptized.” This implies that (a) Rachel and Lavien did not baptize their son at birth, (b) Peter knew that, and (c) Peter did not want anyone else to know. The contours of the story seem to overwhelmingly suggest crypto-Judaism.
Now let’s look at Rachel.
(Note: Rachel is considered a Jewish name now, but in the 18th century it wasn’t particularly. She and others often spelled her name Rachael, which may or may not hint at Sephardic origins.)
If Rachel was part Jewish, it was probably through her mother, Mary Uppington. According to Rachel’s parents’ marriage record, Mary was a widow from England, so Uppington was not her maiden name and nothing has been found about her family or previous life that I know of. (And there were plenty of Anusim and crypto-Jews named Maria.)
Rachel’s siblings were baptized, and while there’s no record of her own baptism, the church is missing six years of records right around the time of her birth (caused by hurricane damage), so probably she was too. This proves nothing except that if Mary was a Jew, she was a secret Jew, which we already knew.
After Rachel’s father died, Mary took Rachel and moved to another island. Mary making a fresh start with her daughter after her husband’s death strikes me as suggestive. Crypto-Judaism was often passed from mother to daughter, and it was not uncommon for a parent to choose one child to carry the Jewish legacy into the next generation, while keeping the secret from their other children.
AH:tFY states: “According to Alexander Hamilton…Rachael married John Lavien ‘in compliance with the wishes of her mother…but against her own inclination.'” (The full text of Hamilton’s letter is here; note the blank space where he evidently intended to put a word describing Lavien but did not.) An arranged marriage to a much older man is also highly consistent with patterns of crypto-Jewish marriage I’ve seen in my research.
(A word of partial explanation: arranged marriage is a traditional Jewish practice, in-group marriages were strongly desired, and the pool of potential husbands was extremely limited. Plus, many crypto-Jewish men in the New World were entrepreneurs living away from home, which meant (a) if they were young they were likely poor and (b) they probably left the Old World already older than girls just growing up whose families were looking for husbands for them.)
How did Rachel raise her children? Well, we already know she didn’t baptize her son with Lavien. No baptismal records for Hamilton have been found either (witness the ongoing debate about his true birth year), despite the fact that many churches in the West Indies did baptize illegitimate children.
She also sent Hamilton to a Jewish school: Hamilton’s son, John C. Hamilton, wrote in his biography that Hamilton “received the rudiments of his education commencing at a tender age. As an instance of which, rarely as he alluded to his personal history, he mentioned with a smile his having been taught to repeate the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments] in Hebrew at the school of a Jewess when so small that he was placed standing by her side on a table.”
But to me, the most suggestive statement of all is this, by Chernow:
“As a divorced woman with two children conceived out of wedlock, Rachel was likely denied a burial at nearby St. John’s Anglican Church. [RL’s note: There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence for this supposition, though it’s certainly possible; another (equally unproven) explanation is that she didn’t want to be buried in the churchyard because she was Jewish.] This may help to explain a mystifying ambivalence that Hamilton always felt about regular church attendance, despite a pronounced religious bent. The parish clerk officiated at a graveside ceremony at the Grange[…]where Rachel was laid to rest on a hillside beneath a grove of mahogany trees.” [emphasis mine]
One of the strongest patterns of crypto-Jewish behavior that I’ve read about, both among people who know they are crypto-Jews and people who simply inherited the uneasiness from their parent(s) without understanding it, is an emotionally charged avoidance of Christian observance. Because many crypto-Jewish people don’t learn of their Jewish heritage until they are old enough to keep the secret (if they learn about it at all), as children they don’t know why their family rarely or never goes to church, why their family doesn’t celebrate on holidays like everyone else, where their parents’ persistent anti-clericalism arises from, or why there is so much tension surrounding all these things. They simply absorb it.
On his deathbed, Hamilton was desperate to be given last rites and take communion, telling Benjamin Moore, the rector of Trinity Church that, “It has for some time past been the wish of my heart, and it was my intention to take an early opportunity of uniting myself to the church, by the reception of that holy ordinance.” When Moore refused, Hamilton begged another friend, Mason, to administer communion, and when that friend refused because his church did not do private communion, he pressured Moore again (successfully) despite Mason’s assurance that “the Holy Communion is an exhibition and pledge of the mercies which the Son of God has purchased; that the absence of the sign does not exclude from the mercies signified; which were accessible to him by faith in their gracious author.”
Again, there are many explanations, but this is consistent with a man who knows that in some way he has not entirely been a Christian (whether he knows why he feels that way or not).
So there you have it! A comprehensive list of the details I have come across, which taken all together, builds for me a clear and internally consistent picture of a crypto-Jewish family.
A note: I have read a number of scholars asserting that Hamilton had a special lifelong respect for the Jews. I don’t, personally, see any evidence of that. As a young man, he once wrote: “Progress of the Jews from their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one—in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?” Eh, okay, fine. I could do without that particular strain of philosemitism even if you believe it’s meant to be complimentary (although it takes on a different, rather poignant cast if you imagine that Hamilton knew he was part-Jewish).
The other quote most often attributed to Hamilton to support the idea that he “respected Jews” is “Why distrust the evidence of the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion,” which is from the transcript of the Le Guen v. Gouverneur & Kemble trial. Alas, if you read the transcript, this was actually said by his opposing counsel after Hamilton did try to discredit Jewish witnesses using anti-Semitic arguments. You can read Hamilton’s response—basically, that all the good Jews converted to Christianity anyway and are not Jews anymore—here. (Which is no evidence either way about his own Jewish background, sadly.) I would like to believe that this pervasive misquotation started out as an honest mistake and not a whitewashing job.
Another note: If you google Alexander Hamilton and Jewish you come up with a lot of neo-Nazi anti-Semitic international banking conspiracy sites. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t Jewish. The Rothschilds are on those too.