On July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton died of wounds sustained in a duel with U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr.
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Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the United States of America – chief of staff to George Washington during the American War of Independence, primary author of the “Federalist Papers,” and first secretary of the treasury, among many other accomplishments. He was not Jewish, but his mother was married to a man who was quite possibly Jewish, and as a child on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he was educated in a Jewish school.
Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755 (or 1757), in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. His mother, Rachel Faucette, was of French Huguenot and British descent (although popular legend on the island suggests that she was partly black), and her common-law partner James A. Hamilton was a Scotsman. Faucette was still married at the time, however, to Johann Michael Lavien, an older man from the nearby island of St. Croix, who is thought to have been a Danish Jew.
Faucette, at the time 16, and Johann Lavien, at least 12 years her senior, were married in Christiansted, the capital of St. Croix, in 1745. Historians have speculated that “Lavien” was a variant of the Jewish name “Levine.” Rachel was educated and attractive, and the heiress to a large fortune, and Lavien was a Danish-born gentleman farmer in search of income to pay off his debts and buy a profitable plantation. Alexander Hamilton later described his mother’s husband as “a fortune hunter … [who] came to Nevis bedizzened with gold and paid his addresses to my mother, then a handsome young woman having a snug fortune.” The result was, in the stepson’s words, “a hated marriage.”
By 1750, Faucette had abandoned her husband. Lavien later described her as having “committed such errors which as between husband and wife were indecent, and very suspicious.” Angry and humiliated, the cuckolded husband asked to have imposed upon his rebellious wife a Danish law that mandated imprisonment on a woman twice found guilty of adultery. Rachel was thrown into the fortress at Christiansted for several months.
When released from prison, Faucette resolved to leave St. Croix altogether. She traveled to St. Kitts island (today St. Kitts and Nevis constitute the island nation of that name), where she met James Hamilton. The two of them set up house in Nevis, where Rachel owned property. There they had two sons, James, Jr., and Alexander. But because Faucette and Lavien had not divorced, both sons were illegitimate. For that reason, Alexander was rejected by the school on the island run by the Church of England. Instead, he was tutored in a private school run by Jewish woman on the island.
Alexander Hamilton’s son later described how, despite the fact that his father “rarely … alluded to his personal history,” he nonetheless “mentioned with a smile his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when so small that he was placed standing by her side on a table.”
Nevis in the mid-18th century had an established Jewish community whose roots went back to the Sephardim who had to leave the Portuguese colony of Brazil after being expelled by the Inquisition in 1654. Many of them were involved in the island’s sugar industry. Historian Michelle Terrell has quoted records from Amsterdam that mention a synagogue in Nevis as early as 1684, and the earliest gravestone found in the island’s Jewish cemetery bears the burial date of 1679. Although historical documents allude to a synagogue, Terrell’s excavations of the presumed site of its structure concluded that the building that stood on the site did not serve that purpose.
James Hamilton later abandoned Rachel Faucette, who died in 1768. Her remaining estate was seized by Lavien in probate court, and Alexander and James, his brother, were left parentless and with little in the way of material support.
Several years later, the community of Christiansted, St. Croix, gathered the funds to send him to the American mainland for an education, and he studied at King’s College in New York, which later became Columbia University.
Through most of his adult life, Hamilton was not an obviously religious man; historian Ron Chernow, who wrote a biography of Hamilton in 2010, describes him as a deist, someone who sees God as standing outside of history. Late in life, however, Hamilton returned to more conventional religious beliefs, and after withdrawing from active politics in 1801, he began to organize the “Christian Constitutional Society,” whose purpose was “support of the Christian religion.”
He admired the Jews, however, recognizing the essential role they played in God’s plan for humanity. He wrote about them that, the “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 is also an extraordinary one – in other words that it is the effect of some great providential plan?”
Hamilton’s death, on July 12, 1804, followed his shooting by Aaron Burr a day earlier. The two men had been rivals for several years, and Hamilton, a politician who had a tendency to indulge in plot and intrigues, had gone to lengths on several occasions to work against Burr’s electoral ambitions. By 1804, Burr was vice president to President Thomas Jefferson, but understood that Jefferson did not intend to support his candidacy for reelection to that position, and so ran for governor of New York. Largely because of Hamilton’s efforts, Burr was defeated in that race. Additionally, word had reached him of some supposed insults expressed about him by Hamilton at a dinner party.
After an exchange of angry letters, the two men arranged to meet in a duel on July 11, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, at the same site where Hamilton’s oldest son, Philip, had died in a duel three years earlier. There are indications that both Burr and Hamilton intended to aim their fire safely away from each other, so that both would emerge from the duel unhurt, but if that was Hamilton’s intention, he did not follow the accepted protocol for indicating it. It is not clear who shot first, but when Burr shot, he hit Hamilton in the abdomen. The wounded Hamilton was brought back to New York City, where he died the following afternoon.