BOOK REVIEW: The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton by Andrew Porwancher (Princeton University Press, 2021).
While Alexander Hamilton has attracted his fair share of attention over the past few years, most studies of the Founding Father focus on his life once he reaches America, his role in the Revolution, and his efforts in the early national period. Certain facts about his childhood in the West Indies are mentioned as a matter of course, but Hamilton’s early years are shrouded in mystery—most likely with plenty of help from Hamilton himself to conceal it. Andrew Porwancher’s The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton seeks to flesh out the details of Hamilton’s upbringing and the ways in which it influenced his sentiments and actions after he arrived in America. Porwancher contends that Hamilton was raised Jewish and further asserts that his Jewish childhood influenced his affinity and support for Jews in America. As a result of this alliance, Hamilton championed equality for a people that most of the founders held in contempt.
Porwancher is careful to point out that the book is not attempting to attribute the adult Hamilton’s respect for Judaism as further proof of his childhood Jewish identity. The author does, however, point to some key areas in which evidence of the young Hamilton’s life has been misused or taken out of context, which in turn has led scholars to dismiss claims of Hamilton’s Jewish upbringing. While much of the scholarship that exists on Hamilton contains only sketches of his childhood, Porwancher craftily pieces together evidence and places it within context to demonstrate that scholars have misinterpreted the scant available resources that suggest a Jewish upbringing. Porwancher traces the life of his mother, Rachel, and argues that she not only converted to Judaism upon marriage, but she also maintained her Jewish identity even after her divorce.
To support Rachel’s continued identification as a Jew and raising of her children as Jewish, Porwancher points to evidence such as census records and Hamilton’s schooling. Other scholars have denied Rachel’s continuing identification as a Jew by the absence of the specific label in records, but as Porwancher asserts, this line of argument crumbles when placed in the context of how Jews were recorded in St. Croix’s Danish records. Using six known Jews as an example, Porwancher finds that they appear in land registers and census lists ninety-eight times and yet are not noted as Jews ninety-seven times (page 19). Furthermore, Porwancher argues that it is unlikely that a Jewish school would have educated Hamilton if he were not recognized as a Jew (p. 32). While there may not be a direct statement that Rachel or Alexander were publicly considered part of the Jewish community, absence of evidence and appropriate use of context at the very least suggests that it cannot be discounted.
Hamilton’s first public declaration of Christianity occurred in a 1771 court case and he never claimed Jewish identity in any form after arriving in America. However, as Porwancher points out, even aside from childhood Jewish ties, Hamilton shared a number of commonalities with New York’s Jewish community, including immigrant status as well as an attraction to urban centers (p. 59). Porwancher further contends that Hamilton’s early ties to Judaism explain why Hamilton expressed an appreciation for the Jewish faith and advocated on their behalf, in contrast to many of Hamilton’s openly antisemitic contemporaries. As Porwancher chronologically proceeds through Hamilton’s life, readers learn of the continuing ties Hamilton had with the Jewish community, including representing Jews in court and including several Jews as key players in his plan to develop the United States as a commercial power.
Porwancher compares Hamilton’s words and actions to those of his contemporaries and finds a stark contrast in the way in which other founders regarded Jews and Hamilton’s own behavior towards Jews. While other founding fathers consistently derided the Jewish community, Hamilton is unique in his absence of antisemitic statements. As Porwancher notes, the regularity with which others expressed antisemitism makes the words Hamilton did not speak almost as noteworthy as those he did (105). The only other founder who showed generosity and acceptance towards Jews was George Washington, who in his Newport Letter exulted religious liberty and cemented for the Jewish community their liberty to practice their faith. Porwancher attributes this statement of acceptance to Hamilton’s own views and asserts that Hamilton is the only person in Washington’s immediate orbit with strong ties to Judaism (145).
Overall, The Jewish World of AlexanderHamilton is an enjoyable read that sheds light on yet another facet of Hamilton’s persona. Despite the attention that Hamilton has attracted in recent years, his ties to Judaism have remained largely hidden and forgotten. Porwancher attributes this to Hamilton’s own efforts to conceal his past as well as the benefits of maintaining a Christian identity while serving publicly in an antisemitic country. The book counters several assumptions about Hamilton, including that he was an aristocrat who disdained the periphery. As Porwancher tells the story of Hamilton’s interactions with the Jewish community and his advocacy of the oft-discriminated against population, readers are not only enlightened to another facet of Hamilton’s life, but are additionally provided with an illuminating history of Jews in the Revolution and early national period.