I am reading Ron Chernow’s remarkable biography of Alexander Hamilton, and am awestruck by what AH endured in his early life to become one of America’s founding fathers. It is both a tribute to Hamilton and to America that his rise was even possible. What is shocking is not that he died in a duel at age 49 but that he accomplished as much as he did in a relatively short life. Raised as an orphan, he married well, gained social status by joining the prominent Schuyler family, maintained the loyalty of his wife Eliza and his in-laws despite at least one very famous affair, if not many indiscretions, and after he died she spent the rest of her life tending to his legacy and working with orphans. The other founders — Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe — lived to be old men. Hamilton did not. He may indeed be the most interesting founder.
Chernow tallies “the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys (Alexander and his brother James) between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had all died. James, sixteen, and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless topsy-turvy existence, they had been surrounded by failed, broken, embittered people. Their short lives had been shadowed by a stupefying sequence of bankruptcies, marital separations, deaths, scandals, and disinheritance. Such repeated shocks must have stripped Alexander Hamilton of any sense that life was fair, that he existed in a benign universe, or that he could ever count on help from anyone. That this abominable childhood produced such a strong, productive, self-reliant human being—that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up a founding father of a country he had not yet even seen—seems little short of miraculous. Because he maintained perfect silence about his unspeakable past, never exploiting it to puff his later success, it was impossible for his contemporaries to comprehend the exceptional nature of his personal triumph. What we know of Hamilton’s childhood has been learned almost entirely during the past century…”
“What a world of scarred emotion and secret grief Alexander Hamilton bore with him on the boat to Boston. He took his unhappy boyhood, tucked it away in a mental closet, and never opened the door again. Beside the horrid memories, this young dynamo simply was not cut out for the drowsy, slow-paced life of slave owners on a tropical island, and he never evinced the least nostalgia for his West Indian boyhood or voiced any desire to return. He wrote two years later, “Men are generally too much attached to their native countries to leave it and dissolve all their connexions, unless they are driven to it by necessity.” He chose a psychological strategy adopted by many orphans and immigrants: he decided to cut himself off from his past and forge a new identity. He would find a home where he would be accepted for what he did, not for who he was, and where he would no longer labor in the shadow of illegitimacy. His relentless drive, his wretched feelings of shame and degradation, and his precocious self-sufficiency combined to produce a young man with an insatiable craving for success. As a student of history, he knew the mutability of human fortune and later observed,
“The changes in the human condition are uncertain and frequent. Many, on whom fortune has bestowed her favours, may trace their family to a more unprosperous station; and many who are now in obscurity, may look back upon the affluence and exalted rank of their ancestors.” He would be the former, his father no less unmistakably the latter.”
And yet, despite this upbringing that might lead many young people to despair, to curse or disbelieve in a higher power, he was religious. One of his early influences or mentors in the Caribbean was a Presbyterian minister named Hugh Knox, born in Northern Ireland of Scottish ancestry, who migrated to America and became a schoolteacher in Delaware. He studied divinity at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) under its president, Aaron Burr, the father of the man who would become Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis. “It is almost certain from Knox’s lips that Alexander Hamilton first heard the name of Aaron Burr,” Chernow wrote.
Ordained by Burr, Knox moved to the Caribbean to propagate the gospel. He was an erudite young man with a classical education, humane and tolerant, supportive of American independence, and opposed to slavery, though he owned some slaves. When he became pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church in St. Croix, he took the orphan Hamilton under his wing, encouraged him to write and read, threw open his library to Hamilton. Knox was instrumental in helping Hamilton develop a pronounced religious bent.
Others who provided grace for the orphaned Alexander Hamilton included the family of a Scottish merchant named Thomas Stevens. He became AH’s adoptive father, and his son Edward Stevens (1752-1834), became AH’s dearest, earliest and best friend, later a prominent physician and diplomat.
Hamilton, as a 17-year-old self-educated clerk, wrote a precocious account of a hurricane that devastated St. Croix that was published in a local newspaper, due to Knox’s encouragement. “In a calm unruffled temper,” island residents might attribute a natural cause to the disaster. But after experiencing its fury, young Hamilton in his imagination attributed the hurricane to “the correction of the Deity…an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants,” for enslaving fellow humans, blind to the travails of widows and orphans.
Knox was also instrumental in raising money for a scholarship to send Hamilton to the mainland to college, first to apply at Princeton and then ultimately to matriculate at King’s College, which later became Columbia University in New York City.