By Yair Hoffman
Alexander Hamilton appears on the ten-dollar bill. There is a Broadway musical about him, as well as bestselling novels. But despite an appearance at Yeshiva University, and despite recent articles in the Jerusalem Post article and Bloomberg News, and despite a Princeton University Press title implying such, Alexander Hamilton was not halachically Jewish, nor was his name “Sender” or “Sendy.”
University of Oklahoma history professor Andrew Porwancher claims in his new book, The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, that Hamilton was probably Jewish.
According to the Princeton University Press book’s blurb, “In The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Porwancher debunks a string of myths about the origins of this founding father to arrive at a startling conclusion: Hamilton, in all likelihood, was born and raised Jewish.”
The blurb continues: “For more than two centuries, his youth in the Caribbean has remained shrouded in mystery. Hamilton himself wanted it that way, and most biographers have simply assumed he had a Christian boyhood. With a detective’s persistence and a historian’s rigor, Porwancher upends that assumption and revolutionizes our understanding of an American icon.”
Notwithstanding the author’s claims, it is pretty clear that there is not a shred of evidence to make a halachic case that Hamilton was Jewish. For that matter, there is no evidence to make a historical case that he was Jewish.
The Professor’s Two Claims
Professor Porwancher’s claims are based upon two arguments.
(1) Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, who was of French Huguenot descent, was previously married to John Lavien before she had a child with James Hamilton. John Lavien’s name sounds Jewish, so he may have been Jewish, since 25% of the people who lived there were Jewish. Since he may have been Jewish, she may have converted to Judaism in order to marry him.
(2) There is evidence that Alexander Hamilton may have attended a Jewish school.
That’s it. Two very spurious pieces of evidence.
The Gemara In Yevamos
The Gemara in Yevamos 46b states that if a person comes forward and states that he is a ger, we would have thought that he (or she) is believed. Talmud lomar, the word “it’cha” in the verse in Vayikra (19:33) comes to teach us that he needs to be muchzak as a Jew. The Gemara concludes that whether in Eretz Yisrael or outside, proof of his Judaism must be brought in order to consider him a Jew.
Rav Betzalel Zolty, zt’l, writes in his responsum that this individual had to have been known to act as an observant Jew for at least 30 days.
Here, however, Hamilton himself had never claimed that he was a Jew and always stated that he was a Christian.
Who was the allegedly Jewish first husband for whom Hamilton’s mother allegedly converted in order to marry? We do know a significant amount about him. Ron Chernow, a historian, did extensive research.
In 1745, at the age of about 28, Lavien met and married Rachel Faucette, who was then 16 years old. Her mother, Mary Uppington Faucette, was British, and her father, John, was a French Huguenot physician who had recently died.
Shortly before the marriage, Rachel had inherited what her son Alexander Hamilton would later call “a snug fortune.” Hamilton characterized Lavien as “a fortune hunter … bedizened with gold” whose expensive clothes caused Rachel’s widowed mother to be “captivated by the glitter” of his flashy appearance and to push Rachel into reluctantly agreeing to what became a “hated marriage.”
Lavien and Rachel had one son, Peter, born in 1746. In 1750, Rachel refused to live with Lavien any longer, an offense for which Lavien had her jailed under Danish law. Peter Lavien, their son and Hamilton’s half-brother, served as an Anglican minister in the United States.
It is quite evident that there is no chazakah. Indeed, most historians who tackled the lineage of Hamilton’s mother’s first husband claim that Lavien came from German descent. Also, if we make the unlikely assumption that Lavien was Jewish, most intermarriages in the 1700s were the other way around—the Jew converted to the other religion. The fact that their son Peter was Christian and decidedly not Jewish would prove this point.
There is another concept in halachah called a “rov”—the notion of following the majority whenever a question arises. It comes from the verse “acharei rabim l’hatos.” Most of the people in the British Indies were not Jewish. Most of those who intermarried in the 1700s went the other way: the couple became Christian. Most people whose children are pastors are not Jewish. So we are fighting against three rovs, at least.
The Jewish School
Where does the second argument come from? Hamilton’s son, John C. Hamilton, wrote in his History of the Republic (Volume 1, page 42) that his father had “mentioned with a smile, his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess, when so small that he was placed standing by her side upon a table.”
Why was Hamilton in such a school in the first place? Firstly, it has been mentioned that since little Alexander Hamilton was not technically legitimate (a gentile mamzer, so to speak, as his mother never divorced Lavien), the Anglican Church did not accept him in their schools. But even if this is not the case, there are playgroups, and on a British West Indies island, it is highly plausible that a Jewish woman could have taken a gentile child into her playgroup.
So what do we see from all of this? It is very clear that both from a halachic and historical perspective, Alexander Hamilton was not Jewish. It is more likely that someone who spent enormous time working on a project and came up with very little to work with still felt compelled to write a book on the topic.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com. Read more of Rabbi Hoffman’s articles at 5TJT.com.