In his hit musical “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda paints Founding Father Alexander Hamilton as the ultimate outsider, the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” who by sheer grit and smarts achieves political greatness, leaving a permanent mark on the American landscape as the architect of its financial system.
But according to at least one Hamilton scholar, the first Secretary of the Treasury and chief author of “The Federalist Papers” was even more of an outsider than previous biographers have noted — he was also a Jew.
Andrew Porwancher, who earned his doctorate at Cambridge University and is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, began researching the religious roots of Hamilton years before Miranda’s celebrated musical hit Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater. The evidence he has found that Hamilton was born and raised as a Jew — at least until the age of 13, when his mother died — is pretty convincing.
Porwancher shared his findings with Pittsburghers on April 9 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, his appearance sponsored by Pitt’s Department of Jewish Studies and History. His upcoming book, “The Jewish Founding Founder: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life,” is expected to be published by Harvard
University Press in 2019.
The support Porwancher has for his thesis is not definitive — he has, for example, no records of Hamilton’s bris or bar mitzvah, assuming they occurred — but it is compelling.
The story begins on the Danish colony of St. Croix, where before Hamilton was born, his mother, Rachel Faucette, married a man named Johann Michael Levine, who sometimes went by the name of Lavien, a Sephardic version of the name Levine. Porwancher is convinced that Levine was Jewish and that Rachel must have converted in order to marry him, as that was the law of Denmark at the time.
“Levine is the quintessential Jewish name,” Porwancher said, and although he is not registered in official Danish records as Jewish, neither are other known prominent Jews who were living on St. Croix at the time. Moreover, Levine was a merchant, which was a “typical profession for Jews.”
Decades later, Hamilton’s own grandson described Levine as “a rich Danish Jew.”
Rachel and Levine had a child, who was not baptized as an infant. They had a troubled marriage, however, with Levine having Rachel imprisoned for “whoredom,” said Porwancher. When she was released, she fled St. Croix for the island of Nevis, a British colony about 150 miles south. It was there — and while she was still married to Levine — that she met the Scotsman James Hamilton, who fathered the future Founding Father out of wedlock.
If Rachel did convert, Porwancher said, then “according to the Talmud, her children are still Jewish.”
He forges relationships with American Jewry that we don’t see with any other Founding Father.
Porwancher has found support for his theory that not only was Hamilton Jewish according to Jewish law, but that he was raised as a Jew. For example, he is not listed in the baptismal records of the island, and — believe it or not — he attended a Jewish day school.
“These are facts known by Hamilton scholars,” Porwancher said, adding that “for external political reasons, it is unlikely that a Jewish school would take in a Christian child.”
When Rachel died in 1768 back in St. Croix, she was not buried in a Christian cemetery, but instead on the grounds of her sister’s home; there was no Jewish cemetery in St. Croix at the time. She kept the last name Levine until her death.
Hamilton maintained a “lifetime of silence on his childhood,” Porwancher said, postulating that he “needed a nominal pretense of a Christian background” in order to advance socially and professionally.
At some point, Hamilton began identifying as a Christian, at least by the age of 17, when he arrived in New York. Still, Hamilton’s connections to the Jewish community continued throughout his life.
“He forges relationships with American Jewry that we don’t see with any other Founding Father,” explained Porwancher, noting that he defended Jewish rights in the courts, and that he put a Jew on the board of Columbia University — the first Jew on the board of any American college.
Moreover, Porwancher noted, Hamilton had “an abiding apathy to Christianity. He never mentioned church and never took communion. He was only nominally
But perhaps most notably, Hamilton spoke out against anti-Semitism.
“That Hamilton was willing to speak out against anti-Semitism even though he did not identify as Jewish in adulthood is arguably just as important as any finding about his Jewish identity in childhood,” Porwancher said. “His story is a reminder that the fight against anti-Semitism in America, which continues in our own day, is not solely a Jewish responsibility but the obligation of all Americans committed to the principle of religious liberty.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.