This Day in History: Alexander Hamilton’s humble roots
On this day in 1755, Alexander Hamilton is born. “Few figures in American history,” one of his biographers observes, “have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton.”
Love him or hate him, but one aspect of his life is surely worth admiring: Hamilton resolutely pulled himself out of a childhood marred by scandal and disgrace, and he turned himself into one of our nation’s most influential Founding Fathers.
Maybe you could say that he lived the American dream before there was any such thing?
The circumstances of Hamilton’s birth were not great. He was caught in the midst of an 18th-century soap opera! In later years, Hamilton wouldn’t want to talk about his beginnings too much, calling it a “subject of the most humiliating criticism.”
Hamilton’s father, James, was the younger son of a Scottish laird. He’d made his way to the West Indies, trying to make his fortune. Once there, he met Rachel Faucette Lavien.
Her story was a real doozy!
Rachel was the daughter of a woman who’d left her husband. Mother and daughter lived together in the West Indies until Rachel’s mother made an unfortunate decision. She married Rachel off to an older man, Johann Lavien, thinking that Lavien had money.
Except he didn’t. Neither did Rachel have as much money as Lavien thought. What a mess. Rachel was miserable, and she ran away. When she was caught, Lavien had her thrown in jail. He seemed to think that jail time would make her more compliant. Instead, she became more willful and more determined to leave.
When she got out of jail, she fled. That’s when she met James Hamilton.
The two could not get married because she was still married to Lavien, but they lived together and presented themselves as husband and wife. They had two sons together, including Alexander.
When Hamilton was still young, Lavien finally obtained a divorce from Rachel. The terms of the divorce decree were harsh, and the Hamiltons would continue to avoid Lavien’s home in St. Croix for several years.
That all changed in 1765. James was called there for business reasons, and the Hamiltons had to move. Rachel’s notoriety in St. Croix surely made their lives harder, and James ended up leaving his family. Perhaps the public humiliation was too much to bear? It is hard to tell why he finally left, though.
Rachel found herself alone, running her own store and taking care of her boys. Unfortunately, she fell sick in 1768 and passed away. A cousin took the brothers in—but then he died, too. He’d committed suicide.
Yikes. Alexander and his brother had truly lost everything. They were on their own.
The brother became apprenticed to a carpenter, but Alexander was taken in by a local merchant. Some have speculated that this merchant was Alexander’s REAL father. Either way, Alexander soon caught an even bigger break: In 1772, he penned an account of a hurricane that had hit St. Croix. His writing was impressive, and people could tell that he had literary talent. Several local families decided to contribute toward Alexander’s formal education in America.
Alexander grabbed the opportunity! He attended King’s College in New York, but never formally graduated because war intervened. When the Revolution against Great Britain began, he instead volunteered for a New York artillery unit.
It was the first step on a path that would lead him to great places: trusted aide to George Washington during the war, driving force behind the Constitutional Convention, and America’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
He’d certainly come a long way from his humble roots.
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Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (1982)
Michael E. Newton, Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years (2015)
Letter from Alexander Hamilton to William Jackson (Aug. 26, 1800)
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)