By Michael J. Gerson
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James Hamilton was born in 1718 (H I 6), the fourth of nine sons in this very wealthy, aristocratic family. In those days, the eldest son inherited all the family wealth. There were, however, ways in which wealthy families made certain that all the children in the family had a share of the family wealth. They would, for example, be handed positions of authority in the government or the Church, or arrangements would be made for them to marry into wealthy families. There was no reason to believe that James Hamilton would be treated any differently.
The wealth and family station into which he was born did not prevent James Hamilton from engaging in what was to become a life long pattern of self-defeating behavior. This pattern was already in evidence when, at age 19, James set out for the Leeward Islands to seek his fortune. He arrived on St. Kitts in 1737(H I 6).
Although it was clear that James had broken from his family, there is virtually no information that would allow us to know why, or exactly when. One clue regarding the timing of the break is the fact that the two Hamilton sons were named after Alexander’s father and grandfather. This would seem to indicate that whatever rift came to pass that resulted in the emotional-cutoff between James and his family of origin occurred sometime after Alexander’s birth, and not simply when James left Scotland. Nevertheless, Alexander’s father’s and his family of origin had relationship difficulties that resulted in an “emotional cut-off’. From the time that James was a young man, with two young children, he and his family of origin had no contact with each other.
James’ departure for the Leeward Islands, with no apparent plan or goal, was the first discernible sign of his characteristic pattern of restless movement from place to place. What was not yet clear at this point is that this youngest son of an extremely wealthy family was on a path toward personal isolation and financial ruin.
Alexander’s father’s disconnection from his parents and brothers portended an ominous pattern of interpersonal relationships and emotional cut-offs that was to continue throughout his life. This pattern was highlighted years later when he allowed his two sons to fend for himself, alone and financially bereft at the respective ages of twelve and fourteen. Despite the close relationship he had with Alexander, after he and Rachel separated, and even after her death, he never visited nor did he contact either of his two children. This reinforced Alexander’s feelings of personal insecurity and his emotional beliefs regarding the impermanence and tenuous nature of close personal relationships.
Rachel begins a relationship with James Hamilton
Rachel and James met on either Nevis or St. Kitts (Hendrickson Hamilton I 10-11), and in 1751, began living together (Larson 144). For the next fifteen years, she and James lived on St. Kitts, Nevis, and finally St. Croix. Repeating the pattern of her family of origin, Rachel once again married a man who was considerably older than her. James was about ten years older than Rachel, while her own father had been twenty years older than her mother.
Alexander’s parents lived together without engaging in a formal marriage ceremony. Even had they wanted to get married, there were legal barriers that would have prevented them from so doing, inasmuch as when they first began living together, Rachel was still legally married to John Lavien.
After living together for about two years, James and Rachel had a son. James was born on Nevis in1755. Two years later, on January 11th, 1757, Alexander was born. (Brookheiser 16) James was named after his father and Alexander was named after his paternal grandfather.
Alexander’s parents were strong willed, freethinking, and independent personalities whose views would clash frequently. Alexander was either describing the feelings that his parents might have had, or perhaps he was discussing his own feelings at having to exist in the family tension when he remarked “it’s a dog’s life when two dissonant tempers meet” (qtd. in Flexner 21). The stress and tension that characterized Rachel’s family environment when she was growing up became characteristic as well of her family environment as an adult.
A Ghost from Rachel’s Past Arises: A cruel and public divorce
It was now 1759. Alexander was two years old, and his parents had been living together for eight years. It was ten years after Rachel was sent to prison by her first husband, and ten years after she had run from the emotional terror of this marriage. But family ghosts would not go away. They would arise once again and would affect Alexander’s emotional life in profound ways.
Apparently, John Lavien wanted to marry a woman he had met on St. Croix. To do so, he needed to obtain a divorce from Rachel. Once again, Lavien used the Public Court system to his advantage, initiating divorce proceedings that were guaranteed to humiliate Rachel and her children.
In Public Court, Lavien described how he had previously been forced to have Rachel thrown in jail because she was not a good wife. He stated that his motivation for so doing was to help her to mend her ways. Rather than simply leave her, he stated that he wanted to give her an opportunity to change her behavior and become a good wife. Instead of reforming her ways, he stated, she ran away.
But this was not all. In that era, giving birth to children out of wedlock was considered a grave and shameful act. The Dutch Court referred to such children as “obscene” children. In public forum, for all to hear, he described how Rachel had two “illegitimate” children after she had run away and while she was still married to him. Instead of changing her unholy way of life, she ran away from St. Croix to an English Island. There she begot several whore children; she had shown herself to be shameless, rude, and ungodly, had forgotten her duty, abandoned their child, Peter, and given herself up to whoring with everyone. (qtd. in Hendrickson Hamilton I 9)
Lavien told the Court of the many “terrible” things Rachel did. In describing her reprehensible activities he stated that these “things…are so well known that her own family and friends must hate her for it.” (qtd. in Flexner 25)
Simply obtaining the divorce was not enough for Lavien. He asked the Court to rule that should Rachel die before him, that her “obscene children” should not inherit any of her property, but that it should go to him and his son Peter instead.
Rachel was not present to refute any of Lavien’s charges or even give her point of view. Nevertheless, the Court awarded Lavien the divorce on the basis of the facts that he presented. The Court also ruled in accordance with Lavien’s wishes regarding Rachel’s ultimate will. As Lavien had requested, The Court ruled that, in the event of their mother’s death, Alexander and his brother James were to be excluded from their mother’s will. All proceeds were to go their son Peter, who Rachel had not seen since she left his father. As if this were not enough, the Court also ruled that Rachel was not allowed to marry again, and that she would be subjected to further punishment if she or her two “illegitimate children” ever returned to St. Croix.
St. Croix is a very small island, and all of Lavien’s statements about Rachel and her children were public record. Thus, all the inhabitants of this very small island were privy to the intimate details of John and Rachel’s life together. They were also familiar with Lavien’s lurid portrayal of the details of Rachel’s new life with James Hamilton and their two “obscene” children.
A Peaceful Interlude
Fortunately, Alexander and his brother were too young to be aware of the legal proceedings against their mother. For the next six years, until Alexander was about eight years old, he lived peacefully with his mother, father and brother James on the West Indian Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The tension and stress that had possibly beset the family as a result of the very public divorce proceedings were perhaps behind them. However, in keeping with the Hamilton family pattern, this peaceful existence was not to last.
Returning to St. Croix
James and Rachel had been living together for about fifteen years, when the family serenity was broken. James Hamilton’s job required that he go to St. Croix to collect a debt for his employer. He wanted his family to accompany him, and promised Rachel that they would not have to stay on St. Croix very long. As soon as he completed his business, he said, they could return to St. Eustatius.
But St. Croix was the Island where Lavien obtained his very public divorce from Rachel. This was the Island where his mother was known had been publicly humiliated by her former husband in Court proceedings. It was on this Island that Alexander and his brother were referred to as “obscene children” in Public Court. It was here that his mother had been publicly humiliated and thrown in jail as a bad wife and an adulterer. This was the Island where, the Court ruled that Rachel was not allowed to marry again, and that she would be subjected to further punishment if she or her two “illegitimate children” ever returned to St. Croix.
Surprisingly, Rachel did not summarily dismiss the idea of returning to St. Croix. When she was assured that she would not be arrested if she returned to the Island, she agreed to return to St. Croix with her family. We do not know if she considered what the impact of this move would have on her children.
Brookhiser, Richard, Alexander Hamilton, American. (New York, 1999).
Flexner, James Thomas, The Young Hamilton (New York, 1978).
Hamilton, Alexander Federalist, no.36, 222
Hamilton, Allan McLane, The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton, (New York, 1911).
Hendrickson, Robert, Hamilton I, (New York, 1976).
Hendrickson, Robert, A., The Rise & Fall of Alexander Hamilton, (New York, 1981.)
Larson, Harold, Alexander Hamilton: The Fact and Fiction of His Early Years, William and Mary Quarterly 9 (April 1952), 139-151.
Lehrman, Lewis, E., Alexander Hamilton: precocious & preeminent, The New Criterion, V.17, No.9, (1999), 31-36.
McDonald, Forrest, Alexander Hamilton, (New York, 1979).