Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian?
The Troubled Faith of a Disgraced Founding Father
ABSTRACT: Due to his shameful death at the hands of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton is not typically remembered for his religion. But Hamilton appeared to exercise a genuine faith during his lifetime, including in the final hours following the duel. While a number of America’s founding fathers questioned or rejected the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, Hamilton, the grandson of a French Huguenot, remained within the bounds of historic Protestantism and was no stranger to the Bible or the church. Without these broad theological convictions, his immigration to America and his own political achievements likely would not have been possible. Despite his seemingly authentic faith, however, Hamilton was a man between two churches, shaped by both but finding fellowship in neither.
When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton through the liver in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton clung to life for another 31 hours after the duel. Although his illustrious career and ignominious death have not typically been remembered for their piety and devotion, Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.
Hamilton was no stranger to the Bible or the church. As a child on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he was born across the street from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, he attended a small Hebrew school and learned to recite the Decalogue in its original language. At Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey, he wrote commentaries on the books of Genesis and Revelation. At King’s College in New York, he attended chapel and began “the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning.”1 In fact, Hamilton owed his passage to America largely to the Presbyterian church through the patronage of Rev. Hugh Knox, who inspired the teenager to record his thoughts about God and who likely sponsored the subscription fund that sent him to America to be educated.
By the time Burr’s bullet settled in his vertebra and left him withering away in a second-floor Manhattan bedroom, however, Hamilton’s relationship to the church was much less promising. Alexander Hamilton, the West Indian immigrant who became the principal architect of the new American government, was still without a church home. As a result, coupled with the egregious circumstances of his death, he was twice denied communion in his final moments.
Shortly after crossing the Hudson River wounded and being transported to the home of his friend William Bayard, Hamilton called for Rev. Benjamin Moore, the rector of Trinity Church, the Episcopal bishop of New York, and the president of Columbia College. In 1788, the Hamiltons had their three eldest children baptized simultaneously at Trinity Church. Since 1790, when the church was rebuilt after the great fire of 1776, they had rented pew 92. Therefore, to ask Moore to perform last rites was not totally unexpected. On one hand, Hamilton appeared to ascribe some efficacy to the sacraments and wished to be buried at Trinity Church. On the other hand, Hamilton was only nominally Episcopalian.
“Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.”
No amount of legal work he supplied for the church or religious fervor on the part of his wife, Eliza (who was unaware of the duel), could atone for the fact that Hamilton had never actually been baptized an Episcopalian. Hamilton had neither attended Trinity Church regularly nor had he taken communion. Therefore, despite a dying plea from one of the nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton was to Bishop Moore a lawless duelist without access to the Lord’s Table. Moore’s refusal to administer the Lord’s Supper to a non-Episcopalian would only foreshadow the high church theology of the next bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, whose Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (1807) was aimed at the second clergyman who visited Hamilton that day: Rev. John Mitchell Mason.
Although Mason was less exclusivist than the Episcopalians, he likewise was bound by his own theological convictions in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. When Hamilton pleaded with his dear friend to administer communion to him, Mason replied that, even though it gave him “unutterable pain” to decline such a request, “it is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” After Mason explained that the Supper was only a sign of the mercy of Christ that is “accessible to him by faith,” Hamilton responded softly, “I am aware of that. It was only as a sign that I wanted it.”
Alexander Hamilton held to a basic understanding of the gospel, to be sure. Nevertheless, in the face of Hamilton’s shameful and imminent demise, Mason proceeded to quote from a barrage of scriptural texts, including Romans 3:23, Acts 4:12, Hebrews 7:25, Ephesians 1:7, 1 Timothy 1:15, and Isaiah 43:25 and 1:18. When the preacher reminded him “that in the sight of God all men are on a level, as all have sinned, and come short of his glory,” and must take refuge in the righteousness of Christ, Hamilton answered, “I perceive it to be so. I am a sinner: I look to his mercy.” Upon Mason’s insistence that the grace of God was rich, Hamilton interrupted, “Yes, it is rich grace.” Indeed, few presentations of the gospel could have been clearer than the one delivered to Alexander Hamilton on his deathbed. Still, perhaps the most compelling testimony from Rev. Mason is his account of Hamilton’s reaction to Ephesians 1:7. After hearing of the “forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace,” Hamilton finally let go of Mason’s hand, clasped his own hands together, looked up to heaven, and cried, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”2
Hamilton the Christian?
Were these the words of a true believer? At first glance, Hamilton’s confessions appear as if they were uttered in genuine faith. In his final hours, the Major General claimed that the promises of Scripture were his “support.” Years earlier, in a renowned legal case, Hamilton had referred to the Jews in the Old Testament as the “witnesses of [God’s] miracles” who were “charged with the spirit of prophecy.”3 Even though Hamilton was influenced by deism during his lifetime, he was never suspicious of biblical revelation to the degree of Franklin, Jefferson, or Madison.4 Hamilton once confessed that he could prove the truth of the Christian religion “as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”5 His abolitionism and his capacity for lasting friendship set him apart from many of the other founders. His view of human nature, demonstrated best in the Federalist Papers, often bordered on the Puritanical.
However, like Washington (who actually joined the Episcopalian Church), Hamilton was reticent to discuss his Christian faith. Ironically, the man who, to rescue his financial integrity, printed an entire account of his own affair in the first major sex scandal in American history had seemingly less to say about his relationship with Jesus Christ. Episcopal Bishop William White refused to publicly drink a toast to Hamilton due to his indiscretions with Maria Reynolds, and evangelicals today have also been reluctant to honor an adulterer.6 Although he had once opposed dueling “on the principles of religion” and seemed not to intend to actually kill Burr, a duelist he was nonetheless.7
“Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes.”
As many scholars have noted, Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes. By examining the complexity of Hamilton’s faith, Christians today are confronted with the conflict that inevitably arises when the authority of the local church is subordinated to personal ambition and when the teenage fire of Christian zeal is slowly cooled by professional aspirations and the desires of the world. In such a relatively brief life, one encounters the danger of building earthly kingdoms without seeking first the kingdom of God, the grace and encouragement of a believing spouse, and the fleeting nature of even the most astonishing career. In order to better understand Hamilton’s theology, his aversion to church membership, and his own Christian practice, the best place to begin is on the small Caribbean island from which he came.
Grandson of a French Huguenot
As a boy, Alexander Hamilton was raised in a religious, albeit savage and precarious, world. His mother’s store in St. Croix was next to St. John’s Anglican Church on Company’s Lane. The Hebrew school in which he was instructed left him with a lifelong affection for the Jewish people. In fact, Protestantism was the very reason that Hamilton’s family had arrived in the West Indies. In a letter to William Jackson in 1800, in which he fumed over criticisms of his ignoble birth, Hamilton wrote, “My Grandfather by the mothers side of the name of Faucette was a French Huguenot who emigrated to the West Indies in consequence of the Edict of Nantz and settled in the Island of Nevis and there acquired a pretty fortune. I have been assured by persons who knew him that he was a man of letters and much of a gentleman.”8
Huguenots were Protestants in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who held to the teachings of John Calvin, a French-born theologian in Geneva. While the Edict of Nantz in 1598 granted religious toleration to Protestants for the sake of civil unity, the French Reformed Church would endure severe persecution when the Edict was revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV.9 The result was a Huguenot diaspora throughout the western world, including the West Indies. John Faucette had arrived at the shores of Nevis as a French immigrant seeking religious freedom from the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, his grandson would carry an aversion to popery all of his life.
Indeed, Hamilton may very well have thought of his grandfather when he denounced the Quebec Act of 1774, a measure that extended the border of Quebec to the Ohio River and guaranteed full religious liberty to French-Canadian Catholics. In A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, Hamilton opined, “The affair of Canada, if possible, is still worse. The English laws have been superseded by the French laws. The Romish faith is made the established religion of the land, and his Majesty is placed at the head of it. The free exercise of the protestant faith depends upon the pleasure of the Governor and Council.” He then asked, “Does not your blood run cold, to think an English parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and popery in such an extensive country?”10
Shown by his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette and his proficiency in the French language, Hamilton never lost touch with his French heritage. But an abiding hostility toward Catholicism and French “infidelity” always remained. In a letter to Edward Carrington in 1792, Hamilton warned that Thomas Jefferson had “drank deeply of the French philosophy, in Religion, in Science, in politics.”11 Although the rationality of deism appealed greatly to Hamilton, he never strayed from a Protestant outlook of world events. He was, after all, also the grandson of a Scottish laird on his father’s side.
Nevertheless, despite his rich family heritage, there was also a darker side to the religious world he inhabited. As the illegitimate son of a bankrupt merchant, Hamilton was likely barred from being instructed at an Anglican school.12 In addition to the many losses and rejections that he and his brother James suffered at a young age, this would certainly have influenced his religious consciousness. Alexander Hamilton was, in some sense, disinherited by his own family and by the church. As Ron Chernow observes, “As a divorced woman with two children conceived out of wedlock, Rachel was likely denied a burial at nearby St. John’s Anglican Church. This may help to explain a mystifying ambivalence that Hamilton always felt about regular church attendance, despite a pronounced religious bent.”13
Hamilton’s affiliation with the church thus became not unlike his own American citizenship, being at once insider and outsider. The hierarchical West Indian system that bred in him a hatred of slavery and an indomitable ambition may also have fostered a rather conflicted view of the church. Hamilton, the architect of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s first banking system, was a believer in institutions. Yet as demonstrated in his last moments, he also had difficulty submitting himself to that very authority.
Under a Sovereign God
Hamilton’s life changed when he met Rev. Hugh Knox. Ordained by Princeton president Aaron Burr, the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards and the father of the man who killed Hamilton, Knox believed that illegitimate children should be baptized. His combination of evangelical Calvinism and intellectualism attracted young Hamilton to the things of God. Soon after the Presbyterian minister arrived in St. Croix in 1771, Hamilton began regularly attending his revival services and reading from his extensive library (Knox graduated from Yale in 1751). According to one historian, “At seventeen Alexander Hamilton may have undergone a powerful religious conversion. At least that is the impression he gave that spring, as the Great Awakening swooped down on St. Croix.”14
Although Hamilton probably read sermons and devotional tracts from his mother’s book collection as a child, this was the first time he thought freely and deeply about the Bible, consuming bound sermons from his mentor’s library. Knox even inspired his young protégé to compose his own religious epistle! After a hurricane demolished St. Croix in 1772, Knox delivered a sermon to his congregation to lift their minds and hearts heavenward. Eventually published in a pamphlet, the sermon seemed to have a profound effect upon Hamilton, who wrote a graphic letter to his father describing the ferocity of the storm and drawing from Knox’s themes. After showing the letter to Knox, the minister persuaded him to publish it in the Royal Danish American Gazette. The letter illustrates that, even as a teenager, Hamilton believed in a Creator who intervened powerfully and personally in his creation. He wrote,
See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken — in Omnipotence I trusted. . . . He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage — even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed — and his perfections have I adored.15
After recounting the horror of the hurricane to his father, Hamilton added, “But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer.” The themes of judgment, mercy, and human dependence in the letter reflected Hamilton’s belief in an all-controlling God who ordered the cosmos and who ultimately could be trusted in an unstable and cruel island world. Remarkably, Hamilton’s letter about God’s providence became his ticket to America when a number of benefactors read the piece and began a fund to send the young man north to be educated.
Before leaving, Hamilton almost certainly penned an unsigned hymn that his future wife, Eliza, would cherish for decades after his death as an example of his Christian piety. Published in the Gazette on October 17, 1772, as an imitation of Alexander Pope’s “The Dying Christian to His Soul,” it reads,
Hark! hark! a voice from yonder sky,
Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,
Come gentle spirit come away,
Come to thy Lord without delay;
For thee the gates of bliss unbar’d
Thy constant virtue to reward
I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,
On rapid wings I cleave the sky;
Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;
For oh! I long to gain that height,
Where all celestial beings sing
Eternal praises to their King.
O Lamb of God! thrice gracious Lord
Now, now I feel how true thy word;
Translated to this happy place,
This blessed vision of thy face;
My soul shall all thy steps attend
In songs of triumph without end.16
While Alexander Hamilton did not frequently express his thoughts about Jesus Christ, he was, at times during his youth, capable of eloquent meditations on the Son of God. After arriving in America, he continued his religious instruction and even developed spiritual disciplines. But the Revolution and his own personal ambition made it difficult for him to settle upon one denomination.
Between Two Churches
By the time Hamilton disembarked in Boston in 1772, the political frenzy in the colonies had already begun to erupt in the churches. At Elizabethtown Academy, Hamilton studied under Presbyterian teachers who would later serve under his command, including headmaster Francis Barber. Hamilton listened to three-hour sermons on Sundays next to men possessed by the spirit of liberty. As a training ground for Princeton (the College of New Jersey), Elizabethtown introduced Hamilton to Presbyterian orthodoxy and patriotism. In some ways, he was being catechized in the Westminster Confession and in republicanism. After all, Princeton’s president John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and the first clergyman at the Continental Congress.
On one hand, its combination of evangelical Calvinism and Whig principles made Princeton the logical choice for a college education. Hamilton was accepted at 18 years old after passing Witherspoon’s examination. On the other hand, Hamilton’s insatiable drive to achieve was greater than his desire to ground himself in the Presbyterian faith. As a result, when Witherspoon denied his bold request to complete his schooling in three years instead of four, Hamilton looked to New York — to the Church of England.
As he would later prove in his writings, Hamilton’s departure from Princeton was not a sign of any Tory sympathies (although he often feared the rising mob mentality in the colonies). However, upon his passing an examination into Princeton by one of the most anti-Episcopal figures in America, that Hamilton then chose to attend King’s College in New York City, a bastion of Anglicanism and loyalism in the colonies, is perhaps the clearest sign that Hamilton’s affiliation to the church was only as strong as his professional aspirations.
“Hamilton was a man between two churches.”
Still a teenager, Hamilton was no more loyal to the Church of England than the Church of England had been to his family as a child. The only difference was that Hamilton, the illegitimate son from Nevis, was now in seeming control of his political destiny and itching to receive his education from the fastest bidder. While this apparently did not hinder his personal Christian devotion, it certainly did not strengthen his ties to the local church. Indeed, Hamilton was a man between two churches. A Presbyterian from Princeton had helped thrust him to America, and yet another inadvertently forced him to Manhattan to study under Anglican Myles Cooper, one of the most outspoken loyalists in the colonies.
Nevertheless, Hamilton’s ecclesiastical turnabout did not hinder his efforts to develop his own spiritual disciplines. At King’s College, his roommate Robert Troup recalled,
Whilst at college, [he] was attentive to public worship and in the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning. I have lived in the same room with him for sometime and I have often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of his prayers. [He] had [already] read most of the polemical writers on religious subjects and he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.17
Although Troup may have been guilty of a bit of hero worship, Hamilton did attend chapel services routinely and exhibited an interest in theological study. As to his reading of polemical works, these may have led Hamilton to lean in the direction of deism as the war began, as the Anglican church was defined by a vehement anti-Calvinism and extreme rationalism in the late colonial and early national periods.18 Although, for example, Hamilton mocked Anglican leaders like Samuel Seabury for their loyalty to Parliament, he did not repudiate Anglican theology to the same degree.
As the war progressed and nation-building ensued, due to his political genius and military skill, Hamilton’s writings naturally adopted a much more civil and diplomatic turn. Hamilton’s references to the divine became vaguer and less Christian. The language of a “divinely authoritative Religion,” “the will of heaven,” and “an over-ruling Providence” far outweighed any allusions to Scripture or any kind of theological discourse, indicating that Hamilton may have slowly traded the Christ-centered, born-again religion of his youth for the lawful, reasonable deism of the age (or something we might call Christian rationalism).19
Still, there is no evidence to support the idea that Hamilton rejected the deity of Christ or that he questioned God’s miraculous intervention in the world. To simply label Hamilton a “deist” or a “rationalist” does not adequately describe his own theology during this stage of his life. To begin, more so than Jefferson, Hamilton believed that the French Revolution was opposed to “friends of religion.”20 Like Washington, he believed that we “flatter ourselves that morality can be separated from religion.”21 In other words, natural law is grounded in the eternal, revealed law of God. In the early years of the republic, Hamilton proposed a “day of humiliation and prayer” for the nation.22 In his doctrine of divine providence, Hamilton still remained the same young man who had prayed for the hurricane to cease on the island of St. Croix. Faith was about more than knowledge or reason. As Secretary of the Treasury, he noted to George Washington “the conflict between Reason & Passion,” a tension that many of his deist or Unitarian colleagues might not have admitted so easily.23 Although the Federalist Papers never mention God explicitly, Hamilton sounded like a New Light evangelical in his opening essay: “In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”24 Political liberty and religious liberty were inseparable in Hamilton’s mind, and he affirmed a real boundary between orthodoxy and “heresies.”
As he slowly passed from the earth, Hamilton once again found himself between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, begging each for the bread and the cup from the Lord’s Table. But Hamilton’s end was much like his life, confessing the faith once delivered to the saints while finding no real home in the communion of believers.
As scholars have noted, perhaps the most compelling evidence to the authenticity of Hamilton’s faith is his marriage to Eliza, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. An active member in the Dutch Reformed Church, Eliza worshiped her Lord and sought to obey his commands with such heartfelt sincerity that Washington’s staff was somewhat surprised when Hamilton chose to marry her.25 After all, Hamilton had written to a friend in 1779 about his ideal wife: “As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint.”26 In Eliza he found no moderate believer, and their wedding in 1780 was in traditional Dutch Reformed custom.
If Alexander Hamilton was an unbeliever, he was indeed “made holy because of his wife,” as her influence upon his soul became evident in his waning moments (1 Corinthians 7:14). Upon rushing into the second-floor room and discovering that her husband was dying (not suffering from “spasms,” as originally she had been told), the frantic Eliza was consoled not by Hamilton the soldier or Hamilton the founding father or Hamilton the financial genius, but by someone who appeared to know the weight of sin and the hope of Christ: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.”27
John C. Hamilton, The Life of Alexander Hamilton (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1840), 1:10. ↩
J.M. Mason, An Oration, Commemorative of the Late Major-General Alexander Hamilton (London: R. Edwards, 1804), 33–36. ↩
John C. Hamilton, Life of Alexander Hamilton (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), 7:710. ↩
Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 205. ↩
Hamilton, Life of Alexander Hamilton, 7:790. ↩
Willard Sterne Randall, Alexander Hamilton: A Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 421. ↩
Alexander Hamilton, “To William Gordon, September 5, 1779,” in Alexander Hamilton: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 63. ↩
Hamilton, “To William Jackson, August 26, 1800,” in Writings, 930. ↩
As Carter Lindberg notes, “The first evangelical congregations in France were called Huguenot, but the French Calvinists preferred the term Reformes, the Reformed.” Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed. (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 267. ↩
Alexander Hamilton, A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, in Alexander Hamilton: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 33–34. ↩
Hamilton, “To Edwards Carrington, May 26, 1792,” in Writings, 746. ↩
Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 17. ↩
Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 25. ↩
Randall, Alexander Hamilton, 35. ↩
Hamilton, “Account of a Hurricane, to The Royal Danish American Gazette, September 6, 1772,” in Writings, 7. ↩
Royal Danish American Gazette, February 3, 1773. This is not the full hymn. ↩
Hamilton, The Life of Alexander Hamilton, 1:10. Troup also adds, “I confess, that the arguments with which he was accustomed to justify his belief, have tended in no small degree to confirm my own faith in revealed religion.” ↩
Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision / American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 15–16. ↩
Hamilton, “To George Washington, July 30, 1796,” in Writings, 863; Hamilton, “To Martha Washington, January 12, 1800,” in Writings, 922; Hamilton, “Purchase of Louisiana, July 5, 1803,” in Writings, 997. ↩
Hamilton, “Draft of a Defense of the Neutrality Proclamation, c. May 1793,” in Writings, 796. ↩
Hamilton, “To George Washington, July 30, 1796,” in Writings, 863. ↩
Hamilton, “To William Loughton Smith, April 10, 1797,” in Writings, 879. ↩
Hamilton, “To George Washington, April 14, 1794,” in Writings, 812. ↩
Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 1, in The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Robert Scigliano (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 5. ↩
For an examination of Dutch religion in the Middle Colonies during the colonial period, see Randall H. Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). ↩
Hamilton, “To John Laurens, c. April 1779,” in Writings, 60. ↩
Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 706. ↩