Could Alexander Hamilton be a member of the tribe?

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806, with just a slight embellishment. Original photo: Wikimedia Commons. Photo Illustration: Martin holloway

Ellen Futterman, Editor

With “Hamilton” fever raging in St. Louis now that the hit musical has arrived at the Fox Theatre and is playing (through April 22) to sold-out crowds, you might be interested to know that an academic is making a case that Alexander Hamilton was, in fact, Jewish.

According to Andrew R. Porwancher, various factors starting from Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean (circa 1745) point to a Jewish background. 

“The key to Hamilton’s Jewish origins begins in the Danish-controlled island of St. Croix with his stepfather Johann Michael Levine,” says Porwancher, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches constitutional law. He is also writing a book on the subject for Harvard University Press called, “The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life,” due out in 2019.

Porwancher explains that the name Levine appears under a number of spellings, including Lavien, but these variances all come from the same Hebrew root of Levi in Biblical times. 

“Historians have long discounted the idea that Levine or Lavien was Jewish because he doesn’t appear in the Danish land records or census records as a Jew, which is true,” says Porwancher, who is now on sabbatical and whose research took him to the Caribbean, London and New York, among other places. “What I uncovered is that every other known Jew on the island also appears in these records without being identified as a Jew. The notion that Levine is not Jewish because he isn’t identified in these records is fiction.”

Other information underscores Porwancher’s hypothesis, including the fact that Levine or Lavien and Hamilton’s mother, Rachel, had a child named Peter before Alexander was born. Peter was not baptized, even though that was standard practice for Christian children born on St. Croix. 

“Under Danish law at this time the convention was to disallow Jews and Christians from getting married,” said Porwancher, 33, who grew up a Conservative Jew in Princeton, N.J.  and received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Northwestern and Brown universities, respectively, as well as a Ph.D. from Cambridge. 

“Rachel would have had to convert to Judaism under Danish marriage law, which would also explain why her son Peter wasn’t baptized,” he adds. “And even Hamilton’s own grandson referred to Johann Levine as a ‘rich Danish Jew’ in his biography.”

Eventually Rachel left Levine while still married to him for the island of Nevis, a British colony, where she bears Alexander out of wedlock with James Hamilton. Porwancher deduces that if Rachel converted to Judaism, then Alexander was born Jewish under Jewish law.

“I would go further and suggest that the weight of the evidence indicates that she actually raises Alexander with some kind of Jewish identity,” Porwancher says. “For one, he does not appear on the baptismal records on the island of Nevis where he was born. Some say he couldn’t have been baptized because he was born out of wedlock but if you look at the records you can find many examples of children who were baptized and born out of wedlock.

“Also, she enrolls him in a Jewish school. Twenty-five percent of the free population at this time in Nevis was Jewish. Scholars suggest he must have been sent to the Jewish school because he couldn’t attend a church school since he wasn’t baptized. But again, comments like that don’t square with the historical records. 

“And to my mind it’s strange believability that a Jewish school in this particular time and place would have taken a child unless they considered that child to be one of their own.”

Porwancher notes the purpose of these schools was to cultivate Jewish identity. “This would be a curious place for a Christian child to be educated,” he says, adding that while Hamilton’s ties to Judaism were severed at the age of 13, when his mother died, his connection extended to his life as an adult, both before and after serving as the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States (1789 to 1795). 

“Hamilton in adulthood cultivates closer relationships with American Jewry than any other of the founding fathers,” Porwancher says, pointing to several examples. “He represented a number of Jewish clients, and was the only founding father to do so. He consulted with Jewish merchants to help create the American financial system.” In addition, as an alumnus of Columbia University, Hamilton worked to get Rabbi Gershom Seixas a position on Columbia’s board of trustees; he was the first Jew to hold such a role at an American university. 

“I would not argue that we can say without a shred of doubt that Alexander Hamilton was a Jew,” says Porwancher. “But what I am comfortable saying is that the evidence we do have is more consistent with the theory that he’s Jewish in childhood than the theory that he is Christian.”

Interestingly, Porwancher got the idea for his book before the blockbuster musical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, made its Broadway debut. But the professor jokes that Miranda “created this extraordinary demand for interest in Hamilton’s life. Every Hamilton biographer — and there aren’t many of us — is deeply indebted to Miranda for having made Hamilton America’s favorite founder.”

As to why Hamilton, if he were Jewish, didn’t embrace his Judaism, Porwancher has an explanation for that, too. He says it is unlikely that anyone professing to be a Jew would be named as treasury secretary because of rampant anti-Semitism that migrated from Europe to the New World. By taking on a Christian identity, Hamilton was able to avoid whatever stigmas were attached to Jews.

Nevertheless, says Porwancher, his affection and admiration for Hamilton remains unfettered. 

“He had to overcome circumstances in his childhood that would have debilitated most anyone else,” he says. “His father abandoned him, his mother died suddenly when he was only 13 and he’s denied his inheritance by the court system. He is a penniless and parentless orphan. 

“Almost anyone else dealt his hand in life — with an absentee father, a deceased mother, denied his inheritance by the courts, living on an obscure island in the West Indies — would have resigned himself to a less distinguished life than Hamilton was determined to forge. His accomplishments as an American founder are impressive by any standard but when measured against the handicaps that bedeviled him early in his life, I think his success is really extraordinary.”


PBS film on Greek Jews

The film “Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria,” will air at 7:30 p.m. April 12 on the PBS World Channel. According to press information, the documentary focuses on a Sephardic community in Greece “whose story speaks for all people who have been displaced and wronged by war and discrimination.” The story is set in the idyllic village of Kastoria where Jews and Christians lived in harmony for over two millennia. In October 1940, all this changed after Greece was invaded by Axis forces. Initially occupied by Italy, the Jewish community remained safe — but after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini fell from power, the Nazis took control of the town, dooming the community that had existed since the times of the Roman Empire.