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Monday, July 25, 2011

Alexander Hamilton's Religion

In my studies of the Founding Fathers (particularly their religious beliefs) I have found Alexander Hamilton to be an interesting enigma of sorts. Here was a man, who by all standards, should have never made it into the history books. Having been born on an obscure island to a mother who was essentially a whore and having little education, one would never expect to see Hamilton rise to the heights he achieved. So how did Hamilton achieve such incredible heights? It's actually quite simple: he was a genius.

And when it comes to Hamilton's religious beliefs the story becomes even more intriguing. To be certain, Hamilton was a religious man during the early years of his life. However, it appears that Hamilton's devotion wavered during his middle years only to come alive again at the end.

So what do we make of Hamilton's devotion/lack of devotion to religion?

Ron Chernow, who has written one of the best biographies of Hamilton, states the following on the role that religion played in the life of America's first (and maybe greatest) Secretary of the Treasury:

It is striking how religion preoccupied Hamilton during his final years. When head of the new Army, he had asked Congress to hire a chaplain for each brigade so that his soldiers could worship. Although he had been devout as a young man, praying fiercely at King's College, his religious faith had ebbed during the Revolution. Like other founders and thinkers of the Enlightenment, he was disturbed by religious fanaticism and tended to associate organized religion with superstition. While a member of Washington's military family, he wrote that "there never was any mischief but had a priest or a woman at the bottom." As treasury secretary, he had said, "The world has been scourged with many fanatical sects in religion who, inflamed by a sincere but mistaken zeal, have perpetuated under the idea of serving God the most atrocious crimes."

The atheism of the French Revolution and Jefferson's ostensible embrace of it (Jefferson was a deist who doubted the divinity of Christ, but not an atheist) helped to restore Hamilton's interest in religion. He said indignantly in his 1796 "Phocion" essays, "Mr. Jefferson has been heard to say since his return from France that the men of letters and philosophers he had met with in the country were generally atheists." He thought James Monroe had also been infected by godless philosophers in Paris and pictured the two Virginians dining together to "fraternize and philosophize against the Christian religion and the absurdity of religious worship." For Hamilton, religion formed the basis of all law and morality, and he thought the world would be a hellish place without it.

But did Hamilton believe sincerely in religion, or was it just politically convenient? Like Washington, he never talked about Christ and took refuge in vague references to "providence" or "heaven." He did not seem to attend services with Eliza, who increasingly spoke the language of evangelical Christianity, and did not belong formally to a denomination, even though Eliza rented a pew at Trinity Church. He showed no interest in liturgy, sectarian doctrine, or public prayer. The old discomfort with organized religion had not entirely vanished. On the other hand, Eliza was a woman of such deep piety that she would never have married someone who did not share her faith to some degree. Hamilton believed in a happy afterlife for the virtuous that would offer "far more substantial bliss than can ever be found in this checkered, this ever varying, scene!" He once consoled a friend in terms that left no doubt of his overarching faith in a moral order: "Arraign not the dispensations of Providence. They must be founded in wisdom and goodness. And when they do not suit us, it must be because there is some fault in ourselves which deserves chastisement or because there is a kind intent to correct in us some vice or failing of which perhaps we may not be conscious." How did Hamilton interpret God's lessen after the death of Phillip?

The papers of John Church Hamilton provide fresh evidence of his father's genuine religiosity in later years. He said that Hamilton experienced a resurgence of his youthful fervor, prayed daily, and scribbled many notes in the margin of the family Bible. A lawyer in training, Hamilton wanted logical proofs of religion, not revelation, and amply annotated his copy of A View of the Evidences of Christianity, by William Paley. "I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion," he told one friend, "and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should rather abruptly give my verdict in its favor." To Eliza, he said of Christianity, "I have studied it and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man." John Church Hamilton believed that the time his father spent at the Grange, strolling about the grounds, broadened his religious awareness. During his final months, he was walking with Eliza in the woods and speaking of children when he suddenly turned to her and said in an enraptured voice, "I may yet have twenty years, please God, and and I will one day build for them a chapel in this grove."
(Alexander Hamilton, 659-660)
For the most part, Chernow seems to be in agreement with the general points of history regarding Hamilton's personal faith: he was religious as a youth, became less religious during his middle years -- though never anti-religious -- and renewed his commitment to God/religion at the end of his life. During his middle years, when religion seemed to be of less importance in his life, Chernow argues that Hamilton used religion more as a political tool than anything else. In this way, Hamilton can be likened to some politicians/pastors today, who use religion as a political tool of sorts.

Maybe things don't change as much as we think!

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