A few Christmases ago my family thought it advisable to expand my reading diet. Left to my own devices, the scientific and philosophic are my staples. To wit, Christmas morn, along with the ties and underwear, I was presented with Ron Chernow's 800-plus page biography, Alexander Hamilton (excellent book, by the way).
For various reasons -- some justified, some not -- Hamilton has been eclipsed by Jefferson, Washington, Adams and other more celebrated founding fathers. Yet it was Hamilton who was most responsible for making an infant democracy grow legs and walk. We live in the practical, messy democracy of Hamilton's prose far more than the idealistic democracy of Jefferson's poetry. In his ascent from a wretched childhood, Hamilton's early life followed a plot line worthy of Charles Dickens. In his fall from the political pinnacle and ultimate bitter end, he was Shakespearian in tragedy. His religious journey was more gradual, but no less eventful. At a time when religion's place in the public sphere is being actively and passionately debated, Hamilton's personal beliefs as well as his counsel on religion's role in a democratic society are not only interesting but potentially instructive.
As the illegitimate son of Rachel Fawcett Lavien and (presumably) James Hamilton, Alexander was unwelcomed by the church establishment of colonial Nevis Island of the British West Indies. He was 13 when his mother died and less than three years removed from his father's abandonment. His lifelong estrangement from established religion was solidified when church burial was deemed inappropriate for a "stained" woman such as Rachel. Despite this, young Alexander was religious. Among the male adults who befriended the orphaned boy was Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister. Knox encouraged Hamilton's burgeoning literary skills, which often included religious poems and hymns.
By age 14, ambition and serendipity had conspired to make Alexander the office manager of the import-export firm of Beekman and Cruger on St. Croix Island (might Cruger have been his father?). Impressed with his pluck, island leaders established an education fund for the boy and sent him off to King's College in New York City (now Columbia University). Chapel was, of course, required of all students -- but Alexander had a reputation for personal piety that went beyond protocol. He was said to pray fervently on his knees, morning and night.
It was while he was at King's that the Revolution broke out and the eager Hamilton -- now an officer in the New York militia -- caught the eye of George Washington. Under Washington's tutelage, Hamilton rose militarily, socially and politically. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, it is no stretch to say that while Washington admirably presided over America, Hamilton ably ran the government. Hamilton's relationship with Washington also marks an inflection point in his views on religion.
As the boorish foreigner, Hamilton was never fully accepted into the high-brow world of the founding fathers. His personal piety, no doubt, only accentuated his outsider status. As Washington's military aide-de-camp and later his cabinet consigliere, Hamilton fell comfortably into an appropriate patrician deism, an easy fit with his long standing skepticism toward institutionalized religion. In shaping a fledgling new nation, it was religious fanaticism that Hamilton found most threatening:
"The world has been scourged with many fanatical sects in religion who, inflamed by sincere but mistaken zeal, have perpetuated under the idea of serving God the most atrocious crimes" (Hamilton, unpublished report on "The Cause of France" see Chernow, p. 659).
In place of fanaticism and state-sanctioned religion, Hamilton saw economic gain in a fair and open religious free-market. Manufacturers could be lured to America not only because of cheaper labor, lower taxes and better access to raw materials, but also by America's personal liberties, including not just religious tolerance but "a perfect equality of religious privileges" (from Report on the Subject of Manufacturers Dec. 5, 1791).
Whatever his personal beliefs at this time, publically Hamilton found it expedient to keep cordial (if distant) relations with religious institutions. His wife was genuinely devout and his family rented pews at Trinity Episcopalian Church in New York. Though Hamilton almost never attended, all his children were baptized there and he provided it with free legal services. By burnishing a respectable religious public face, Hamilton clearly distinguished himself from his main political rival, Thomas Jefferson, who was (incorrectly) rumored to be an atheist.
But as the Reign of Terror gripped France, Hamilton's religious views took another profound turn. Jefferson took the Revolution's excesses in stride; but in Hamilton they reawaken a Hobbesian lesson engrained from his hardscrabble upbringing -- man's nature is far more beast than angel. When French secularists renamed Notre Dame "The Temple of Reason" and proceeded to decapitate hundreds weekly in its shadow, Hamilton concluded that reason was as easily appropriated into the fanatic's arsenal as religion. Without suitable restraints, humans -- both in society and individually -- were powerless to resist the entropic charge toward self-destruction. Unreasonable religion was dangerous, but reason unchecked by religious morality was anarchic. In his later years, Chernow concludes, "religion [for Hamilton] formed the basis of all law and morality, and he thought the world would be a hellish place without it" (p. 659).
Hamilton's estrangement from organized religion ended during the dreadful 30-hour deathbed ordeal that followed his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Repeatedly, he petitioned for the final sacraments. Repeatedly, he was rebuffed. Dueling, as he well knew, was a sin. Finally, with death nearing, Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Moore relented, offered Hamilton final communion and final solace.
So which Hamilton -- the pious Christian, the deist, the skeptic, the religious free-marketeer -- would pass judgment on the secular/religious debates of contemporary America? My guess is all of them, for they all coalesce around a consistent Hamiltonian striving: temperance. Hamilton was a revolutionary, but he wasn't a radical. His life taught him the essential virtue of self discipline and moderation (virtues he did not always successfully practice). Reason, religion, government, the free-market -- at their best, they all impose healthy restraints on our self-destructive tendencies. Moreover, when they respectfully jockey amongst themselves in the public forum, they impose healthy restraints on each other. In a democracy, our side is not always supposed to win. And that's a good thing. That's what makes it work, more or less, the way Hamilton intended.