According to generations of biographers, Alexander Hamilton, the Revolutionary War hero, first US Secretary of the Treasury, and co-author of The Federalist Papers, was a Christian. Now, University of Oklahoma Professor Andrew Porwancher is questioning that assessment. He explained his fascinating research in an exclusive interview.

According to Prof. Porwancher, several elements of Hamilton’s early life seem to indicate a Jewish connection.

Hamilton was born in 1755 (there is some disagreement about the exact year) in the Caribbean island of St. Croix, then a Danish possession. Hamilton’s mother was named Rachel Faucette, and in 1745 she married a Danish trader named Johann Michael Lavien. (Lavien wasn’t Alexander Hamilton’s father. Rachel and Michael Lavien had a deeply unhappy marriage and soon separated; Rachel later lived with a Scottish nobleman, who was Hamilton’s father.)

Prof. Andrew Porwancher

It’s possible that the Laviens were Jewish. Lavien is a variant spelling of Levine, the Jewish surname derived from the priestly tribe of Levi in Biblical times. “The name Lavien can be a Sephardic variant of Levine” notes Ron Chernow, in his biography Alexander Hamilton, on which the hit musical Hamilton was based. But Chernow notes that “if he was Jewish he managed to conceal his origins. Had (Michael Lavien) presented himself as a Jew,” he wouldn’t have been accepted into St. Croix society.

For generations, Hamilton scholars seem to have dismissed the idea that Michael Lavien and possibly his bride Rachel were Jews. Prof. Porwancher learned Danish in order to read the original St. Croix documents relating to Hamilton’s family for himself. This was no easy task; time and hurricanes, as well as insects, have degraded many official papers through the years. Tracking down other documents required research in a number of other languages too, including Dutch, Portuguese and Hebrew.

Several points began to convince Prof. Porwancher to re-think conventional wisdom that Hamilton could not possibly have been a Jew. Many historians base their assertion that Michael Lavien wasn’t Jewish on the fact that official documents don’t identify him as such. Yet Prof. Porwancher found that no other Jews living in St. Croix at the time were identified by their religion in official documents either. It’s entirely possible that Lavien was Jewish and this fact was not officially noted.

Moreover, marriage between Christians and Jews was forbidden in St. Croix in 1745, when Hamilton’s mother married Lavien. (It was only in 1798, Prof. Porwancher found, that Denmark’s King authorized the first marriage between a Christian and a Jew.) It seems that if Hamilton’s mother Rachel did indeed marry a Jew, it might have been the law in St. Croix at the time that she first convert to Judaism.

When Hamilton was a child, he, his parents and his brother moved to the nearby island of Nevis. There, incredibly, Hamilton attended a Jewish school. “The Caribbean was the center of the Jewish world in the Western Hemisphere” at the time, Prof. Porwancher explains, and Nevis was then 25% Jewish. In Nevis, Prof. Porwancher even retraced the route Hamilton would have taken from his mother’s house to his Jewish school, wending his way through what once was the island’s Jewish quarter; the trip took a mere six minutes.

Alexander Hamilton’s son wrote that his father looked back on his years in Jewish school with pleasure: “Rarely as he alluded to his personal history, he mentioned with a smile his having been taught to repeat the Decalogue (10 Commandments) in Hebrew, at the school of a Jewess.”

Historians have long dismissed this evidence of a possible Jewish connection for Hamilton by noting that his illegitimate birth would have made it impossible for Alexander Hamilton to be baptized, and therefore barred him from attending a Christian school. Jewish school would have been Hamilton’s only option, they say. Yet here too Prof. Porwancher has found documents that question this entrenched belief. Perusing Nevis parish records, Prof. Porwancher found many examples of children born out of wedlock who were baptized at the time. He also found that Rachel Lavien, who died in 1768, was not buried in a Christian cemetery.

“My mother has a saying when something doesn’t quite add up,” Prof. Porwancher chuckles, “that dog don’t hunt.” As he researched Alexander Hamilton, Prof. Porwancher found himself thinking of that saying. “If, as generations of historians would have it, Hamilton was not Jewish, he’d be the only person whose mother was named Rachel Levine (a variant spelling), who went to Hebrew school, and who wasn’t Jewish.” The more Prof. Porwancher read, the more he felt “to my mind, the weight of evidence pointed to a strong Jewish connection.”

When Hamilton moved to the United States, his connections with the new country’s tiny Jewish population only deepened.

As a lawyer in New York, Hamilton took on a large number of Jewish clients, the only founding father to do so.

In fact, one of the most important cases of his career saw Hamilton defending a French Jewish merchant, Louis Le Guen, in a New York court in 1800. As the case progressed, Louis Le Guen’s opponent’s lawyers resorted to crude anti-Semitism, accusing the Jewish merchant of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes of being dishonest and lying under oath. Hamilton not only defended his client, he issued an eloquent defense of Jews in general: “Why distrust the evidence of the Jews?” Hamilton passionately told the court. Jews “once were...under the immediate government of God himself, and they were selected as the witnesses of His miracles and charged with the spirit of prophecy”. Hamilton won that case, in what was at the time the largest award in American history.

Hamilton also had personal and professional ties to Jews. His children also had Jewish friends, which Prof. Porwancher notes “might be the best test of how accepting one is of Jews.” And Hamilton worked tirelessly to eradicate anti-Semitism in public spaces.

Hamilton graduated from King’s College in New York, which was renamed Columbia after the Revolution. In 1781, Hamilton worked with his friend John Jay to rewrite the university’s charter. One unique change the pair made was eliminating the requirement that the school’s president be Christian. This was a highly unusual step at the time: other Colonial-era schools such as Brown and Rutgers maintained that their presidents had to be Christian well into the 20th Century.

Six months after amending Columbia’s charter, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, along with James Madison, embarked on another project: writing The Federalist Papers, setting forth their visions for the United States Government. Less well-known in modern times is the name of another collaborator who worked with Hamilton to rewrite Columbia’s charter: Gershom Seixas.

Seixas was the chazan (cantor) at the New York synagogue Sheareth Israel, and the first Jew to sit on the board of an institution of higher learning in the United States. (In fact, at Columbia, there wouldn’t be another Jew on the board until Benjamin Cardozo, the US Supreme Court Justice and descendant of Gershom Seixas, joined.) Hamilton and Seixas served on Columbia’s board together for over two decades, and Seixas became one of the most prominent Jewish supporters of Hamilton’s federalist cause.

Later, when George Washington penned his famous “Letter to the Jews of Newport”, promising American Jews that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” and memorably promises “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”, Hamilton seems to have had some role in helping Washington draft the letter. It was delivered to Moses Seixas, the brother of Hamilton’s old friend Gershom Seixas in New York.

Thanks to Hamilton’s guidance, the new US Federal Government, unlike most of the state governments at the time, staunchly opposed anti-Semitism and banned religious tests for political leaders. The early years of the US saw a resurgence of anti-Semitism in much of America, and the new nations Jews were increasingly drawn to Hamilton’s and the other Federalists’ vision of a strong central government. In the case of Hamilton, this support seemed to go both ways, with Hamilton taking extraordinary steps to make sure Jews felt welcome in the new United States.

Hamilton is the only founding father to attend Hebrew school.

In one notable case, that meant rescheduling a major political event. When the new US Constitution was being ratified by the states in 1788, Hamilton led the movement to promote ratification in New York. This was the total of his life’s work, and he threw everything he had into the cause. In July of that year, Hamilton and others arranged a parade to promote the constitution. Through his Jewish contacts, the parade organizers found that the parade conflicted with a Jewish fast day: the 17th of Tammuz. Even though Jews were less than 1% of the New York population at the time, the parade was rescheduled for the following day.

For Prof. Porwancher, these extensive ties with Jews set Hamilton apart from the other founding fathers. Although Hamilton married a pious Christian woman, Prof. Porwancher, notes, he never joined a church or took communion. And many of the religious Christian sayings attributed to Hamilton are not found anywhere in Hamilton’s writings. “Hamilton is the only founding father to attend Hebrew school, and he was the most enmeshed in the Jewish community of any founder,” Prof. Porwancher observes.

Prof. Andrew Porwancher’s book The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life is being published by Harvard University Press in 2019.