(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

The circumstances of Alexander Hamilton's birth portended at best an indifferent future. According to his own testimony, he was born on Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. Previous biographers have suggested St. Kitts as his birthplace. The year 1757 is generally accepted because Hamilton and his family claimed it, though author Ron Chernow offers cogent arguments for 1755. Hamilton's father, James Hamilton, Sr., was a Scottish nobleman, but he was the fourth of eleven children and therefore penniless and without a chance of inheritance. He was not married to Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien Hamilton. Their long-term affair may well stem from the mores of the mid-eighteenth century Caribbean region. Rachel's husband, Johann Michael Lavien, used divorce proceedings expressly for the purpose of disinheriting both his wife and her children and later used the decree to direct the pathetically small remainder of his former wife's estate to the legitimate son she bore him. Indeed, it was a result of the trial that Hamilton's mother was branded a woman with “whore-children,” namely Alexander and his brother James Hamilton, Jr.

Lavien received his divorce decree in 1759 and in 1769, after Rachel's sudden death, managed to disinherit both James and Alexander on grounds of illegitimacy. Probate awarded all that remained of Rachel's property to Lavien's son, Peter. Thus, fourteen-year-old Alexander and his elder brother found themselves penniless on the backwater island of St. Croix. They were under the nominal guardianship of Rachel's first cousin Peter Lytton, himself a bankrupt grocer and failed businessman. To make matters worse, Lytton was found in bed dead and soaked in a pool of his own blood in July of 1769. A court inquest never resolved the mysterious circumstances of Lytton's death; it could have been suicide or murder.

Between 1765 and 1769 Alexander and James's acknowledged father had vanished; their mother had died; their guardian had either committed suicide or been murdered; and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had also died. As a result, James was apprenticed to a carpenter named James McNobeny, and Alexander was sent to live with a merchant, Thomas Stevens. Stevens was prosperous, and this sudden uprooting worked an almost Dickensian alteration in the prospects of the fourteen year-old boy.

Chernow cites the testimony of Thomas Pickering, Hamilton's friend in adulthood and later secretary of state, who claimed that Hamilton resembled Stevens's youngest son, Edward Stevens, to such a degree that they might almost have been brothers. It is undoubtedly true that Alexander formed a close friendship with Edward, who had been born only a year before him, far closer than with his acknowledged brother, James. It is thus entirely possible that the elder Stevens was Hamilton's real father. This would account for the preferment Hamilton received in Stevens's export firm, even to the extent of his acting on Stevens's behalf in his absence, this while Hamilton was still a teenager. Stevens must also have recognized that Hamilton was a prodigy with an aptitude for business. Appositely, it was Hamilton's early experience in business that first turned his attention to the American colonies and to New York in particular. Stevens's firm exported sugar and rum directly to that city, and young Hamilton represented the firm's interests consciously.

Hamilton could not travel to America, however, until Hugh Knox, an Anglican clergyman at Christiansted, St. Croix, raised a subscription among the businessmen of the island. Hamilton would always feel indebted to Knox as well as to his first cousin Ann Lytton Venton Mitchell, who helped support him during his preparatory school and college months. He corresponded irregularly with both and after leaving St. Croix he never saw either again. What is more, he never returned to the Caribbean after having once left it. Hamilton always felt guilty for not having maintained closer relations with these two important figures in his life. On his deathbed he dictated a letter to his wife, Elizabeth (called “Eliza” or “Betsy”) Schuyler Hamilton, asking that she provide for Mitchell after his death....

(The entire section is 1704 words.)