Overcoming Adversity: The Childhood of Alexander Hamilton Page 3By Michael J. Gerson « Continued from previous page
The Pattern Continues: Abandonment and LossReturning to St. Croix must have been a low point for Alex. He was forced to live on the island where he and his brother "would have to endure the taunts of other children, and the stares and whispered comments of passing adults." (Flexner) "As he walks down the streets, Alex-now about eight years old-is recognized, by those who recognize him at all, as what the Danish courts called an 'obscene' child" (Flexner 25).
To Alexander's stunned surprise, shortly after the family arrived on St. Croix, his father abandoned the family and returned to St. Kitts. The reason for the split is uncertain. While some biographers believe that James abandoned the family (McDonald), (Larson 144), others (Flexner 25-26, Rise & Fall 11) suggest that Rachel actually initiated the separation. Flexner even surmises that Rachel agreed to return to St. Croix where she had family so that she would have a support system available when she separated from her husband.
Regardless of the reason for his parents' separation, and regardless of who initiated it, Alexander was devastated. A close relationship had existed between Alexander and his father, and his father would no longer be living with the family. Alexander did not know if he would ever see his father again, or if he did, when that would be.
After the separation, Rachel used the name Faucett for the tax roles and used the name Lavien for various other purposes, but never used the name Hamilton again (Hendrickson Hamilton I 19). Many contemporary children of divorce, as well as those living in reconstituted families can identify with what Alexander and his brother must have experienced. It is very difficult for children to have a different name than the name of the parent with whom they are living. As Flexner states, "The two Hamilton children must have felt in their mother's willful repudiation of their name a repudiation of themselves. Every time Rachel referred to Alexander as a Hamilton she was underlining his illegitimacy." (26)
Picking Up the Pieces: Alexander's mother supporting the family:When James Hamilton left, 8 year-old Alexander, his brother James, and their mother were left to fend for themselves. Their relatives were not a good support system, and could not be depended on. They had no money, and Rachel did not have a job.
At times, however, the importance of a person's financial resources pale in comparison to the strength of a person's emotional resources. That was the case for Rachel and her children. Rachel was ambitious, independent, highly motivated, and very intelligent. She was no more overwhelmed in the face of her adverse family situation than her own mother was in a similar setting in a prior generation. Rachel had apparently learned how to face adversity quite well from her mother. Her determination compares favorably to the most industrious single parent of today.
The manner in which Alexander's mother reacted to this adverse situation served as a model for Alexander. Borrowing a small amount of money, she opened a grocery store, dealing in various plantation staples. As employees, she had eight- year old Alex, his brother James, and three slaves. Alexander learned a great deal, both in terms of business, and in terms of life.
By most accounts, Rachel managed the business very well. She utilized sophisticated business techniques, bought goods on credit, kept accurate books, and paid her creditors promptly (McDonald 7). She purchased many of the provisions for the store from a firm down the street, Beckman and Cruger. As the business stabilized, she encouraged Alexander to obtain a job elsewhere, and further increase the family income. When Alexander was about ten years old, he left his mother's employ and went to work for their supplier, the firm of Beckman and Cruger (Larson 145).
When it came to business, Alexander's intelligence and motivation was immediately apparent. He was determined to learn as much as his new employers could teach. And teach they did. Within a short period of time, Alexander was performing sophisticated business tasks and assuming responsibility characteristic of an older, highly experienced business manager.
The manner in which young Alexander approached his work, and the relationship he developed with his employers was to prove significant at a later time. Alexander's industriousness, hard work, desire to learn, and sense of responsibility were to be amply rewarded when it was time for him to strike out on his own. At this point, it certainly appeared that things were beginning to look up for the Hamilton family.
Tragedy RevisitedAlexander was about eleven years old in 1768 when tragedy struck the family once again. Alexander and his mother became ill with a dangerously high fever. Although Alexander eventually recovered, his mother was not so lucky. After a week's struggle, Rachel died. She was thirty-nine years old.
Shortly after Rachel's death, while Alex was still recovering from his illness, John Lavien arrived. Waving the divorce decree, Lavien demanded that the Court disinherit the two "illegitimate" Hamilton children and award the entire estate to his son Peter, who had not seen his mother since she had abandoned him when he was four years old. Keeping in pattern, the Court was glad to oblige, essentially declaring once again, the "illegitimacy" of the Hamilton boys. As Hendrickson so aptly described " here was the second official notice to the world that Alexander Hamilton was a bastard, and as poor a one as it was possible to be" (Hamilton I 18). By Court order, Alexander's half brother Peter Lavien, received the bulk of her estate, depriving Alexander and James of a share in the albeit modest estate of their mother.
Thus, Alexander had another brush with legal procedures. At the mercy of a callous legal system throughout his youth, Alex had to be both impressed at the power of such an institution, and dismayed by the capricious manner in which this power was exercised. These experiences likely served as a filter through which Alexander the adult formulated legal strategies, influenced legislation, and helped devise a Constitution. This youngster's experience with the Court system had far ranging consequences for the way we live.
The End of ChildhoodIf he ever had one, Alexander's childhood can be said to have ended in 1768, with the death of his mother. He was eleven years old. He and his brother were penniless and homeless. His mother's cousin, Peter Lytton cared for them for one year, until, distraught over the death of his own wife, Peter committed suicide.
Alexander and his brother James were now totally alone. While they may have wished for their father to come for them, he had left the family some years before and was living far away. He was not going to appear now, nor was he going to be of any help to at all to Alexander and James. In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Forest McDonald put it succinctly: "at the age of twelve he had no apparent future at all, and from then onward he had no one on whom he had a right to rely but himself" (8).
Thus, at the respective ages of eleven and fifteen, Alexander and James had to cope with what today would be called severe emotional deprivation; abandonment by their father, the death of their mother, the suicide of their guardian. Many children would have been emotionally devastated by this situation. But not Alexander; his determination, motivation, and drive moved into high gear.
In short order, fifteen-year old James became apprenticed to a carpenter, and Alexander moved in with a friend's family. He worked full time at the Cruger wholesale export firm, where he had worked since he was nine years old. He took on increasing responsibilities, advanced quickly, and assumed increasingly greater levels of responsibility. Young Alexander dealt with vendors many years his senior, and made complex business decisions. At the Cruger firm, he learned the foundations of business and finance. By the time he was fourteen, he was running the entire operation, purchasing and selling cargos, and directing experienced sea captains with the air of clear and confident authority.
Alexander's Quest for an EducationEducation was very important to Alexander. In his first known correspondence at the age of twelve, he concluded a letter to his friend Edward Stevens who was attending school in America by telling him that ... "am pleased to see you give such close application to study." These were not empty words. As Flexner commented, "No man ever applied this advice to himself more passionately than did Hamilton" (35).
And apply this advice to himself, he did. Alexander believed that if he were to approach his dreams, he would need to obtain a lot more education than he had. But what could he do? At the age of twelve he was working full time running a bustling export business. Although he was unable to spare the time needed to attend school, he began a self-directed reading program including biographies, poetry, mathematics and chemistry in his self-devised curriculum. As Alexander's son John later wrote, "the little leisure he could command from his mercantile duties was devoted to study" (Flexner 47).
The Search for MentorsAlexander's relationship with his father was abruptly terminated at an early age. The relationship had been good, in that Alexander listened to his father, and absorbed his philosophy. After his father left, Alexander continually sought out authority figures to symbolically replace his loss.
Children who lose parents at an early age are very open to, and readily influenced by adult authority figures. More so than children from intact families, they are motivated to seek relationships with adults who they can then use as a role model and guide. This was certainly the case for Alexander. Throughout his youth and into his early adulthood, Alexander sought out authority figures as role models. These people would become very fond of him, and would take on the mentor role that Alexander needed.
Throughout his formative years, Alexander impressed influential elders. He was genuinely eager to learn, and his ability to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers impressed those with whom he came into contact. These mentors offered guidance, and in some instances financial support as well. He became adept at developing a support system of mentors, highlighted by his relationship with George Washington, during the years he was on his staff. This ability to inspire the confidence of influential senior people became a successful pattern, and a key element in Alexander's success throughout his early manhood.
One person who was impressed with Alexander's industry, his self-directed reading program in particular, was the Minister of his Church. The Reverend Hugh Knox became one of Alexander's most influential mentors. Alexander engaged in discussions with Reverend Knox that must have reminded him of his conversations with his father. A man of impressive intellect, who was also a physician and a writer, Knox was taken with Alexander. Knox encouraged Alexander in religious and literary pursuits. According to Flexner (48), Knox' religious thinking was combative, overly assertive, and polemic. Knox would think nothing of aggressively attacking adversaries in a clear, logical fashion. This style was the one taken by Alexander as he became active in political pursuits.
Alexander obtains a "Scholarship":In Hamilton's time, there was no such thing as a college scholarship. However, it was not unusual for neighbors and local merchants to fund a worthy young man's education. And Alexander was admired, and highly regarded by influential Islanders with New York connections. Not surprisingly, the major support for Alexander's exodus and education came from the merchants that Alexander worked with since he was a little boy. Nicholas Cruger, in particular, whose business Alexander managed after the death of his mother, developed a financial support system among his colleagues in New York to receive and handle Alexander's assets.
The Reverend Knox initiated an additional support system in the New World. He introduced Alexander to some of his old friends in America, writing letters of introduction to two of the leading Presbyterian clergymen in New York City about this precocious young man.
The New WorldAlexander left Christiansted in 1772 at age 16, and headed to North America. The clergymen that Alexander met through the Reverend Knox mentored him and monitored his educational progress (Flexner 54). Because of his lack of a formal education, his mentors believed that he that he had a lot of work to make up, and that he should attend Prep School before applying to college. Alexander agreed, and became a student at the Presbyterian Academy in Elizabethtown, (now Elizabeth) NJ. He worked very hard at the Presbyterian Academy, and a year later, was judged ready for college. But what college would Alexander attend?
The Elizabethtown Academy was a Prep School for the Presbyterian sponsored College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton. His two Clergy mentors were on the Board of Trustees of Princeton, so it seemed a natural fit. Alexander, however, had fallen in love with the energy and vitality of New York City, and compared it favorably to the bucolic setting of Central New Jersey, the home of Princeton. Contrary to the wishes of his sponsors and mentors, Alexander made an independent decision and decided to attend Kings College, soon to be called Columbia University (Flexner 59).
At the age of sixteen Alexander was successfully ensconced in the New World. How did he get this far? How did this "bastard brat", as John Adams called him, or this "foreign bastard", as he was referred to by Thomas Jefferson (qtd. in The Rise & Fall 11), move from such inauspicious beginnings and a tragedy strewn childhood to a position of such potential in just a few short years? What were some of the forces that created the emotional foundation that allowed such a wellspring to flow forth? To answer these questions, an examination of the child Alexander's early developmental experiences and learning might reveal some of the influences.
Developing a Self-ImageThe personal view of themselves that children hold is a major motivator of their behavior. A sense of self-worth, feelings of self-confidence, beliefs regarding personal capability, the ability to respond to new challenges, are all founded in the child's interactions within his family. Children begin to develop a self-image from the words, actions, and behavioral patterns that are reflected in their homes. Central to the development of these beliefs are the interactions within his family. While the outside world increases its influence as the child gets older, the critical foundation is poured at a very early age.
Like a sponge, children soak up emotional information. Behavior they observe, and words they hear are taken in and coalesce into the attitudes, beliefs and values that motivate this behavior. Absorbed as well are the unspoken messages that parents convey, sometimes unwittingly. Tones of voice, facial expressions, and body language are readily transmitted to children. The information is processed, and is then reflected in the child's words and deeds, often to the dismay of their parents. It is also reflected in the child views him or herself.
His Mother's LegacyWhat kind of role model was Rachel for her son? What was her impact on the development of her son? A brief glance at Rachel's background provides insight into her attitudes, values, and behavior, and helps us understand the ambivalent emotional climate she created for Alexander.
Rachel seemed to be always struggling. Growing up in a home characterized by continual arguing, fighting, and tension between her parents, Rachel, like her son, learned to construct emotional walls to buffer her from the stress of her environment.
Throughout her life, Rachel often failed to consider the impact that her important life decisions would have on her children. As a result, she disappointed Alexander at critical junctures, and planted the seeds of insecurity, fear, and anxiety that were to plague her son throughout his life.
Although it is not clear as to who actually initiated the split, Alexander believed his parent's separation was the result of his father's financial failures. "My father's affairs at a very early date went to wreck, so as to have rendered his situation during the greatest part of his life far from eligible. This state of things occasioned a separation between him and me, when I was very young..."(qtd. in Flexner 25).
There is dispute between his biographers, (Flexner, 25, McDonald 367, Hendrickson Hamilton I 15) as to which parent initiated their separation. Regardless, "the fear of a comparable fate haunted Alexander." (Flexner 26,27) This fear stayed with him. Years later, letters to his fianc'ee indicate how "Hamilton is overwhelmed by nightmare memories of his mother's resentments about his father's financial woes" (Flexner 290).
A Central Fear of all Children: AbandonmentAlexander was aware of his mother's abandonment of his half-brother, Peter Lavien. What kind of anxiety must this have caused in young Alexander? One indication that Alexander suffered early anxiety is the psychosomatic illness that first manifested itself when Alexander was working for Cruger. During this time he was reportedly incapacitated for no apparent reason on several occasions(Flexner). This tendency toward psychosomatic distress was to plague him throughout his life.
Lack of Trust in Women: Anticipating AbandonmentAlexander harbored feelings of insecurity that haunted him throughout his life. At an early age, he learned of the tenuous nature of life, and the impermanence of relationships. He learned to fear deep emotional commitments and continually anticipated abandonment. Flexner, quotes a letter that Hamilton wrote to his friend John Laurens in 1788. "You know, the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent on the caprice of others" (qtd. in Flexner 27). His lack of trust in women in particular, generalized to a lack of trust in all people (Flexner 291).
Impermanence of Personal Relationships
As did his mother, his father, James, taught his son some important lessons regarding the impermanence of personal relationships. Despite James's ostensible closeness with his son, after his separation from Rachel, he initiated no contact with Alexander or his brother, and had no contact with his sons at all. Even after Rachel's death, when there were no guardians for his sons, James was nowhere in evidence. He taught these lessons well to his son, and these teachings would influence Alexander's personal and professional life to the very end.
AmbivalenceWhen describing his mother to his wife and children, Hamilton "recollected her with inexpressible fondness, and often spoke of her as a woman of superior intellect, highly cultivated, of elevated and generous sentiments, and of unusual elegance of person and manner" (Hamilton I 19). Alexander was not overtly aware of his mother's emotional impact on him. In the manner of many adults who have not come to terms with the multi-faceted impact of their parent's, Alexander presented a bland and one-dimensional picture of his mother. Hamilton was a prolific writer, and his thoughts and opinions on many issues-personal and professional-were readily documented. It is thus noteworthy that Flexner points out "...in no known work that Hamilton ever wrote did he express affection for his mother"(27).
Alexander the PragmatistWhile his father was a lofty idealist, Alexander's mother was always the pragmatist. She served as a model for what it takes to run a successful business, and always encouraged Alexander to assume increasingly greater business and financial responsibility. It was his mother who encouraged him to leave the family store and go to work for the Cruger and Beckman concern. Her confidence in his ability surely influenced the confidence that Alexander displayed as a Beckman Cruger & employee. Alexander's ability to apply lofty ideals in a realistic and pragmatic fashion is part of his mother's legacy.
ResiliencySome of Alexander's personal traits that allowed him to overcome the barriers he faced were likely the result of identifying with his determined, persistent, independent mother. From her he learned that it is possible to start out with nothing, more than once, and succeed. From his pragmatic mother he learned to strive for what you want; from his idealistic father he learned to strive for what you believe. From his mother he learned to persevere in the face of great adversity. The determination and persistence that young Alexander demonstrated in the pursuit of his goals, is reminiscent of his mother, and an important part of her legacy to her son.
His Father's Legacy: A Blueprint for Self-defeating behaviorWhat kind of role model was James to his sons? How did his ideas and life style affect some patterns of Alexander's behavior?
James Hamilton was born in a family whose wealth spanned generations. At the age of nineteen, he left the comfort of his family's estate to seek his fortune. A few years later, he severed connections with his family, and began his downward slide. Characterized as "a bum", by biographer Richard Brookheiser (17), this self-proclaimed aristocrat hopped from job to job and from Island to island, and went bankrupt as a businessman early on. Alexander himself described his father as living in a "groveling condition" (Fleming 21). Thus, after starting life as the fourth son born of a wealthy landowning family, James rapidly descended the economic and social ladder, ending up as an itinerant who frequently lived in abject poverty.
Self-Defeating Behavior:There are numerous instances throughout the life of Alexander Hamilton that his propensity to engage in self-defeating behavior sidetracked him from achieving his goals. The subtle arena of self-defeating behavior stalked his personal and political life, and ultimately resulted in the duel that ended his life. The seeds of this behavioral pattern were born in the vestiges of Alexander's early family and childhood experiences. And it is the legacy of self-defeating that Alexander received in great part from his father. How was this legacy transmitted?
The Influence of WordsRegardless of the success that parents have in applying their personal philosophies to their own lives, their children are frequently influenced by their parent's words rather than their accomplishments. And this was certainly true for Alexander in his relationship with his father. It was James Hamilton's words, rather than his actions, that were to have the most impact on his precocious son.
Talkative and opinionated, James would not have been reluctant to discuss his thoughts, values, and ideas about status, financial standing, careers, and lifestyle with his precocious son. One can imagine the family sitting around the dinner table; with young Alexander staring intently, listening to his father expound his philosophy.
Self-Defeating Behavior in Action: Alexander's Lack of Financial MotivationAccording to the philosophy of James Hamilton, profiting from commerce was demeaning. James demeaned the values of people who engaged in business and commerce, and ridiculed their attempts to earn money in order to obtain material goods. He taught his son that only common people pursue such mundane routes to ordinary financial success, and that special people, like he and his son Alexander, were destined for more noble pursuits. Thus early on, Alexander learned from his father that striving for financial comfort was demeaning, and not fit for a Hamilton.
Hamilton's personal financial condition was a dramatic example of his powerful identification with his father, and the self-defeating process that characterized this identification. As children frequently do in an unconscious effort to validate the efforts of their parents, Alexander lived out the self-defeating financial philosophy of his father. In a self-punitive and defeating manner, Alexander would subconsciously validate the teachings of his father.
Like his father, Alexander was often in debt. Despite his political prominence and government positions, and despite his reputation as the finest lawyer in New York, his earnings were inconceivably modest. Alexander never earned more than the minimum amount of money necessary to barely support his family. After his death his wife did not even have enough money to live comfortably. "Elizabeth was left with seven young children and a mountain of debt" (Larson 150).
Identifying closely with the father who had persistently lectured him on the evils of striving for material or financial success, Alexander would not allow himself to benefit personally from any of the governmental innovations he created. Hamilton viewed striving for personal wealth and prosperity as beneath him. It was an evil to which he would not succumb.
The odd discrepancy between Hamilton's accomplishments and his financial standing was incomprehensible to Alexander's friends and colleagues. Throughout Alexander's life, his colleagues, friends and political foes alike were struck by his continually indifference to the paths to financial success that he created for others. While he would create and set up systems that allowed others to make significant financial gains, Alexander would never avail himself of the same opportunities that he would create for others. In his biography of Hamilton, Brookheiser observed that the man "...who would lift (the United States) into capitalism" (86) was unable to provide comfortably for his own family. This theme is echoed in a recent article on Hamilton by Lewis Lehrman,"While he [Hamilton] rebuilt the wellsprings of the wealth of his adopted nation, he manifestly cared nothing for riches himself" (33).
Self-Defeating Behavior in Action: Alexander's Combative interpersonal StyleFrom his father, Alexander learned to hold firmly to abstract ideals, values and principles. Like his father as well, these ideals and values were often applied with self-defeating rigidity. James Hamilton was an opinionated, stubborn, man, prone to interpersonal conflict. In a similar fashion, Alexander was often pugnacious, tactless and overly direct in stating his views and personal opinions. Like his father, he refused to soften or modify the expression of his ideas, even when so doing would further the goal he was trying to achieve.
This aspect of Alexander's style was a major deterrent to his achieving the political success and recognition that he so desired. Hamilton simply made too many enemies, often solely as a result of his personal style. His personal harangue of John Adams, which earned him a role as Adams' lasting enemy, is only one example(Morris 531-4). This stubborn, rigid approach to people and situations, so characteristic of his father, and also of Alexander, was perhaps also one of the major factors propelling him forward in his fateful duel with Aaron Burr.
The Impact of the Court System on AlexanderWhile we usually think of a legacy as emanating from significant people in our lives, societal institutions can play a role influencing an individual's development. This is the case with Alexander Hamilton and the Court system.
Alexander was the victim of an arbitrary and autocratic Court system. The Courts impelled his grandmother and mother into poverty after his grandmother left his grandfather. The Courts had his mother jailed for "whoring". The Courts branded he and his brother "obscene children". The Courts allowed Alexander's mother estate to be fully taken by her first husband upon her death, leaving Alexander and his brother destitute and deprived them of sharing in their mother's meager inheritance.
A Symbol of Resiliency: Putting A Positive Spin on Negative EventsOne would expect a person who experienced such treatment at the hands of our Courts to be filled with resentment and anger at such a system. According to McDonald, "There is abundant evidence that he [Hamilton] resented his fate, that he attributed it to the injustices of the socio-legal system that ordained it and that he was fiercely determined to overcome it"(9). In his typically resilient style, Alexander acted out his anger by productively utilizing his political influence and his legal skills. One example that is not usually noted is the fact that Alexander's interest in divorce law was probably greater than any of our other Founding Fathers. He used his influence to lobby for laws that would make it difficult to obtain a divorce. His beliefs regarding the sanctity of the family even affected his foreign policy views. For example, his attitude toward the French was influenced by his belief that their laws made it easy to obtain divorces.
Alexander was not consumed with bitterness or anger at his circumstances. He viewed negative events as challenging situations that could be overcome through positive action. This aspect of his style can be seen in the way he reacted to the behavior patterns of his father.
Despite all that he had experienced as a result of his father's behavioral pattern, Alexander maintained affection for him throughout his life. He would write to his father and would express "tenderness, warmth, and kindness" (Rise & Fall 11). He would inquire about his father's needs, and worry about his well-being. This aspect of Alexander's style is demonstrated in a 1783 letter that Alexander wrote to his brother. Not having heard from his father in a long time, and having written him several times with no response, Alexander asked his brother:
But what has become of our dear father? ......Perhaps Alas! He is no more, and I shall not have the pleasing opportunity of contributing to render the close of his life more happy than the progress of it. My heart bleeds at the recollection of his misfortune and embarrassments" (Hamilton 6,7). Even though he had not much to spare, on several occasions he sent his father money (Hamilton 7). Upon Alexander's engagement to Betsy Schuyler, he wrote her about his plan to invite his father to come to America and live with them (Hamilton 7).
The positive spin that Hamilton placed on his father's behavior is not surprising or unusual. Children want to believe in their parents. They want to believe their parents are capable people, successful in their lives and careers. And they will frequently alter their perception of events to suit their own needs. Only the child's tendency to distort reality and rationalize it away could result in young Alexander's belief "...that his (father's) way of life was superior to the aggressive, vulgar society in which the aristocrat (his father) was failing" (Flexner 21).
What We Can Learn From Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton came from a personal and family situation that we would today refer to as "disadvantaged". Alone and abandoned at age eleven, Alexander refused to be discouraged. He maintained an over-riding optimism, and always found ways to respond to challenges that were presented. The young Alexander can teach us to persist even when confronted with great adversity.
Studying Hamilton's achievements can demonstrate the productive use of anger and resentment. Refusing to be overcome with bitterness and self-pity, Alexander used his prodigious intelligence, and his enormous energy to create and build.
As a sixteen-year old immigrant to this country, young Alexander sought out friends and mentors and always tried to listen and learn. He strongly believed in the values of education, hard work and the power of words. A prime example of our country's "equality system", well before it became fashionable to do so, Hamilton lobbied to provide these same opportunities to all people, including Blacks (Lehrman 32).
Even after he had become a prominent political figure, his past still haunted him in the public setting. John Adams referred to him as a "bastard brat", while Thomas Jefferson called him a "foreign bastard"(Hendrickson Rise & Fall 11). Alexander Hamilton can teach us to overcome personal shame and guilt, as well as public embarrassment. In any age, many children and families are required to overcome adverse circumstances and daunting situations. The early life experience of Alexander Hamilton provides a model of how one person accomplished this difficult task.