Alexander Hamilton and I are friends. Or so it seems.
The founding father and first Treasury Secretary of the United States was famously killed in a duel by Aaron Burr in 1804. Most schoolchildren also learn that Hamilton was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays which established the moral rationale for the system of government which grew into modern American democracy.
But fewer people know that Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis in the West Indies and spent approximately eight formative childhood years on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands (then the Danish West Indies). For those not familiar with the remarkable story of Hamilton’s Caribbean roots, I will place a relevant section from my book, Moon Virgin Islands, at the end of this blog post.
Visitors to St. Croix encounter Hamilton at Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted, where there is a display about Hamilton’s life on St. Croix and that of his mother, Rachel Faucett, whose tragic story you could not invent if you tried. On a walking tour of the town you can also pass buildings where Hamilton once worked, worshiped and lived as a child and young man.
It’s not often that I have common ground with a person of such historic stature, and I have developed feelings of kinship for Hamilton over the years. So when I was in New York recently and noticed in the paper that Hamilton’s New York home had recently re-opened to the public, I decided to pay the site a visit. Hamilton Grange, as the home is called, has been moved twice: once in 1889 and once in 2008 to its current home at St Nicholas Park on the upper west side of Manhattan. In Hamilton’s day it took about two hours by carriage to get from Wall Street to the Grange, a pastoral retreat which Hamilton and his family occupied primarily during the summer months. On the A train from Wall Street on a recent Saturday morning it took about 45 minutes to make the journey uptown.
I am not a student of architecture and will only say that Hamilton’s Grange has the feel of an up-scale farmhouse: pleasing proportions, fine finish work, broad porches, and large windows. In its day, it cost about $20,000 to build. Set on a quiet corner of urban parkland, the home feels like an oasis in the midst of metropolis.
In the basement of the house there is an exhibit about Hamilton and his role in American history. In broad strokes you learn the trajectory of Hamilton’s life: gifted student; aid to George Washington; political philosopher; talented leader; and prideful player of political gamesmanship. Given Hamilton’s achievements, it is not a surprise that the exhibits focus on his political life and legacy, as well as the duel which ended his life; Hamilton’s childhood in the Caribbean is a footnote to the story and when it is mentioned greater emphasis is given to Nevis than St. Croix.
Upstairs during a guided tour we are given a glimpse of what Hamilton’s sitting room, dining room and study would have looked like during the brief two years in which he lived at the Grange. Standing there surveying the home I am struck by just how far this remarkable man came during his lifetime—from obscurity in the West Indies to a fine New York home and a life story which still intrigues us today.
I am glad that Hamilton’s life once more has a place to be remembered, and the Park Service has done a good job with the museum. My one wish would be for a bit more to be said about Hamilton’s childhood on St. Croix and for mention to be made of the Christiansted National Historic Site, a Park Service property which curates the Hamilton exhibit on St. Croix. I mentioned this to the ranger on duty and he replied that the Grange may pursue a sister-park relationship with Christiansted. That would be very good indeed.
For information about Hamilton Grange National Memorial see: http://www.nps.gov/hagr/index.htm
For information about Christiansted National Historic Site see: http://www.nps.gov/chri/index.htm
About Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the United States and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, grew up in obscurity in Christiansted, the illegitimate son of a shopkeeper. Hamilton’s years on St. Croix, from age 10 to 18, provide a glimpse into social realities of the time; his story provides insight into the early influences of one of America’s most important early statesmen.
Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucett, moved to St. Croix when she was 16 and was married to John Lavien, who owned a cotton plantation in the new colony. Rachel and John’s marriage was not a happy one. In 1749 John publicly accused Rachel of infidelity and had her jailed at Fort Christiansvaern for several months. When she was released, Rachel left St. Croix for St. Kitts, where she met and fell in love with James Hamilton, a Scotsman. Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755, the second of two sons born to Rachel and James, who never married. In 1765, the family moved to St. Croix, where James had some business. Soon after the move, James moved out and later returned to Nevis. He never saw his sons again.
Rachel rented a house and shop in Christiansted at 34 Company Street. Alexander helped his mother with the business while his brother was apprenticed to a carpenter. In February 1768, Rachel caught yellow fever and died at the age of 38. Alexander was 11 years old. What little property Rachel had was inherited by Peter Lavien, the legitimate son she had with her ex-husband. Alexander and his brother were left penniless.
Alexander moved in with a local merchant, Thomas Stevens, and began working as a clerk for an import-export house, Beckman and Cruger, located at 7-8 King Street. Alexander’s natural intelligence and business sense attracted the attention of his employers, and soon he was making important decisions for the company. Hamilton later told his children that his years at Beckman and Cruger were “the most useful part of [my] education.”
During this time Hamilton also developed a friendship with Presbyterian Rev. Hugh Knox, who shared with him his library of books on philosophy, reason, and law. Hamilton’s account of a 1772 hurricane published in the Royal Danish America Gazette so impressed those who read it that Hamilton’s friends and supporters raised money for him to travel to the United States for an education. In June 1773, Hamilton sailed from St. Croix for New York, where he would spend one year at the Barber Academy before enrolling in King’s College, the institution later to become Columbia University.