Just say the word in February 2017, and you’re bound to unleash torrents of divergent opinion, sometimes intermingled with facts, other times with “alternative facts.” It seems to matter little whether beliefs about immigrants are true or untrue, good or bad, sometimes even to individuals who are themselves descendants of immigrants (as are all Americans who cannot call themselves “Native American”). Fear of the “other” is nothing new, and oppression of the immigrant is isolating and dehumanizing. But the reasons people still choose immigration to the United States often outweigh the personal hurts and hazards. They come for many reasons: to escape persecution, war, violence, genocide, natural disaster; to pursue economic, educational or other opportunity; to reunite with family who immigrated earlier; and to achieve freedom to live as one may choose.
Unfortunately, with each wave of immigration—from the Chinese in the mid-1800s to the Irish and Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—new arrivals have been shunned, mistrusted, and mistreated, labeled with epithets, and viewed as unwanted competition for jobs and other resources or opportunities. While our professed American values suggest that we extend attitudes of acceptance and inclusion, with our Statue of Liberty entreating, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” too often the hopes and dreams of immigrants are unfulfilled. The recent ban on refugee resettlement to the United States is just the most recent example of the way that fear of the “other” has left those with hopes and dreams of a new life in despair. Protests against the ban have erupted across the globe, as even 240 years after the founding of our nation, we still remain divided about this most precious of our American values.
It is the ultimate irony that Elizabeth Schuyler, born and raised in the heart of America’s most elite, upper class, would, in her early twenties, meet and fall in love with an immigrant—and not merely an immigrant, but one with a shady past which he would dodge and shroud for the rest of his life. Lin Manuel Miranda’s opening lines of the play Hamilton, “How does a bastard, orphan/son of a whore and a Scotsman/dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot/ in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished in squalor/ grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” underscore the absolutely absurd improbability that such a person would rise to the status and level of accomplishment as did Alexander Hamilton.
To understand the attraction, the sense of loyalty, and the enduring love that Eliza felt for him, it’s important to understand—to the extent that anyone actually can—the complicated mix of brilliance and insecurity, bravado and weakness that were at his core.
According to Chernow, Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755 although the year of his birth is often reported as 1757. His mother, Rachel, had been married to a crude, authoritative tyrant names Johann Lavien, with whom she had one child, Peter. The marriage was doomed from the start, and after Lavien had squandered most of Rachel’s inheritance in just five years’ time, Rachel left him. Infuriated by the humiliation of desertion, Lavien had her imprisoned for abandonment and accused her of prostitution. When she was released, rather than dutifully return to him as he expected, the rebellious and resilient Rachel left St. Croix for St. Kitts, where she met James Hamilton. Although they were never married, Rachel had two children, James Jr., and Alexander, during their time together. The fact of his illegitimacy haunted Alexander throughout his life, especially since throughout his life on the islands he was taunted, labeled an “obscene child” and a “whorechild.”
It is noteworthy that scholars dispute Alexander’s parentage. Chernow suggests it is possible that Thomas Stevens, and not James Hamilton, was actually Alexander’s father. Later in his childhood, the orphaned Alexander—and not his brother James– was welcomed to live in the Stevens’ home. Stevens, a well-regarded businessman, had a son, Edward, who bore a striking resemblance to Alexander. He and Edward, often taken for brothers by all who saw them together, remained close throughout their lives.
Alexander was brought up in a turbulent atmosphere; in the Nevis of his childhood, he would have been exposed to open market slave auction blocks where slaves were beaten, whipped and traded as property, ultimately forced to work under the unrelenting sun to harvest sugarcane. Harshly treated and coerced to do backbreaking cane-cutting for long hours, most slaves survived only a few years. Brutality was an everyday occurrence fueled by a “gold-rush” environment, where speculators crowded the streets, hoping to capitalize on the increased demand for sugar in the West. The streets were filled with violent, drunken brawls, swindlers and thieves, all vying for a piece of the wealth. The continual turmoil must have been all the more surreal against the backdrop of the lush island against turquoise waters. And in the midst of that commotion, newly-rich landowners and their wives paraded elegantly in fine, imported clothes, as if they were royalty.
Even outside the swirl of humanity, Alexander found his home life to be similarly unstable. His father, James, had come from an aristocratic background but could never make good on any of his endeavors. The family lived in poverty, and Alexander likely did not have formal schooling. He was mostly self-taught—possibly tutored—and became a voracious reader, fond of great adventure stories and glorified accounts of war heroes, undoubtedly using reading to transport him from his troubled reality. Given her French Huguenot ancestry, it’s assumed that Rachel taught him French, a skill that would serve him well throughout his life and in particular, during the Revolution, when he translated communications with French allies for Washington.
By the time Rachel died in 1767, James Hamilton had already abandoned the family, and Lavien had divorced Rachel, forcing her to deny all legal rights to his property, ensuring that neither of her “whorechildren” would benefit. The unspecified illness that killed Rachel also infected Alexander, who was subjected to bloodletting and other primitive medicinal procedures. Amazingly, he survived only to be disinherited—Lavien claiming any of Rachel’s remaining assets for their legitimate son, Peter. Alexander and his brother were placed under the guardianship of a cousin, who shortly thereafter committed suicide.
As incredible as it seems, things only got worse. Although only in his teens, Alexander found employment as a clerk for an import-export business, experience bolstered by an astonishing aptitude for finance. He thrived in this role, revealing his extraordinary intelligence, ingenuity, and leadership qualities, and during these few years, he negotiated with traders from all over the globe. However, during his employment an unspeakable catastrophe, a major hurricane, descended on St. Croix on August 31, 1772. This devastating event and the death and destruction he witnessed would remain etched in his memory and would contribute to his lifelong sense of dread and foreboding.
In a strange twist of fate, the hurricane was impetus for Alexander’s deliverance. He wrote a letter describing the experience–an eloquent, expressive letter which he shared with the minister Hugh Knox who persuaded him to publish it. When the wealthy members of the community read it, they recognized his genius and gifted writing ability and raised funds to send Alexander to study in New York.
Hamilton began his formal schooling at Elizabethtown Academy, where he made important connections with the influential and powerful, among them William Livingston and Elias Boudinot, who hosted lively scholarly debates and gatherings of the well-heeled colonial society. From there, he was accepted into Kings College, where the seeds of patriotism were sown, and he was soon to be recognized as the voice of his peers and a leader of the burgeoning revolt—and, ultimately General Washington’s most trusted aide, his alter ego and his voice.
So, as life in New York began for Alexander Hamilton, he sought to reinvent himself, working longer and harder almost than humanly possible, to gain notoriety and status in his new land. Perhaps he thought he could shed the baggage of his childhood; perhaps he thought he could leave the loss and shame behind. Instead, he dwelled in preoccupation with his humiliating beginnings and could never shed the idea that he was an outsider, an immigrant. Like so many people who wrestle with deep insecurity, Alexander needed continuous ego-stroking; he longed to be a hero, to be loved and revered, to be the smartest and best, a need that incensed and irritated some of his colleagues and caused him to make disastrous choices—in the end, one that cost him his life. It was this festering vulnerability wrought from his unspeakably sad childhood that perhaps endeared him most to the compassionate, soft-hearted Eliza. She, the consummate nurturer who took in orphans and strays her whole life, was perhaps the one person who knew him best and loved him unconditionally, flaws and all.
But it bears mentioning that while Alexander’s immigrant status left him with a profound sense of alienation, it was the outsider in him that made him an indispensable contributor to the formation of our new nation. Flexner writes: “Hamilton’s view was always from outside, and it was this that made him one of the greatest of the founding fathers” (6). He brought a different perspective, one informed not only by hardship but by worldly experiences far beyond those of his counterparts. With his more global view, he had business savvy. He realized the value of checks and balances, of multiple branches of government. As the framer of the executive and judicial branches that would counterbalance the legislative side so prized by Jefferson and his compatriots, he opened our government to divergent viewpoints, to dissent and discourse that bolsters critical thought and reflection, allows compromise and gives voice to the voiceless.
Now as then, without the view of the outsider, we are insulated and short-sighted. Or, to say it another way, diversity makes us stronger. Immigration is the foundation on which our country has grown to become the greatest democracy in the world. When it is threatened, so are our strengths, our freedoms and our very foundation.
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Flexner, J.T. (1997). The young Hamilton: a biography. New York: Fordam University Press.
Hamilton, A. M. (reprinted 2015). London: Forgotten Books.
Miranda,, L. (2015). Hamilton (An American musical). New York: Atlantic.