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Straus Center and Shevet Glaubach Center Launch Networking Group With The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton Book Talk

jewish alexander hamilton


Sarah Wapner
Straus Center Impact and Recruitment Officer

Dr. Andrew Porwancher

On Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted Dr. Andrew Porwancher in conversation with Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. Gathering at Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), nearly 50 guests heard Dr. Porwancher discuss his groundbreaking new book, The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton, published by Princeton University Press and winner of the Journal of the American Revolution Book of the Year Award. Dr. Porwancher, the Wick Cary Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma and the Ernest May Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, expressed his sincere thanks to Rabbi Soloveichik, the Straus Center, Yeshiva University, and the Kapito family (Straus Center donors) for their support of his scholarship.

Dr. Porwancher opened the event by laying out his book’s thesis, arguing that archival evidence indicates that American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (1745-1804) was born and raised a Jew. He recounted that Hamilton’s mother Rachel married Johann Levine on the Danish-controlled Caribbean island of St. Croix before beginning her relationship with Hamilton’s father, James, on the British-controlled island of Nevis and that young Alexander attended Nevis’ Jewish school.

Historians have dismissed the possibility of Alexander Hamilton’s Jewish heritage, arguing that Johann Levine was not described in Danish records as a Jew, that Rachel Levine herself was never Jewish, and that Hamilton had only attended a Jewish school because his illegitimate birth disqualified him both from being baptized and from attending a Christian school. However, Dr. Porwancher was not convinced, noticing a curious dearth of evidence in the footnotes where previous generations of historians had denied Hamilton’s Jewish connection. “Historians have never found a recorded instance of a Christian child attending a Jewish school,” he explained. “The best argument is the one that accounts for the most evidence, and the evidence is not there.”

Dr. Porwancher detailed how his search for information led him to St. Croix and Nevis, where he discovered documents that further fueled his suspicions. He found that while Johann Levine is indeed not marked as a Jew in the St. Croix records, none of the Jews there (even well-known ones) were recorded as such. It was simply not a designated category in the island’s registers. Furthermore, Hamilton’s own grandson referred to Johann Levine as a “rich Danish Jewish.” Additionally, Dr. Porwancher found parish records from Nevis (whose free population was twenty-five percent Jewish) which recorded the baptism of several babies explicitly noted as illegitimate—indicating that Hamilton’s out-of-wedlock status would not have prevented the performance of this rite. Geography need not have dictated his attendance at the Jewish school—where, according to his son’s writings, he had learned to recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew—as there existed an Anglican school just down the road.

Dr. Porwancher also discovered that Danish law at the time of Rachel and Johann Levine’s wedding forbade civil marriages between Jews and Christians. For the two to legally marry, Rachel—who was later buried at home and not in the local church’s cemetery—would have had to convert to Judaism. (Dr. Porwancher believes that the other pieces of evidence indicate that the conversion did not go the other way). If Rachel did convert to Judaism prior to her marriage, as Porwancher suspects, it would mean that Alexander Hamilton was born a Jew according to Jewish law.

“The best argument is the one that accounts for the most pieces of evidence,” said Dr. Porwancher. “The argument that Alexander Hamilton was Christian accounts for none of these facts; the argument that he was Jewish explains them all.”

During the conversation, Dr. Porwancher explored Alexander Hamilton’s connection to American Jews over the course of his formidable career. “Hamilton became the biggest champion for Jews among the Founding Fathers,” he argued. “No one did more for Jews to help them realize and achieve the promise of the Declaration and of America. He opened the King’s College presidency to Jews and non-Christians, he put Jews on the King’s College board, and he removed the college’s mandatory daily prayers.”

Dr. Porwancher highlighted Alexander Hamilton’s unwavering commitment to civil equality for American Jews. At the time, many believed that Jews could not serve as witnesses in a court of law because they wrongly believed that Jews always lied under oath. But Hamilton, serving as an attorney for a case in which his principal witnesses were Jews, closed his arguments with an impassioned call to safeguard the Republic, the American Revolution, and America’s radical promise of equality. “Jews were selected as witnesses to God’s miracles,” Dr. Porwancher explained, “and as a Founding Father Alexander Hamilton demanded that in an American courtroom, Jews and Gentiles would stand equally before the law.” Rabbi Soloveichik and Dr. Porwancher also discussed the enduring connection between Hamilton and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (where the event was held), pointing out that all of Hamilton’s Jewish clients were in fact members of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation.

The discussion concluded with a question and answer period, with Straus Scholar Racheli Gottesman asking Dr. Porwancher what his scholarship’s impact should have on one’s American identity. “The story of Alexander Hamilton and his fight for Jewish civic equality in America is one that rejects the narrative of Jews as interlopers in American history,” Dr. Porwancher responded. “Jews have been a part of the American experiment since its inception, and Jewish life is baked into the original DNA of America. Jews claim a stake in the American story with the righteous wind of history at our backs,” he concluded.

This gathering also served as the formal launch event for the Law, Policy, and Government Sector Connections and Partnerships for Success (CAPS) Community, coordinated by the Shevet Glaubach Center for Career Strategy and Professional Development. The event brought together Straus Scholars, YU students and alumni, and affiliated young professionals interested in policy, politics, and government. The event was attended by representatives of the Shevet Glaubach Center, including Susan Bauer, executive director, and Joshua Meredith, director of career advising and technology.

“This event marked the beginning of a new career advising model for the Shevet Glaubach Center called CAPS – Connections and Partnerships for Success,” explained Bauer. “Ten unique, discipline-focused career communities are launching, this one being Law, Policy, Government, and Public Sector, where regardless of one’s academic major, students can be in a career community focused on the discipline they wish to explore with like-minded students, alumni, faculty, friends of YU, and a career advisor who is the area expert. The alumni and friends who were present will continue to engage with the students in this CAPS Community to share career advice and talk about graduate school or any other topic which arises related to the career journey.”

Other attendees included Dr. Erica Brown, vice provost and director of the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership; Liel Leibovitz, Tablet senior writer; and representatives from the Manhattan Institute and the Paul E. Singer Foundation.