- Historic Sites
The Boyhood Of Alexander Hamilton
Some old myths die in this new study of his West Indies childhood
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
Of his boyhood Alexander Hamilton habitually said very little. His political enemies said a good deal but mostly under their breath and only the most ill-tempered of them, old John Adams, went so far as to call him “the bastard son of a Scots peddler.” Hamilton’s family, by seeking to deny the fact of his illegitimacy, merely focused attention on it. Gertrude Atherton, in her fictionalized biography, The Conqueror, told a pretty tale of a blue blood rescued by wealthy relatives from the consequences of his mother’s shame.
All these misguided interpretations have enveloped Hamilton’s boyhood in a murk ol legend and conjecture, through which glares the single bare fact of his illegitimate birth. It is odd that this conlusion should persist. The English and Danish authorities of the islands where he passed his youth kept meticulous records and these records, lor the price oT a little digging, yield all the essential facts. They reveal a story of personal triumph over circumstances far transcending the mere stigma of bastardy.
His ancestry was British throughout. A fable flourishes in the Caribbean isles that through his maternal grandmother he inherited a quarter colored blood. The retord ol her marriage shows her to have been white, English and a widow, named Mary Uppington, when she married |ohn Kaucitt at St. George’s parish church on the island of Nevis, British West Indies, on August 21, 1718.
Faucitt was a widower himself with one daughter; an Englishman and a sugar planter, but an unsuccessful one. On an island where everyone else seemed to make a fortune in sugar lie slipped deeper into debt. He and Mary steadily lost acreage and owned but a dozen Negroes where others had scores. Eventually Mary Faucitt left him, taking with her their only child, Rachael, the girl who was one day to be Alexander Hamilton’s mother and who, in the custom of the place, had been brought up by the slaves.
Amid the tropical, amoral life of the sugar islands, specifically in Charlcstown, the seaport of Nevis, where the rich and successful played, Rachael blossomed quickly into a lush and beautiful adolescence under the eye of an ambitious mother. Before Mary left Faucitt she had steered his daughter Ann into a marriage with the son of one of Nevis’ wealthiest families, the Lyttons. Now she sought to do as well for her own child. The young Lyttons had moved away to the Danish island of St. Croix, but she had met, through them, a merchant named Lavien, middle-aged, flashy in appearance, boastful and well-connected. When he moved to St. Croix too, Mary and her daughter followed. True, he happened to be one of the few men the lovely girl found repulsive, but in 1745, in the drawing room of James Lytton’s fine house, “The Grange,” high up on St. Croix, Rachael Faucitt, aged sixteen, became at her mother’s insistence the unwilling bride of John Michael Lavien.
Five years after the wedding Lavien went rushing down to the town captain of Christiansted, one Bertram Pieter de Nully, in a state of fury, saying, “I want you to jail my wife!”
Now a lot of people knew by then that things weren’t as they should be at Lavien’s plantation house in the hills. His tastes were larger than his means. He was about to lose his land, but worse, there was trouble between him and Rachael, mother of his four-year-old son Peter.
Trouble? Lavien was explicit and his charges went into the record. Rachael was not only disobedient and rebellious; she forgot she was a wife. Repelling him physically, she had encouraged others. He had employed all ordinary means of discipline, and they were unlimited. She had threatened to run away if disci- plined any more. He wished to prevent her from running away.
So he swore out a warrant for her arrest. De Nully went up to the house and seized her and locked her in a cell in the Fort on the Christiansted quay.
Rachael, 21, looking from darkness into brilliant sunshine beyond, came to the first independent decision of her life. De Nully returned and told her that her husband wanted her released; that he had only wished to warn her, and would let bygones be bygones if she would promise to obey and be faithful. Rachael said no. She was never going back to John Michael Lavien: and all de Nully’s pleas could not persuade her. A wife must obey, he reminded her: your child, he said. Rachael adored children, and her first-born loved her. But Peter was not hers by law, except in a spiritual sense. Nothing was a married woman’s, by law. What Lavien chose to do with Peter he could do regardless of her.
“Rachael!” Once the world had rocked when Mary Faucitt used that tone. It had no effect now. Ann Lytton begged her half sister to think of James’ position; but Lytton was secure enough. Rachael said no.
So she must leave St. Croix, and Mary Faucitt must go too. Lavien had been cheated, a man with friends in the highest places, respected for trying to keep his home intact. Mary, who had worked hard for respect and success, and had achieved a measure, was made to fee! her own situation in every way, by her creditors not least. When she bade the Lyttons farewell and with Rachael sailed home to Nevis, she was in utter poverty.