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The Boyhood Of Alexander Hamilton
Some old myths die in this new study of his West Indies childhood
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
Arrived, Rachael gave her no peace. Back and forth between Charlestown, Nevis, where she lived, and the seaport of Basseterre, on the island of St. Kitts, only a few miles away, Rachael went. St. Kitts was dominated by a fortress, still extant, called Brimstone Hill.
Whenever the wind blew fair, Rachael sailed for Basseterre in any handy canoe or sloop. What she did in the shadow of Brimstone only Lavien would venture to guess; but soon she met there the 33-year-old merchant, James Hamilton.
His family’s home in Ayrshire, Scotland, was called, like Lytton’s place, “The Grange,” a name that would grace the happiest home of his son Alexander one day. James was son of the Laird of Cambuskeith; a younger son, however, in the colonies without fortune. But, he was charming and tender, and won Rachael’s starved affections for good. As soon as she saw him her restlessness was gone, her passion appeased, her adventuring at an end. From now on, she would be true to James.
They could not clear the way to marriage. There was no divorce in the British islands, and Rachael could hardly go back to Christiansted and sue. She moved in with James Hamilton.
They were happy, as far as domestic life was concerned, even when he failed as a merchant.
Rachael took him to the house of her mother on Nevis, but the unhallowed establishment was too much for Mrs. Faucitt, a highly moral woman. She left in a hurry. Rachael was content. Her man struggled to earn a living for her, but they still had little except happiness when James, Jr., arrived in 1753.
Mary went to the nearby Dutch island of St. Eustatius, but she had not deserted her daughter. In 1756 she returned and deeded in trust for Rachael three slaves, salvaged in her legal separation from Faucitt. On January 11, 1755, Rachael had given birth to one more son, Alexander. (The date is significant as differing from tradition and from tombstone statistics. Hamilton celebrated January 11 as his birthday but was always vague about the year. That given in the legal papers quoted later, and accepted here, was based on the St. Croix census, a record of great accuracy.)
James Hamilton had just gone bankrupt, a disgrace J he found hard to bear. Mrs. Faucitt took them all back to “Statia” for awhile, the church records there revealing “James and Rachael Hamilton” as sponsors for a friend’s infant, proving at least that they considered themselves man and wife.
John Michael Lavien now proceeded to disillusion them.
He sued for divorce, alleging that Rachael had been “guilty of such misdoings as between married people are indecent and suspicious” and reciting that she had been absent from him for nine years and had borne “several illegitimate children.” Hence “plaintiff desires freedom from her, barring her from all rights to him or the little he has, which belongs to him and his son by his marriage to her.”
The document was posted up, but never served on Rachael. In April, 1759, Lavien alone appeared before Governor von Proeck, and five justices. In goldtrimmed clothes, glittering buckles, with powder on his hair, Lavien called witnesses to say how common his wife was. The court deliberated and found that Rachael Lavien had had opportunity to appear; that she had “lived on an English island for seven to eight years,” and in that period had given birth to two “obscene” children (the expert translation from the Danish has it thus). The marriage was ended, the right to remarry being reserved to Lavien.
But Rachael was happy on Nevis, and the baby Alexander was the core of her felicity. From the beginning he was bright, and as he grew his intelligence became more striking—and more painful to him. By the age of ten he knew that late had marked him. Not that it was shocking to be illegitimate, on Nevis; some in the best families were, and it was well known. But Rachael’s miniature drama had resounded throughout the islands, in the only unforgivable way. On Nevis, sins were only sins when aired in court.
The cottage in Charlestown had no visitors; yet Rachael looked forward hopefully for the first time in her life. It was she, from bitter experience, who taught Alexander that force was bad. Denied schooling, she sent him to the Jewish school, the only one. The Jews were respectable, and respected, in the islands. His father provided something nearly as uncommon as an education there: a shelf full of books.