- 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
It was a place of humming counting houses, expensively stocked shops and bulging sugar storage places, wharves sagging with imported luxuries; plush taverns, gaming places and a fashionable spa, with the blue of the sea on one hand and a sulphuric greenclad mountain on the other. Alexander, his reddish hair in a tight pigtail, his clothes a replica of James Hamilton’s and probably cut down from them, his eyes bright blue and his stature small, was aware that his father’s affairs were in a chronic mess. The Hamiltons were merely onlookers at good fortune. He saw the sugar riches pouring down from the heights, saw apprentice boys learning to be as wealthy as their masters, saw innumerable Negroes busy at tasks that proclaimed property of which they themselves were the most vital part, and knew himself less than the least of these.
His teacher liked to stand him on a table and make him recite the Decalogue in Hebrew. She fostered Alex’s precocious love of reading, and acquainted him with arithmetic.
He also knew something about the currently controversial Stamp Act. Like the Thirteen Colonies on the mainland, the Indies met King George Ill’s best-known measure with horror. “No taxation without representation” was the cry there, too. hi 1705, when Alexander was ten, boatloads of men came over from the neighbor island of St. Kitts and “helped” Nevis destroy its stamped papers.
One day that same year his father imparted a staggering piece of news. James Hamilton was a good companion. His sons would always love him. He asked Alexander now: “How would you like to take a journey?” A journey! What a wonderful thing! Where?
To St. Croix.
Actually, there was no choice. James had found work as manager for the firm of Archibald Ingram & Son at Basseterre. Ordered to St. Croix to collect a debt, he was in no position to refuse. So in the year 1765 he took Rachael, with the two small boys, back to the scene of her tragedy.
In the meantime matters had turned ill for fames Lytton. His elder son had cheated and fled, taking Lytton’s ship the James & Ann with slaves belonging to another. Lytton’s son-in-law, one Venton, had failed and run oft, taking his wife but not his child. Lytton brought up the child and made good the losses, but the shame weighed heavily on him, on his wile and his remaining son, Peter, whose affairs were crippled likewise. Jt was not a propitious moment lor Rachael to return with the evidences of her shame.
As the passenger sloop dropped anchor in the bay of Christiansted, Alexander saw a high stone wharf and a climbing town beyond. He saw ships with slaves in fetters, vessels loaded down with many cargoes. His blue eyes noted lengthy streets stretching up into the verdant hills, where Rachael had been married. He saw traders crowding and clamoring in the shade of colonnades, saw the color, smelled the smells, heard for the first time in his life the bustle of a commercial town.
Peter Lytton, a few years Rachael’s junior, found her a little house on “The Company’s Lane,” renting it in her maiden name, Faucitt. He would set her up in business, but she pestered James Hamilton on how long it would be before they could return home.
James was there to collect a debt, and the debtor repudiated the claim. It must be taken to court. So Peter Lytton obtained credit for Rachael from her landlord, Thomas Dipnall, provision warehouseman, and she put in a stock of foodstuffs and household articles to sell. Two bachelors from New York, David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger, just setting up in partnership at the lower end of King Street, living there above their store, sold her imported items at wholesale.
Rachael proved good at her job. At first young Lytton kept her accounts, but he was often away. He had a wife old enough to be his mother, with vast interests which he must manage. He said to ten-year-old Alexander Hamilton, “I will teach you how to keep accounts.”
As for James Lytton, he gave his wife’s unfortunate half sister six leather chairs for her house; and he and Ann persuaded the English church to accept her again; which meant not only that she found herself in good standing in the community she had feared, but (more important) that Alexander coidd attend the church school. Lytton, Jr., apprenticed young Jimmy to a carpenter.
Alexander played games and went to parties, helped men race boats in the bay, learned songs from Negroes newly come and seeking happiness, like himself, where they could find it. He joined in songs of French, Dutch, Scottish, and Danish children, his daily companions. He would always love to sing.
Life was good, because “Papa” was there, as precious to his sons as to her who called herself his wife. There was joy in the house on “The Company’s Lane.”