- 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
But James Hamilton might be sent anywhere on his return to St. Kitts. The firm had purchased land and commercial holdings in remote islands. He knew that Rachael and the boys would give up all lor him; that they dreaded parting; but in January, 1766, when Ingram & Son’s claim was finally allowed and the money paid to the emissary, James Hamilton went to Rachael and told her he was going back alone. He was all she ever asked, adored by both their boys, but he left them in Christiansted, and she never saw him again.
Alexander’s best friend at St. John’s School, one of his best friends through life, was Edward Stevens, son of a merchant of Christiansted. Neddy had the Scottish coloring Alexander had. Fair, rosy and slender in their little-old-man clothes, Ned and Alex were taken for brothers. They felt like brothers.
As far as Alexander was concerned, IiIe was still good enough. Afternoons when school was out he and Xeddy made plans for tame and fortune and far travel, which in the case of one of them were absurd. Evenings he read, or figured, in the lane, watching over the stock. By candlelight he pored over philosophies, histories and travel classics, but not until he had brought the books of the business up to date, working out debits and credits so well that elegant Nicholas Cruger, coming on him thus in Rachael’s place one day, remarked that he could use an apprentice in his counting house.
So Alexander got another place to run to: the colonnaded shop and shadowy office of Cruger and Beekman, whose affairs grew rapidly. Cruger understood small boys; and Alexander was still only eleven. The store was cavernous and dim, redolent behind its pillars. The partners dealt in mules and hides, lumber and rum, molasses, cotton, sugar, barrels and staves. Also slaves. Cruger was charmed because the boy showed a gift lor it all.
To the boy, home and family meant most. Cousin Peter Lytton was agreeable according to his lights but was naturally morose and miserly, and when the ancient woman he had married died he sank into despondency, for he had loved both her and her wordly possessions, to which others promptly laid claim. He could spare Rachael and the boys very little of his time.
Mother and children slept together in a bed that had belonged to her father, John Faucht, now deceased, who had willed her all he had. They ate from his silver and his dishes, and were waited upon by Rachael’s three slaves. After a while she began calling herself, for reasons of propriety, “Madame Lewine,” (or so the official record spells it).
Alexander’s disposition matched his sunny hair. In the office near the foot of King Street, close to the waters of the bay, he kept Cruger’s accounts, which were increasingly involved. For Cruger finished what Peter Lytton began, Alexander’s training in bookkeeping; till soon the boy outstripped them both. With an alert curiosity and an ingrained aptitude, Alexander mastered the intricacies ot St. Croix finance, a complex enough economy, and in the process came to understand the profits and perils ol piracy. The region was notorious as a pirates’ paradise. Those in the streets ol Christiansted were not all honest traders, but often smuggling and honest trade were pursued concurrently by the best. The boy studied this. The temptations lor slipping through the Danish West India-Guinea Company’s regulations and thereby making a lot ot money were great; but he also closely watched legitimate dealings between commoners and kings, and came to the conclusion, which he would never relinquish, that the governing and the governed profited most by mutual respect; that when either transgressed, evil befell.
Small, slender and frail, he stood in “Cruger’s Square,” checking oft Negro men, women and children as they were brought ashore, cowering, fearful, aching from their fetters still, and thinking nothing of it. The boy consulted with sea captains in shiny hard hats, with sailors in striped shirts and stocking caps. He talked to buccaneers. He touched his forehead to ladies from the hills down shopping in their painted equipages, who smiled and bowed in return.
Rachael “Lewine” was very proud. Her youngest would be a merchant himself one day, there was no doubt. A scholar, too. He was always reading about the world; about men who made history.
This was Hamilton’s life till he reached thirteen. His mother made and mended his clothes and kept his clumsy shoes in repair, kept his buckles shining. She fixed the ruddy pigtail of his hair and kept his linen washed. Her slaves had now increased to nine, one of whom was Ajax, Alexander’s slave, his mother said, forever. A boy named Christian belonged to Jimmy.
One morning in February, 1768, Rachael awoke with a high fever. Terror broke then into the little house. For Rachael to be ill was something so rare as to be awful. The boys ran to a lodger Rachael had taken in, Ann Macdonnell, who came down.