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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
No need to call a doctor, she said: everything would be all right. She knew fevers. Mrs. Macdonnell put Rachael to bed and administered a violent purge. Rachael’s fever soared, more wasting even than the mode of treatment. Ann Macdonnell called a barber in, who bled Rachael. A further purge was given her.
No one told little Hamilton that this was wrong, as he stood and watched his mother die. Burning and depleted, bled, each hour she grew weaker. Put to bed himself, becoming feverish at last, he saw his mother in all her agony try to tempt his appetite. “Chicken for Elicks,” the rough spelling has it on the bill of her landlord, who supplied her table too.
Alex mended, but Rachael grew worse. The child’s physical fever went, and he returned to cower in a corner with his brother Jimmy. Peter Lytton, dropping in, called a doctor, who bled and purged Rachael still more.
Rachael had never failed her sons before. She failed them now. She died on February 19, 1768, with both lost little boys beside her.
This was the experience that marked Hamilton permanently. The day Rachael died, the Danish judges of the Probate Court came to her house and went carefully over every inch of it, including the storeroom, which they found neatly stacked with salt pork, smoked beef, smoked and salted fish, rice, flour, fruit and butter. They went over her books, their report remarking on their excellence, sealed up her rooms and her effects, held her slaves—and, in the end, the Hamilton boys’ home was theirs no longer. They could remain until some shelter was found for them. James Lytton did not offer any. Aged and infirm, he could not forget the disgrace Rachael had brought on the family. Peter Lytton was named the boys’ guardian by the court. He gave no invitation either.
Rachael was buried on February 20, 1768, on the Grange plantation, in a bit of ground James Lytton had reserved, the two little boys, veiled, trailing forlornly behind. After the funeral the Probate Court made final appraisal of Rachael’s property. As late as August of that year it looked as if the Hamilton boys might inherit something. On August 3 John Michael Lavien brought suit for all of her property. Everything she had owned, he said, belonged to his son Peter. Her two “obscene children” had no status at all. The court decided in his favor. Young Peter got it all, except the chairs. James Lytton claimed and got those, plus interest, and kept what he got.
The carpenter to whom he was apprenticed took Jimmy into his home. Alexander clung to Peter Lytton, but Peter somehow could not make room for him. The extent of Peter’s pity was to buy back Alexander’s books. There remained stylish Nicholas Cruger—whose partner Beekman had retired from the firm.
Cruger, young and hearty, with a blond Teutonic appearance, was gregarious and gay, the model of a wealthy bachelor; a rich man, with few worries. He came on Alexander Hamilton languishing at a high desk in the dim counting house.
“Boy,” he said, “we’re both bachelors, you and I. There’s room upstairs. How would you like to live here with me?”
So Alexander got a home. Nicholas Cruger housed him, in a room above the counting house, from 1768 to the day he left St. Croix. But from this time forward Hamilton shrank from affection. Lytton was his own, even if only half his flesh and blood. Alexander was in spiritual debt to Cruger, but the attitude of Peter Lytton patently contributed to his lifelong reluctance to give love to any man. Though the upstairs residence of Cruger on King Street was young Alexander’s home, it is plain that at Peter Lytton’s there was something the boy craved. At age fourteen, on a July afternoon in 1769, Hamilton went to his cousin’s house and found some people there.
There were always people there. Lytton had many slaves, including Ledja, mother of his only son. There were constant visitors. This day Ledja wept.
In the bedroom lay Peter Lytton, suicide.
Eighteen months later they buried Lytton, Sr., next to his son. Father and son both left fortunes big enough to be the subject of litigation by many claimants for many years. Neither left the sons of Rachael anything.
As a direct result of their deaths, however, a change took place in Alexander’s life. A Lytton appeared who loved him at sight.
This was the wife of John Venton, James Lytton’s son-in-law, cause of most of his troubles. Ann Venton had been born on St. Croix in 1743, and so was only twelve years Alexander’s senior. Decamping to New York with her husband, deserting her child, she had later quarreled with Venton, but had managed to put roots down. She came back only to pick up her little girl and claim her share of her father’s estate, but, embittered as the other Lyttons, she proved far more sympathetic toward young Hamilton.