- 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
The influence of the minister on the youth was immediate and enduring. Where piety was concerned it would manifest itself in irregular but reverent church attendance throughout life; and an overwhelming desire for Communion at the end.
By the time the clergyman’s initial visit drew to a close his interest in young Hamilton knew no bounds. He marveled at the way the youth absorbed and digested facts, the manner in which he had mastered, alone, subjects too abstruse for many men. Whatever he read he went out of his way to understand, and he read endlessly. At seventeen he was brilliant and informed in every way, far beyond the possibilities of this small scrap of land. So much was clear to Hugh Knox.
Knox told him that he must go north, preferably to the college at Princeton, New Jersey. As if he needed urging! Knox hammered at the theme the more insistently as he came to know the youth better. Alexander answered, I am seventeen, and all the journeys I can hope to take are local voyages for Mr. Cruger, my employer and benefactor.
One afternoon in August, 1772, Alexander looked into the dusk cast by the pillars of Cruger’s arcade, and saw the curious light in the street outside.
He finished a written report to Cruger, and sat listening to the wind. Beyond the arcade the afternoon had gone dark gray—ominous sign on a tropic isle. The daylight seemed to thicken. Everything appeared to wait. Reared in the Indies, Hamilton knew what portended. All Christiansted did, and was more than ordinarily dismayed.
The wind roared. The blackness deepened. The Negroes in their cabins began to wail in concert with the wind. It raged. Soon, doors and shutters were flying off. The night became a horror of inanimate objects, human bodies, every kind of thing hurtling through the dark as real night fell. The sea beyond the Fort was a turmoil. It was St. Croix’s most devastating hurricane of all. Half the houses in Christiansted were in ruins before morning, part of Cruger’s among them. By dawn, in the harbor, not a vessel remained. Far up on dry land ships leaned crazily, plant life, animals, humans crushed beneath. In the hills where the great plantations were, vegetation strewed the ground. The cane, the cotton, were devastated. Slave huts were swept away like leaves. The masters’ houses stood up better, but not much. In Frederiksted three houses were left standing. There were very many dead.
The storm struck on August 30, 1772, and was so ruinous that for months little could be thought of but survival. One evil was swiftly eliminated. Looters, on the morning after the storm, prowled the ruined houses, the shops, the rich warehouses for booty, offering it surreptitiously for sale.
The Danish governor, a new one, von Roepstorff, posted a proclamation. Those whose houses were sufficiently intact must take in all they could of those whose homes had been destroyed. The rest should address themselves to him, and the churches would be opened to them. Captains were forbidden to take advantage by overcharging for articles brought in. Everyone having any needed item must put up a notice to that effect, and “Who sells the most reasonable will surely be the best burgher.” Anyone caught selling higher than he advertised would have his stock confiscated. Each planter must provide for his slaves, “as his own interest dictates.” Everyone with a whole canoe must go out and catch fish. Finders, colored or white, of anything must deliver it up on pain of being adjudged thieves and punished accordingly—which meant, under contemporary law, death.
This invocation of the legitimate and orderly struck a deep chord in Alexander.
That Sunday, he heard Hugh Knox preach his first sermon in his new pastorate, the clergyman having been invited to minister to the combined Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian communities of Christiansted. It was a discourse on the hurricane and its meaning. The boy went home and wrote a letter to his father. He was in the habit of writing to James Hamilton, who had been on the island of St. Vincent, far to the south, for some time. Alexander described the holocaust, recapitulating the governor’s part in enthusiastic terms; occasionally employing, and sometimes improving upon, phrases from the sermon of Hugh Knox.
Knox came on him before the letter went off, was handed it to read, was stunned. A writer of some experience, with a number of published essays to his credit, sometimes he took over the editorship of the Royal Danish-American Gazette, the local paper, the regular editor of which was one of his many friends. He said to Alexander: “Let me publish this.”
Hamilton’s immediate and instinctive reaction was fear of being known to a wider public. Knox had to use his best persuasions; but the letter appeared in the Gazette on October 3, 1772, the clergyman supplying an introduction in which he stated that it had come to his notice by chance, and that those to whom he had shown it thought it might be of general interest.