Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Mother to a Founding Father


Besides his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton had nother strong women in his life—one of them, his mother, Rachel. She was the daughter of a French Huguenot, John and his wife, Mary Uppington.  John was a physician and a minor planter, whose land lay high up the volcano on the island of Nevis—not the easiest ground to work. They had two daughters, Ann and Rachel.

Ann married James Lytton, a planter of St. Croix. In 1745 Rachel’s father died, leaving everything to her, the unmarried daughter. At sixteen, by all accounts lovely, Rachel was, in a small way, an heiress. Alexander, who didn’t reveal much about his stormy childhood, termed hers a “snug fortune.” Mary, eager to make a good match for her child, welcomed several suitors. One was an older man, James Lavien, a Dane, whose fancy clothes and reserved manner hid the fact that a.) he was a tyrant and b.) he had already lost most of the money he still pretended to have.   

Mary seems to have pressured Rachel to marry this apparently respectable, stable older man. Unfortunately, it did not take Lavien long to go through his young wife’s money. By 1750, all masks had been discarded. Although we don’t know the details of Rachel’s suffering, her husband was the kind of man who would have  her imprisoned for three months a damp cell in the dark, disease-ridden fortress of St. Croix after signing a complaint which accused her of “whoring with everyone.”

Perhaps Rachel had refused to share his bed, but, perhaps she, spirited as she was, had found a lover. As a modern woman, I say "more power to her!" We'll never know the complete story. If Lavien thought prison could break her, however, he was much mistaken. As soon as she was released, she fled the island with her mother, returning to Nevis. Having no rights in the matter, Rachel also abandoned a young son, Peter, when she escaped.  I see this as a measure of her desperation. Years later, Alexander would write: “Tis only to consult our hearts to be convinced that…individuals revolt at the idea of being guided by external compulsion.”

Still, this act would have endless consequences, first for Rachel and later for her sons by James Hamilton. As there was never a legal separation, Lavien could, some years later, under Danish law, divorce her and name her adulteress. This was a charge she could no longer defend herself against, for she was, by this time, living with James Hamilton on Nevis. Over the years, Lavien, (and, later on, Peter, too,) would continue to persecute the Hamilton children. After Rachel’s death, Lavien promptly reappeared and claimed all his ex-wife’s property for her “only legitimate son” Peter. She, clearly a better businesswoman than either of her men, had created enough wealth to make this action worthwhile.  Alexander and James, barely in their teens, were now penniless, orphaned, and labelled, courtesy of the Danish probate court, as “whore children.”

In a world where a woman had almost no legal standing, I believe Rachel Faucette made the best decisions she could. She fled from a brutal husband and then tried, with James Hamilton, to find a happily-ever-after.  Abandoned, again without a man to shelter her after James Hamilton—charming and feckless—abruptly decamped, she found a way to support herself and her children. She kept a small retail store and rented out the slaves, which she, like almost every other white person in the islands, owned. In her store she retailed dried beef, rice, apples, flour, fish, butter and textiles.


Alexander first helped his mother in her shop. After her death, he clerked for the international trading firm of Cruger and Beekman, but he no doubt had his first lessons in bookkeeping and management from her. Rachel also taught him French. These skills would serve him well when he joined George Washington's official family during the Revolutionary War. During his childhood,  Alexander also learned about power, about the darker side of human nature, and about injustice, first-hand--subjects he would ponder till the end of his life. 

For very obvious 18th Century reasons, Hamilton almost never spoke of his mother with outsiders, but "she was recollected with inexpressible fondness and (he) often spoke of her as a woman of superior intellect, highly cultivated, of elevated and generous sentiments," and an "unusual elegance of person and manner." *

* John Church Hamilton, fourth son of Alexander Hamilton, "The Life of Alexander Hamilton," published 1854.  

Hamilton I (1757-1789) by Robert Hendrickson, ISBN: 9780884051398
Hamilton by Forrest McDonald, ISBN: 9780393300482
 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow ISBN: 1594200092
The Young Hamilton by Thomas J. Flexner, ISBN: 9780823217892

~~Juliet Waldron