From The Historian's Corner:
The recent bestseller about Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is a lively account of a fascinating man who made profound contributions to our Republic in its formative years. The achievements of Hamilton are particularly remarkable in that he rose from almost total obscurity and penury to the heights of prominence by the sheer force of his character, intellect, and energy. He was, like Mozart or Shakespeare, a force of nature for which there is no particular explanation. Despite its tragic ending, his story can be seen as one of the first and greatest examples of the American dream.
One fact not commonly known about Hamilton, even among members of Clan Pollock, is that he was a Pollock. In fact he was the great-grandson of Robert Pollock, the 17th, and perhaps most illustrious, of the Lairds of Pollock, who was made Baronet of Nova Scotia by Queen Anne in 1703. He was also a grandson of the Laird of the Hamilton family of Scotland, but the stark truth about Alexander Hamilton is that he came into the world a bastard with no inheritance, on a slave populated tropic island remote from his family origins, and was a penniless orphan at the age of fourteen, his guardian dead by suicide. The story of Hamiltonís humble beginning and ultimate fame is both a sober reminder of how quickly the privileged can fall and an inspired tale of how innate genius can rise to glory.
Alexanderís father, James Hamilton (b.1718), was the fourth son of Alexander Hamilton, Laird of Grange in Ayrshire, and Elizabeth Pollock, daughter of the aforementioned Robert, Laird of Pollock. This aristocratic heritage would seem to have ensured James an easy and comfortable life, but in the custom of those times he actually had little claim on the family fortune, and was expected to find a gainful niche for himself in the world after a suitable gentlemanís education. Indeed, his other brothers did meet with such success, but James appeared to have been the dark sheep in the family, of a rather indolent nature, and failed in almost every venture he undertook, including his schooling at the University at Glasgow. He made various attempts at amassing a quick fortune in the burgeoning economy of early eighteenth century Scotland but these invariably came to nothing, and he was regularly bailed out of indebtedness by his older brother, John, successor to the family title, and other associates.
In the face of these misadventures James was vulnerable to the lure of reputedly easy wealth to be made in the sugar plantations of the new world. In 1741 he headed for the West Indies, expecting to return a rich and respected merchant in a few years. But here too, James Hamilton met with little success and eventually became entrapped in a web of debt and declining prospects, with little hope of further rescue from home. By 1748 he was reduced to the position of a minor clerk on St. Kitts. In the midst of this increasingly dreary situation James began a relationship with a woman who had herself fallen rather precipitously in fortune and social status. Perhaps the two perceived a kindred fate in each other.
Rachel Faucette was the product of one failed marriage and the participant of a second one when she took up with James Hamilton in the early 1750ís. Her father, John Faucette, had been a middle class French Huguenot planter on the volcanic island of Nevis, and her mother, Mary Uppington, was an English woman who lived with Faucette, and had two children by him, before their formal marriage in 1715. Rachel was born circa 1729, the sixth of the eventual seven children.
The Faucetteís plantation on Nevis fell into difficulties due to crop failures and they moved to St. Croix in 1737. This and the early deaths of two children, plus an apparently basic incompatibility, took their toll on the relationship, and in 1740 John and Mary Faucette agreed to a permanent separation. She secured a marginal settlement and moved with Rachel, then 10 years old, to the nearby island of St. Kitts. Five years later John Faucette died, leaving Rachel as his sole legatee.
At the age of 15 Rachel was an attractive, vivacious young lady with a significant income, and a highly desirable match for single men on the rise. Unfortunately Rachelís mother forced her into a disastrous marriage with an unscrupulous rouť, Johann Lavien, a Dane and possibly a Sephardic Jew, at least 12 years her senior. They lived on St. Croix and the marriage lasted a few years, producing one son, but Lavien soon frittered away the bulk of Rachelís inheritance and serious problems arose between them, ending in Rachelís abrupt departure from the household in 1750. Lavien, an inveterately spiteful man, availed himself of a little-used law against adultery to put Rachel into the squalid prison at Fort Christiansvaern for several months amongst the dregs of the island populace. Upon her release Rachel, clearly a headstrong lady and completely unrepentant, left directly for St. Kitts, abandoning Lavien, her child, and her fortune.
It was here that these two ill-starred individuals, on their respective downward spirals, met and commenced a fifteen year common law union from which sprang Alexander Hamilton and his older brother, James. Alexander was born most likely in 1755, although some accounts have it as 1757. The years that followed were difficult financially for the family, with the father subsisting on clerical positions on Nevis and St. Croix until in 1765 he suddenly left, never to return. He spent the balance of his life meandering through progressively more demeaning circumstances, finally ending in a refuge for the indigent on the tiny island of Bequia at the far end of the Caribbean.
Four years after James Hamiltonís departure, Alexander and his mother both took violently sick from a tropical fever, which he survived and she did not. A series of familial and legal crises followed, which Ron Chernow summarizes as follows: ďLet us pause to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had all died. James sixteen, and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless. At every step in their rootless, topsy-turvy existence, they had been surrounded by failed, broken, embittered people. Their short lives had been shadowed by a stupefying sequence of bankruptcies, marital separations, deaths, scandals, and disinheritance.Ē
Not a hopeful picture, but somehow from out of this dark nadir of life, in just a handful of years, emerged the astonishing figure who became aide-de-camp of General Washington, principal author of the Federalist Papers, and visionary leader of an upstart nation in a land which at that moment he was barely aware of. How are such things possible? Who can plumb the human spirit? Read the book.
John F. Polk, Ph.D.
Clan Pollock International
First published in the April 2005 Pollag.