Anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack or seen Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece—so, basically, anyone on the Earth—has heard about Alexander Hamilton’s no-good dad. Ham acknowledges that he was a Scotsman, but there’s a lot more to learn about James Hamilton, Sr.
When James Hamilton met Rachel Faucett Levien, she was already married to Danish plantation owner John Levien. The two lived with their son, Peter, on his property, oddly named Contentment, but their marriage was far from happy; once Rachel decided she didn’t want to live with her hubby, he threw her in jail and called her a whore. When she got out of prison, she met James, the fortune-seeking fourth son of a minor Scottish lord.
Decades later, Alexander Hamilton described his father thus in a letter to his longtime friend William Jackson: “Himself, being a younger son of a numerous family, was bred to trade.” Ron Chernow noted in Alexander Hamilton, the biography that inspired Miranda, that “many young aristocrats flocked to the West Indian sugar islands, seduced by a common fantasy: they would amass a quick fortune, then return to Europe, flush with cash, and snap up magnificent estates.” At the time, James was staying with a Hamilton cousin who was a big deal in island government; James had hoped his relative would help set him up in business as a merchant.
But James Hamilton wasn’t a responsible businessman; he was a deadbeat charmer who wound up making his historical mark through his progeny. Alex wrote to Jackson that his father was “from too generous and too easy a temper, [so] he failed in business, and at length fell into indigent circumstances.” In another note to a Scottish uncle, Alexander quipped, “You no doubt have understood that my father’s affairs at a very early day went to wreck.”
A map of the Scottish Clan Hamilton's lands. Image via ScotClans.
After she exited prison, Rachel went to go live with James, and the two had a pair of sons—our dear Alex, and James Jr. Technically, Alexander and J.J. were illegitimate, since they were born before John Levien divorced their mom in 1759. Divorce, which required money and influence, wasn’t an easy option for Rachel, so she and James lived as common-law spouses. Technically, since she was supposedly the party at fault for the breakdown of her first marriage, she couldn’t remarry, but local authorities seem to have accepted her relationship with James. A church record from a neighboring island, St. Eustatius, lists them as “James Hamilton and Rachel Hamilton his wife.” In the aforementioned letter to Jackson, Alex claimed his parents did get married at one point.
The Hamiltons lived together as a foursome until James decided to up and move them to St. Croix in 1765. No one’s sure just what went wrong, but, in 1766, James himself went back to St. Kitts (now a two-in-one nation with Nevis) without his family. He never came back, and Rachel died in 1768 of fever, leaving the littlest Hamiltons to fend for themselves.
Of course, we know what happened to brilliant, young Alexander, but James’s relationship with the famous son he abandoned was understandably never strong. James lived for a while in the Leeward Islands, which included St. Kitts; true to his personality, he mooched off of Alexander once his son got successful. In the aforementioned letter to Jackson, Alex recalled, “For some time he was supported by his friends in Scotland, and for several years before his death by me.” Alexander wasn’t under any illusions about the kind of man his dad was, but still had a relatively high opinion of him, writing, “It was his fault to have had too much pride and two large a portion of indolence—but his character was otherwise without reproach and his manners those of a Gentleman.”
In fact, Alexander’s dad wasn’t the only James Hamilton who used his family member’s fame to his own gain. The politician's big brother, James Jr., did the same. In a 1785 letter to his only full sibling, Alex wrote, “Nothing will make me happier than, as far as may be in my power, to contribute to your relief. I will cheerfully pay your draft upon me for fifty pounds sterling, whenever it shall appear.” In that same letter, Alex asked his brother, “But what has become of our dear father? It is an age since I have heared [sic] from him or of him, though I have written him several letters.” He mused, “Perhaps, alas! he is no more.”
Alexander still felt bad for - and embarrassed by - the man who’d left him, stating, “My heart bleeds at the recollection of his misfortunes and embarrassments.” He finally told James, “Should he be alive inform him of my inquiries, beg him to write to me, and tell him how ready I shall be to devote myself and all I have to his accommodation and happiness.” Ever the good son!
Feature image via Tumblr.