Alexander Hamilton, Erickson and Adler
Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, West Indies, in 1755, or maybe 1757, to Rachel Levien and James Hamilton, or maybe Rachel Levien and Thomas Stephens. At any rate, he was the second illegitimate child born to a white woman on an isolated island whose economic basis was sugar products created by slave labor. Hamilton’s early life was pillar to post, characterized by a single parent household, frequent moves and upheavals, and marked by occasional malicious legal proceedings that ensured the family remained destitute. Hamilton’s mother seems to have enjoyed sex and the company of men, earning her a three month stay in a fetid prison at the behest of her soon to be absent husband at one point.
In 1767, both Alexander and his mother contracted an unspecified fever. For days, they lay next to each other on a single filthy bed hovering between life and death until Rachel finally died. Within hours creditors cordoned off the house and property, and Alexander and his brother were delivered to an aunt. Within the year, what little inheritance due Hamilton and his brother was awarded to a wealthy half brother in South Carolina.
Alexander Hamilton could not have begun life in a more disadvantaged state. Born on an island that defined the term “back water” at the bottom of the social ladder, impoverished, orphaned, and left to the charity of people who might or might not be relatives, he nevertheless became one of the most famous and admired men of the modern age. He helped hammer out the Constitution, was picked by George Washington as a personal aide, led men in battle, established the banking system of the United States, founded the first political party, and was one of three authors of The Federalist Papers – an explanation and rationale for the Constitution, referenced by legal scholars to this day.
How did he do it? What lessons can we learn from him?
One thing Hamilton had going for him was his brain. Another was that he was a genuinely likeable person. From an early age, he was attracted to books, and had amassed a modest library by the time of his mothers’ death. Because he was literate, loved learning and was pleasant and hardworking, he was offered a job as a clerk for a shipping company. He hated it. It was a boring and monotonous job, consisting mostly of copying ships manifests into ledgers, calculating currency exchanges and counting inventory. He learned quickly, however, and at the age of 14 was left to run the entire business while the owners negotiated business in New York. Ships captains, who were also sometime pirates, saw an opportunity to intimidate the boy but he was able to stand them down as if he too were born to the sea.
What got him off the island and to New York, however, was a letter he wrote to his (possibly) biological father, James Hamilton. In 1772, a hurricane tore through St. Croix, Virgin Islands where Hamilton was clerking, and destroyed most of the island. Hamilton wrote a moving description of the epic hurricane that somehow came to the attention of the local newspaper.
“It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of the almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear splitting shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.”
This from a 17 year old who had never attended school living on one of the most isolated islands in the world.
One of the people who read his description of the hurricane in the newspaper was his (other possibly) biological father, Thomas Stephens. Stephens arranged for Hamilton to move to New York, gave him a stipend and organized financing to put him though a New Jersey school soon to be named Princeton. Hamilton never looked back. He met the right people, fit into the right social circles and became an indelible part of the history and politics of the United States.
What would Erikson have to say about Hamilton?
He would probably have looked to Hamilton’s need to excel because of his humble beginnings and difficulty in the fourth stage of development, Industry vs. Inferiority. Throughout his life, Hamilton would reach for ever higher achievement, and because he was usually successful, we tend to consider this might have been over compensation for feelings of inferiority.
One of Hamilton’s biggest mistakes led to the end of his political career. John Adams was a true American aristocrat who hated Hamilton and frequently referred to the mysteries of Hamilton’s birth in public with callous maliciousness. These social slights must have been too much for Hamilton.
In 1801, he wrote an expose of Adams frequent screaming rants while he was President, questioning his sanity. Although Hamilton wrote anonymously, the two men made no secret of their hatred for one another and authorship was quickly determined. In the early days of the Republic, Presidents were still venerated as Founders, and Adams followed George Washington, already known as the Father of the United States, into the Presidency.
Erikson would have pointed to this episode as an illustration of how Hamilton dealt with his feelings of inferiority and need for justice.
Adler would likely have come to the same conclusion as Erikson, but would have had more concepts to consider. Hamilton’s illness coming at the same time as his mothers’ death would have fit Alders’ concept of organ inferiority. Adler might well have said that Hamilton was initially driven to his heights of achievement as a reaction to his near fatal illness that took his mother.
Further, Adler might have said that Hamilton developed an especially powerful aggressive drive in compensation to the perceived helplessness of his childhood. These events and their resulting drives would have been the psychological mechanisms that pushed Hamilton to excel in so many areas of his life, first with reading and writing, then onto successfully running an international import/export business while still in his mid teen years. This, combined with his above average gift of intellect would explain his mastery of writing that was to be displayed not only in his letter describing a hurricane, but his later essays on political theory in The Federalist Papers.
One thing that does not easily fit into Alders’ theory is Hamilton’s birth order. Being the second born Adler would have not have expected such a drive for excellence. Interestingly Hamilton’s older brother took up a trade in wood – putting him at the bottom of the social ladder considering that talented freed slaves sometimes took up the same trade. Maybe Hamilton’s intellect made him the defacto oldest child. Maybe the barbarities of the Hamilton families’ lifestyle undermined the concept of family constellation. Maybe the cause is lost to history.
One other interesting aspect of Hamilton’s character that does not fit neatly into either Erikson or Alders’ theories, but seems relevant is his view of slavery. From an early age Hamilton was exposed to the most vile and disgusting treatment of human beings, in a society in which such cruelty was accepted and institutionalized. Blacks outnumbered whites on St. Croix by a ratio of six to one, and terror was used to discourage any hint of non-compliance. Unlike the colonies, slaves were cheap and plentiful in the Caribbean, so mutilations and hangings were common. Raise a hand to a white and lose it. Try to escape and lose a foot. Look at a white woman the wrong way and…well, I do not need to go further, but Hamilton surely witnessed such public disciplines, and worse.
None of the Founding Fathers was especially supportive of slavery; it was seen as unavoidable in the south. An enduring shame established a century earlier because of poor agricultural conditions that would eventually die out as economic conditions improved. Most of the Founders tolerated it as an intractable but temporary embarrassment. Except for Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, both of whom spoke out against it frequently and passionately.
Given his very hard and difficult early life, it is hard to trace where Hamilton found this civilized and liberal view, but it was certainly present. We know that at one point Hamilton’s mother gave a house slave to each of her sons who were treated more as playmates than servants. Maybe that is where Hamilton found his civility regarding slavery. Maybe it was in taking inventory of slave ships as a clerk. Slave ships were so squalid that it was said they could be smelled from over the horizon. The raw mathematics of human suffering, combined with Hamilton’s intellect, wealth of knowledge gained form reading, and personal contact with black servants/playmates might have combined to give him a perspective few others of his generation could have had. At any rate, Hamilton tempered the pro-slavery arguments of southern delegates to the Constitution, and set the stage for many of the slavery related political conflicts that led to the Civil War
Chernow, Ron, .(2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York, NY: Penguin.