Book Review

Porwancher, Andrew. The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Andrew Porwancher, in his new book, “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton,” dispels the notion that there is nothing new to discover about America’s founding era. Utilizing meticulous research in over twenty-five archives spread throughout the Caribbean and North America, Porwancher makes the case that Alexander Hamilton’s mother converted to Judaism and, therefore, Hamilton was born and raised Jewish. Heretofore, Hamilton’s biographers were puzzled by his brother’s adult Christian baptism and assumed that Hamilton was a deist or not spiritual.[1]

As proof of Hamilton’s Jewish upbringing, Porwancher presents inferential evidence that Hamilton’s mother married a Jewish man and likely adopted his religion. Further, Hamilton attended a Jewish school and did not receive baptism like other children. Additionally, throughout Hamilton’s life, he interacted with the Jewish community and only took communion on his death bed, likely to please his devout wife. All of these arguments are circumstantial.

While Porwancher’s evidence is not definitive, he presents more compelling evidence of Hamilton’s Jewish faith than not. He argues that historians must follow the preponderance of evidence when faced with the lack of documented archival sources. Porwancher’s argument follows Occom’s Razor, in which the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

In addition to this blockbuster cultural revelation, Porwancher offers several incisive observations on the Jewish community during the Revolutionary Era. First, he describes the contributions of the people of the Jewish faith to the Revolutionary efforts citing several officers and over one hundred soldiers who fought for independence. Second, he describes the efforts of Jewish merchants to finance the war and establish credit for the fledgling country.

Porwancher continues his story into the founding era. He points out an ironic observation about prejudice against Jewish people and the separation of church and state. While George Washington and Hamilton sought a civic role for religion, they exhibited no bias towards the Jewish community. Although, on the other hand, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson advocated for a strict split between church and state, their correspondence reveals harsh prejudice toward people of the Jewish faith.

I heartily recommend “The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton” as creative and innovative scholarship that dramatically changes our interpretation of one of the major players in the Revolutionary Era. Moreover, Porwancher’s scholarship reminds us that history is not static, and historians continually grow our knowledge, even subjects with well-trod historiographies.

[1] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 205.