Design by Simona Zaret­sky. William J. Weaver, Alexan­der Hamil­ton. Indi­anapo­lis Muse­um of Art [ca. 1806]. 

I fear pre­pos­ses­sions are strong­ly against us,” Hamil­ton wrote to his wife, Eliza. But we must try to over­come them.” It was the first day of a high-pro­file tri­al where he was serv­ing as legal coun­sel for a mer­chant accused of fraud. Hamil­ton seemed to brace for the worst, adding, If I should lose my cause I must con­sole myself with find­ing my friends. With the utmost eager­ness I will fly to them.”

It had been five years since Hamil­ton stepped down as trea­sury sec­re­tary to take up legal prac­tice in Man­hat­tan. He had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as the pre­mier lit­i­ga­tor of the New York bar by wed­ding his ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of law with his gift for court­room ora­to­ry. Although Hamil­ton was remark­ably self-assured in his endeav­ors, and the facts in the fore­go­ing case were square­ly on his side, he felt unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly dis­com­fit­ed as the tri­al com­menced. There was good rea­son to be anx­ious. After all, Hamilton’s prin­ci­pal wit­ness­es were Jews.

An anti­se­mit­ic trope at the time held that the Jew­ish faith actu­al­ly encour­aged its adher­ents to lie under oath in courts of law. This ugly stereo­type had deep roots in Euro­pean his­to­ry and migrat­ed to the New World. Hamilton’s oppos­ing coun­sel, Gou­verneur Mor­ris, would prove all too will­ing to resort to reli­gious prej­u­dice in a bid to gain favor with the court.

Mor­ris knew he could not com­pete with Hamil­ton on legal grounds. Instead, Mor­ris told the court he had no inten­tion of ref­er­enc­ing law books and would appeal to the prin­ci­ples writ­ten on the heart of man.” Mor­ris’ clos­ing argu­ment degen­er­at­ed into a base attack on Hamilton’s two Jew­ish wit­ness­es. Allud­ing to them as these Jew wit­ness­es,” Mor­ris sought to impugn their cred­i­bil­i­ty pure­ly on the basis of their reli­gion. Jews are not to be believed upon oath,” he insist­ed bluntly.

A large crowd gath­ered in court the next day to see how Hamil­ton, ever the relent­less fight­er, would respond. This case had become more than a mere legal dis­pute between mer­chants; at issue was the momen­tous ques­tion of whether Amer­i­can jus­tice would be blind to reli­gion. The Rev­o­lu­tion had rest­ed on a rad­i­cal promise of equal­i­ty. Morris’s believ­ing that anti­semitism would be an effec­tive tac­tic with the court sug­gest­ed that the egal­i­tar­i­an ratio­nale for the war had yield­ed to entrenched prej­u­dice. Hamil­ton under­stood the stakes for both Amer­i­can Jew­ry and the coun­try, and he resolved to defend the for­mer to real­ize his vision for the latter.

This case had become more than a mere legal dis­pute between mer­chants; at issue was the momen­tous ques­tion of whether Amer­i­can jus­tice would be blind to religion.

Ref­er­enc­ing Mor­ris’ attack on the Jews, Hamil­ton asked the court, Has he for­got­ten, what this race once were, when, under the imme­di­ate gov­ern­ment of God him­self, they were select­ed as the wit­ness­es of his mir­a­cles, and charged with the spir­it of prophe­cy?” Hamil­ton moved from a dis­cus­sion of the Jews as the Cho­sen Peo­ple to the sor­did his­to­ry of their suf­fer­ing. He decried how, as rem­nants of scat­tered tribes,” adher­ents of Judaism were the degrad­ed, per­se­cut­ed, reviled sub­jects of Rome,” an empire that oppressed Jews in all her resist­less pow­er, and pride, and pagan pomp.” Roman rule had made Jew­ry an iso­lat­ed, trib­u­tary, friend­less peo­ple.” Hamilton’s mes­sage was clear — Mor­ris’s was per­pet­u­at­ing a dark his­to­ry of anti­semitism that had plagued Jews since antiquity.

For Hamil­ton, his Jew­ish wit­ness­es were right­eous heirs to a divine­ly ordained reli­gion. Were not the wit­ness­es of that pure and holy, hap­py and Heav­en-approved faith?” he inquired before the bench. Hamil­ton pro­claimed that the alle­gor­i­cal Lady Jus­tice pro­tect­ed Jews the same as she did all oth­ers: be the injured party…Jew, or Gen­tile, or Chris­t­ian, or Pagan, For­eign or Native, she clothes him with her man­tle, in whose pres­ence all dif­fer­ences of faiths or births, of pas­sions or of prej­u­dices — all are called to acknowl­edge and revere her suprema­cy.” Here was a giant of the ear­ly repub­lic demand­ing that Jews, the down­trod­den of Europe for cen­turies, stand equal to non-Jews in an Amer­i­can court­room. In a young repub­lic caught between Old World hier­ar­chies and New World hopes, Hamilton’s defense of equal­i­ty for Jews was a pow­er­ful vin­di­ca­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideals. He emerged vic­to­ri­ous by a twen­ty-eight-to-six vote.

Hamil­ton, gen­er­al­ly renowned for the verve of his legal per­for­mances, had demon­strat­ed an emo­tion­al invest­ment in the case that exceed­ed even his usu­al stan­dards. A New York Supreme Court jus­tice lat­er rec­ol­lect­ed that of the count­less tri­als Hamil­ton lit­i­gat­ed with ener­gy and fer­vor,” there was at most only one oth­er — involv­ing free­dom of the press — in which his zeal was so strik­ing­ly dis­played.” Mor­ris’ co-coun­sel, Robert Troup, drew sim­i­lar con­clu­sions. In a let­ter to the Amer­i­can ambas­sador to Great Britain, Troup relayed the details of the tri­al and observed, Our friend Hamil­ton nev­er appeared to have his pas­sions so warm­ly engaged in any cause.” What every­one could see was that the case stirred some­thing deep with­in Hamil­ton. What no one could imag­ine was that Hamil­ton, in all like­li­hood, shared with his wit­ness­es a Jew­ish upbringing.

The case for Hamilton’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in his Caribbean boy­hood, as detailed in my new book, involves debunk­ing a string of myths about his ori­gin sto­ry. And although Hamil­ton did not iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish in the Unit­ed States, the fore­go­ing tri­al sug­gests that Hamilton’s youth may go a long way toward explain­ing his Amer­i­can adult­hood. Like all peo­ple, Hamil­ton was indeli­bly mold­ed by his begin­nings. His emphat­ic cri­tique of anti­semitism in court — the most full-throat­ed repu­di­a­tion of anti­semitism to come from the lips of any Amer­i­can founder — vivid­ly illus­trates how the roots of reli­gious equal­i­ty in the Unit­ed States are insep­a­ra­ble from Hamilton’s own.

Adapt­ed from The Jew­ish World of Alexan­der Hamil­ton by Andrew Por­wanch­er. Copy­right © 2021 by Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Reprint­ed by permission.

Andrew Por­wanch­er is the Wick Cary Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa and the Ernest May Fel­low at Har­vard University.