“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.