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Happy birthday Alexander Hamilton! But what year were you born?

January 11, 2017 by Scott Bomboy

 

Today we celebrate the birthday of the iconic Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father, politician and belated Broadway star. But we actually don’t know in which year Hamilton was born, making the number of candles on his birthday cake a problem.

Rare photo of first known Hamilton watercolor portrait. Source: Library of Congress

Historians believe Hamilton told friends he was born on January 11 on the Caribbean island of Nevis. His parents were James Hamilton, a Scot who moved to the Caribbean to seek a business career, and Rachel Faucett, a French Huguenot who had left her first husband but was not divorced when Alexander was born. Official birth and christening records don’t exist for Hamilton.

The controversy about Hamilton’s birth year is related to two factors. Hamilton inferred to people he was born in 1757 and his age as listed on his tomb in New York matches that date. But in 1768, after his mother died, a relative testified at a probate proceeding that Alexander Hamilton was 13 years old, which would place his birth year in 1755. (A transcript exists of that hearing.)

Ron Chernow addressed the controversy in his well-known biography of Hamilton. “Few questions bedevil Hamilton biographers more than the baffling matter of his year of birth,” Chernow wrote.  While it had been commonly accepted after Hamilton arrived in the British American colonies that he was born in 1757, Chernow points to some other evidence.

For example, on April 6, 1771, a poem appeared in the newspaper the Royal Danish American Gazette in St. Croix. It was preceded with this introduction: “Sir, I am a youth about seventeen, and consequently such an attempt as this must be presumptuous; but if, upon perusal, you think the following piece worthy of a place in your paper, by inserting it you’ll much oblige Your obedient servant.” The note was signed “A.H.”

Some historians attribute the poem to Hamilton. But there is no direct evidence he was the author.  The National Archives, however, believes “it is a reasonable assumption that H [meaning Hamilton] was the author.”

Chernow thought it was more likely that Hamilton was born in 1755. The late Broadus Mitchell, a historian who wrote several Hamilton biographies, also believed 1755 was a more likely date in his first biography of Hamilton from 1957, called “Alexander Hamilton: Youth to Maturity, 1755-1788.”

Mitchell said that Hamilton told friends he “was about sixteen” when he came to America. Some historians back in 1957 believed Hamilton arrived on the mainland in 1773, but Mitchell pointed to other evidence that Hamilton arrived here in late 1772.  Hamilton’s son also believed his father arrived in Boston from Saint Croix in late October 1772. That would put Hamilton at an age of 15 years and almost 10 months in October 1772 – if Hamilton were born in 1757.

In any event, if Hamilton knew his true age, why would he have reason to lie about it? One theory is Hamilton misstated his age when he submitted that poem in 1771 to gain favor with newspaper publishers. Other theories are that Hamilton said he was younger than his years to impress people in America or to possibly gain an apprenticeship.

An interesting clue is a photograph of miniature watercolor and ink portrait in the possession of the Library of Congress. The painting in the picture shows a young Hamilton and it is inscribed on the back with the date of January 11, 1773, the date believed to be his 16th or 18th birthday. It was donated to the Library in 1922. Is it the version of young Hamilton from Saint Croix or the newly arrived in America Hamilton? That is a mystery for another day.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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