Alexander Hamilton’s Anti-Semitic Enemies

December 3, 2021 | Andrew Porwancher
About the author:

Although they were likely unaware of Alexander Hamilton’s childhood connection to Jews and Judaism, the opponents of the first treasury secretary’s policies used the old, ugly stereotypes of Jews’ nefarious relationship with money to tarnish him. Andrew Porwancher writes:

He was repeatedly accused of pursuing policies to enrich Jewish financiers overseas.  When Hamilton’s vision for a Bank of the United States materialized and its stock subscriptions quickly sold out, an editorial in a Philadelphia newspaper . . . fingered “Amsterdam Jews” as among those who were bereft of “honesty or industry” and benefitting from the bank.

Anti-Jewish polemic could also inveigh against Christians for engaging in supposedly Jewish behavior. Before Hamilton took office at the treasury, many speculators had purchased deflated government bonds from veterans of the Revolution at a fraction of their face value. Hamilton was now poised to stimulate American credit and, as a consequence, those bonds would likely skyrocket in price. A newspaper columnist in New York assailed Christian speculators who stood to harvest revenues that would otherwise have gone to soldiers. . . . He analogized them to the notorious character of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, bristling, “Shakespeare’s Jew, the character of a vigorous imagination, is surpassed in avarice by the real character of these Christians.” . . . This kind of Gentile-on-Gentile antisemitism was not unusual for the era.

Yet Porwancher also places such anti-Semitism in a wider context:

At a time when Jews were second-class citizens in much of Europe and banished from other countries, the U.S. Constitution granted America’s Jewish population a significant measure of civic equality by making them eligible for federal office. Two years after the Constitution’s ratification, George Washington became the first head of a modern state expressly to acknowledge Jews as citizens. And Hamilton’s financial system ultimately did pass into the law despite the fevered opposition. There is much in our early history to raise concerns about the deep roots of American anti-Semitism, yet there is much to give us hope.

Read more on Marginalia: