Alexander Hamilton has proved himself to be the surprise Broadway star of 2016, some 200 years after his death. The success of the musical bearing his name, which confirmed its supremacy at last weekend’s Tony awards, has spurred an interest in the life and times of the Founding Father, and in the historical context in which he lived. The founding period of the United States, which came just after the close of the series of French and Indian Wars between British (American) and French (Canadian) colonists, is which was still defined, in part, by the enmity between the two nations. Hamilton, as one of the leaders of the Federalist party, is well-known for his pro-British and anti-French views, just as his nemesis, Jefferson, was for his anti-British and pro-French outlook.
In 1789, the French minister plenipotentiary to the United States, the Comte de Moustier, noted after a conversation with Hamilton,
“Il est né Anglois et je ne le crois pas très bien disposé envers la France [He was born an Englishman and I don’t believe he is very well disposed towards France]”
Long before the two founders were sparring over federal foreign policy, however, Hamilton wrote a series of pieces which outline his anti-French and anti-Catholic views.
One of the peculiarities of Alexander Hamilton as a Founding Father is that he was born not in the present-day United States, but in the British West Indies, on the island of Nevis. His father was Scottish but his mother, Rachel Faucett, was the daughter of a French Huguenot refugee. Although no French writings by Hamilton survive, it is assumed that he could at least read the language, since he was sent several letters in French by the Marquis de Lafayette and numerous others. It’s possible that Hamilton first learned French from his mother; it’s also possible (though not proven), that his family history biased him against Catholicism.
One of Hamilton’s earliest writings, penned anonymously in 1774, was against the Quebec Act of 1774, a piece of legislation that guaranteed the continuation of French civil law and the free practice of religion in Canada, following its conquest by the British in 1763. Hamilton, like others in British North America, was appalled by this decision (it is ennumerated in the Declaration of Indpendence as one of the “Intolerable Acts” committed by the British Crown against the colonies). In part, Hamilton objected to the prerogatives reserved to the British King and his ministers in the legislation, arguing that
“Since the whole legislative, executive, and judiciary powers are ultimately and effectually, though not immediately, lodged in the King, there can be no room to doubt, that an arbitrary government has been really instituted throughout the extensive region now comprised in the province of Quebec.”
In the second part of his Remarks on the Quebec Bill, however, Hamilton focuses exclusively on matters of religion, and here his anti-Catholic sentiment is in full force. Decrying what he sees as the creation of an established church (and overlooking that various protestant sects had that status in parts of New England), Hamilton is especially concerned that the colonial authorities are favoring Catholics over Protestants. Why?
“Roman catholics…by reason of their implicit devotion to their priests, and the superlative reverence they bear to those, who countenance and favour their religion, will be the voluntary instruments of ambition; and will be ready, at all times, to second the oppressive designs of administration against the other parts of the empire”
The implication is clear. Catholic French Canadians are destined to be slavish followers of their priests, and of the British authorities who are allied with them. Elsewhere, he fears
“We may see an inquisition erected in Canada, and priestly tyranny may hereafter find as propitious a soil, in America as it ever has in Spain or Portugal. we may see an inquisition erected in Canada, and priestly tyranny may hereafter find as propitious a soil, in America as it ever has in Spain or Portugal.”
Even when proposing an alliance between the colonists and France against Great Britain, as in another early pamphlet, The Farmer Refuted, Hamilton is far from complimentary about his future comrades-in-arms:
“The French from being a jealous, politic and enterprizing people…could have a fairer opportunity, or a greater temptation to aggrandise themselves, and triumph over Britain, than would be here presented…their present, seemingly, pacific and friendly disposition is merely a piece of finesse; intended to dupe [the British] administration into some violent measures with the colonies, that they may improve them to their own advantage.”
These views – of the French as being slavishly dependent on their feudal and clerical overlords, or as being jealous neighbors waiting to pounce on British weakness, were not uncommon at the time, and are perhaps to be expected after centuries of war between the two nations, much of which took place in North America. In the short term, they did the Americans little good, and the public declarations against the Quebec Act may have contributed to the Americans’ difficulty to gain widespread French Canadian support for their invasion of Quebec in 1775. However, they are also useful for understanding future anti-Catholic feeling in the United States.
I am indebted to the work by John Harper, Alexander Hamilton, Founding Francophobe? from which many of the incidents in this blog are drawn. Similarly, the Library of Congress’s Founders Online project provided a wealth of primary source material.