Andrew Porwancher on Alexander Hamilton and American Jewish Culture
Marjorie Taylor Greene—a Congresswoman representing Georgia’s 14th District—made headlines earlier this year after a journalist surfaced a Facebook post she made in 2018. Greene suggested that a “laser beam” from outer space was causing California wildfires, and pegged “Rothschild Inc, international investment banking firm” as a culprit. “Jewish Space Laser” was soon trending on twitter.
The Rothschilds are a European-Jewish family whose longstanding prominence on the financial scene has made them ready targets for conspiracy theorizing about nefarious Jewish influence on world events. Greene was quick to point out that the Rothschilds are not just bankers but international bankers, for the trope of the deceitful Jew is tied not only to the dark arts of finance but also to geographic rootlessness. The border-crossing Jew, unlike the true patriot, has no fidelity to nation; their loyalty is to lucre. While the specifics of conspiracy theories implicating Jews may reflect their particular moment, the antisemitic prevarications of today are remarkably consistent in their general structure with those peddled in the earliest days of the American republic. Both then and now, the evildoer is Jewish in faith, global in reach, rich in resources—and determined to sabotage “real” Americans.
Our first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, found himself at the center of an antisemitic firestorm that throws into vivid relief the longevity of this trope. At the inception of the federal government, Hamilton embarked on an audacious agenda to make the United States a financial and commercial power. He submitted various reports to Congress calling for approval of his farsighted plans: restructuring the debt, creating a national bank, founding a mint. Most of Hamilton’s contemporaries could not begin to grasp his prescience; many feared banking as a villainous enterprise whose practitioners would exploit their superior knowledge to bilk ordinary citizens. The efforts to derail Hamilton’s legislative programs were intense—and infused with antisemitism.
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 complained, “The only infallible way to wealth in our country is to be neither honest nor industrious. . . .The late sudden subscriptions to the national bank are ample proofs.” The author fingered “Amsterdam Jews” as among those who were bereft of “honesty or industry” and benefitting from the bank. This contribution appeared under the pseudonym “Square Toes,” an allusion to inexpensive wooden footwear. Readers of the time would have understood that the pen name was intended to signal solidarity with the humble multitudes, whom allegedly predatory Jews were fleecing. Although the editorialist explicitly referred to Dutch rather than domestic Jews, derogatory descriptions of Jews in Europe could only served to harm the reputation of those in America.
Hamilton was himself from the Caribbean rather than a native of the original thirteen colonies, which made him just the kind of alien figure whom his adversaries could easily attack for consorting with cosmopolitan Jews. As Hamilton lobbied Congress to consolidate the national debt and implement excise taxes to pay it off, an antagonistic poem appearing in a newspaper notably alluded to both Hamilton’s roots in the West Indies and his associations with Jewish people. The poet referred to the treasury secretary as “Belcour,” a character in a play who hailed from the Caribbean:
“Tax on Tax,” young Belcour cries,
More imposts and a new excise.
“A public debt’s a public blessing,
Which ’tis of course a crime to lessen.”
Each day a fresh report he broaches,
That Spies and Jews may ride in coaches.
Soldiers and Farmers, don’t despair,
Untax’d as yet, are Earth and Air.
By emphasizing Hamilton’s immigrant background, and by coupling spies with Jews, the poet’s message would have been unmistakable to a contemporary audience: Hamilton and his Jewish abettors were treacherous foreign operatives who profited at the expense of the common man. Novels from that time period often painted Jews as shadowy agents engaged in clandestine international schemes, so this poet was tapping an already rich vein of antisemitic anxiety.
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. “In our Christians, who tampered with the distress of their fellow soldiers, avarice was the homogenous quality of their souls,” the editorialist lamented. 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.” The author insisted that these rapacious Christians differed from Jews only by the presence of foreskin; their integrity was just as absent. He relied on asterisks to indicate male genitals, writing, “The ***** of these people may be unmutilated, and may be in the original Christian state, but their minds are far gone in Israelitish avarice.” This kind of Gentile-on-Gentile antisemitism was not unusual for the era.
But Jews were not complicit in some farflung ruse. Rather, Jewish participation in those economic spheres was a byproduct of their marginality. Throughout most of the United States, Jews could not run for state legislature, practice law, or become college professors; in Europe, the opportunities for Jews were even fewer. Success in trade and banking on both sides of the Atlantic reflected the Jewish instinct–not for swindling, but for community building and survival.
Majorie Taylor Greene’s absurd claim about a Rothschild-funded space laser would be easier to laugh off did it not so efficiently underscore still present antisemitic tropes. The centuries-long persistence of antisemitic conspiracy theories suggests that a latent current of antisemitism is always present. Still, we would be wise to remember that, since the dawn of the American republic, the certain forces of antisemitism have often failed in their efforts.
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 to expressly 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 antisemitism, yet there is much to give us hope.
Andrew Porwancher is a research fellow at Harvard University and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton with Princeton University Press. www.andrewporwancher.com