Alexander Hamilton and the Evidence of Christianity
Posted by sbh on Sunday, 29 August 2010
Did Alexander Hamilton say
I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man
to a long-time acquaintance?
Well, maybe, sort of. This is another one of those sayings attributed to someone after his death, in which the vagaries of memory and the passage of time may well have taken their toll. There’s also a transmission problem with this one—what we have are actually two attributed quotations run together into one.
The ultimate source for these attributed quotations is a lengthy book by John Church Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s son), entitled History of the republic of the United States of America: as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of his cotemporaries. In volume seven, on page 790, we find the following passage:
It was the tendency to infidelity he saw so rife that led him often to declare in the social circle his estimate of Christian truth. “I have examined carefully,” he said to a friend from his boyhood, “the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.” To another person, he observed, “I have studied it, and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”
John Church Hamilton attributes the first of these to the “Reminiscences of General Morton” (presumably Jacob Morton, 1761-1836) and leaves the second without attribution. Lacking context for either makes it difficult to judge the reliability of the attributions; we can’t tell for example if either General Morton or the unnamed “another person” were the alleged auditors of these words or whether they were passing on stories they’d heard from others. We also have no way of knowing what he meant (assuming he actually said these things) by “evidence of the Christian religion”, “authenticity”, or “its truth”. Are we talking theological authenticity, historical authenticity, or perhaps some sort of higher truth? We can’t tell.
In favor of these fragments is the fact that they are brought to us under the aegis of Hamilton’s son. We may assume, at the very least, that these are things he would have liked his father to have said, and most likely that they are things that it was in his character to say, at least as his son understood his character. This is far short of being able to say that the elder Hamilton actually said them; Hamilton the younger does not profess to have actually heard them. Despite the imprimatur of the son we are still at least at one remove from the original, and possibly more.
Now at this point we note that the quotation as usually given on the internet differs from the original in having had the context stripped away, the word “evidences” substituted for “evidence”, and the two separate sayings joined together as one. Obviously the material has been slightly mangled somehow in transmission—and most of the time I’d have to stop there, noting the fact of the change, but without being able to say at what point in the chain it happened. This information is often hard to run down, links may have been lost, or they may be in manuscript form not accessible to the community at large.
In this case, however, we actually can trace the steps of the mangling, thanks to the fact that the transmitters left a paper trail, as it were. They recorded the source of their information, making it possible to backtrack. And while it’s not actually necessary to trace the path of error, it may be instructive in showing the sorts of things that can happen in the course of transmission.
Hamilton’s history appeared in 1864, and a good two decades passed before Sarah Knowles Bolton, temperance reformer and writer of children’s books, came out with Famous American Statesmen. In a chapter on Alexander Hamilton the following passage occurs:
His chief relaxation from work was at “The Grange,” his summer home at Harlem Heights, not far from the spot, it is said, where he first attracted the eye of Washington. Beeches, maples, and many evergreens abounded. The Hudson River added its beauty to the picturesque place. Here he read the classics for pleasure, and the Bible. To a friend he said: “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. … I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.” [p. 126]
Here the context has been stripped away, and Bolton has used an ellipsis to indicate that words are missing between the two sentences. This is not actually quite correct; these are two separate quotations, and the ellipsis means that they belong together as part of the same text. Still, as she was writing a book for children, she probably didn’t feel that she had to adhere to the standards used in writing serious works.
The next stage comes only a few years later when Baptist minister Stephen Abbott Northrup assembled a book of Christian quotations entitled A Cloud of Witnesses. For Alexander Hamilton he has:
I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.—Page 126, “Famous American Statesmen” by Sarah K. Bolton. [p. 208]
We see here that Northrup has completed the transformation by eliminating the ellipsis and changing the word “evidence” to “evidences”. From this we may easily infer that the common internet version goes back ultimately to Northrup—not surprisingly, really, given that those who quote this are looking for Christian-sounding sayings, and where better to look than a collection like A Cloud of Witnesses?
But in the end these quotations are an unreliable guide to Hamilton’s opinions; they are too far removed from the man himself. His own voluminous writings are a better window to his mind than a couple of unsourced context-free sayings that may—or may not—reflect his ideas. It would be better to avoid them in favor of more reliable material.
History of the Republic of the United States of America (John Church Hamilton)
Famous American Statesmen (Sarah Knowles Bolton)
A Cloud of Witnesses (Stephen Abbott Northrup)
Posing in the Moonlight (sbh)
Dubious Quotation Appearances
Founding Fathers Quotes (Eades Home Ministry)
The Faith of Our Fathers Part 4 (Jim Bramlett)
What Early Manuscripts of the Bible Exist Today? (Prove the Bible; this author gives Northrup’s version while citing Bolton as his source)