Alexander Hamilton is perhaps the most underappreciated of America’s founding fathers – a genius, a patriot and an original thinker who did much to set the framework that permitted America’s free economy to flourish.
Which is why the recent announcement by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that the likeness of Hamilton on the $10 bill with a will be replaced by a woman by 2020 needs to be rethought.
There are many reasons why Hamilton does not get the respect he deserves. Among his contemporaries, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, he alone did not serve as president.
But Hamilton’s story is remarkable and reads almost like a novel, as I was reminded this past weekend as I read Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography, “Alexander Hamilton.”
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Born into poverty in the West Indies to an unwed mother, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr at age 49. Hamilton was a precocious shipping clerk when at age 17 he was given an opportunity to attend what is now Columbia University in New York.
When the American Revolution broke out, Hamilton dropped out of college and took up arms. He was such a quick study that he rose to be Washington’s chief of staff and surrogate son at age 22. For four years, Hamilton handled Washington’s correspondence with Congress, his generals, and the governors and was entrusted with complex negotiations, diplomacy and intelligence gathering.
It was at Valley Forge, where Hamilton and Washington saw their troops near starvation because of the inability of weak state governments to feed and equip an army, that they became convinced that a modern nation needed a strong central government.
Near the end of the war, Hamilton persuaded Washington to give him a field command and he distinguished himself in combat at Yorktown.
After the Revolution, Hamilton became a New York lawyer, congressman, founded the Bank of New York, and played a key role in calling for a constitutional convention to replace the old Articles of Confederation.
Hamilton then played an invaluable part in helping convince the states to ratify the Constitution by writing most of the Federalist Papers, outlining the need for a new form of government. The 32-year-old Hamilton oversaw the writing of the 85 essays and wrote 51 of them himself. By the year 2000, the Federalist Papers had been quoted no fewer than 291 times in Supreme Court opinions.
With the formation of the first administration, Washington once again turned to Hamilton, making him his treasury secretary at a time when the presidential cabinet had not yet been invented. Hamilton saw himself as an American version of a prime minister, advising Washington on a wide range of matters.
Most importantly, it was Hamilton, who schooled himself on the great economic thinkers of the day, who helped develop the modern capitalist economy that we have today.
“As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government,” writes Chernow, “Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation state – including budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard – and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled.”
Hamilton was sometimes wrong. He argued for a life-time appointment for the president and against the need for a Bill of Rights. But he opposed slavery, and unlike most of the Founding Fathers who scorned banks, credit and stock markets, he was attuned to the emerging business economy and the American entrepreneurial spirit.
I would not quibble with those who say it is past time to put a woman’s face on U.S. currency. But Andrew Jackson on a $20 bill or Ulysses Grant on a $50 bill would be better alternatives.