Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Meet Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
If there was ever an "American Dream" success story among our country's founders, it had to have been Alexander Hamilton (though the dream died far too young).  Brilliant, hard-working almost beyond belief, obnoxious to many, yet respected by nearly all, Hamilton has made his influence over the United States felt strongly even until today.  His list of accomplishments is far too lengthy for a blog entry, but in (very) brief:

Early Life

Born out of wedlock in near poverty in the West Indies and effectively orphaned at age 11, Hamilton was an avid reader and by age 15 had impressed people enough to sponsor his voyage to the mainland colonies.  Denied entrance into Princeton, he eventually  gained admission to King's College (now Columbia).  He began his political writing career there, issuing a series of rebuttals to a Loyalist known as "The Farmer".

Hamilton joined the Continental Army in 1775 and was most noted for being aide-de-camp to general Washington.  As valuable as that service was, and gaining the perpetual respect of Washington, he craved combat glory and succeeded in being assigned to command light infantry battalions which were instrumental in the Battle of Yorktown and the British surrender there. (Aside: my family and I visited there last Spring.  I strongly recommend it!)

Post War

Following the war, Hamilton was appointed to the Congress of the Confederation, where he quickly identified major flaws in the Articles of Confederation, especially in terms of funding for the fledgling government.  Following his resignation from the congress, Hamilton stayed very busy.  He self-studied his way into the Bar of New York and practiced law, helped rebuild King's College as Columbia University and founded the Bank of New York, still the country's oldest bank.


His most influential work was yet to come, though.  He pushed for a new constitutional convention, which convened in 1787.  His influence on the convention was limited, but his lasting contribution was as principal author (along with James Madison and John Jay) of The Federalist Papers - basically a "sales job" on the new Constitution, answering critics and explaining why this new document was far superior to the status quo.

Treasury Secretary and Beyond

As the new nation came into being, President Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury (and is, along with Benjamin Franklin, one of only two non-presidents whose faces grace U.S. paper money).  Hamilton put the country on a path to financial stability, consolidated and paid off war debts, and helped found the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of the Coast Guard.


Hamilton served in and out of government for many years and was influential in the 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson as president, when 35 House of Representatives votes, trying to break the electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, failed.  Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson, who finally won on the 36th ballot.  In 1804, Hamilton again helped defeat Burr, this time for Governor of New York, as Burr lost to Morgan Lewis.  Hamilton's critiques of Burr's character were too much for Burr, who challenged Hamilton to a duel. The duel resulted in Hamilton's death.

Why Hamilton Matters Today

Some of Hamilton's writings and ideas are still quite timely and thought-provoking today.  Of course, all his writing in The Federalist Papers is instructive and illuminating, giving us a look at the mindset of those who wrote the fantastic document known as our Constitution.  Most notably, given today's debates over taxes and tax policies, this, from the Federalist Number 21:

It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit; which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed, that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty, that, “in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four.” If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.

Hamilton seems to make a strong case for the proposal known these days as "The Fair Tax", a tax on consumption, rather than income, not only as a fair way of taxing, but as a natural limit on the size, scope and influence of the federal government.  Maybe he was really on to something...

Hip-Hop Hamilton

I was introduced to this video some time ago and it's an amazing musical biography of Alexander Hamilton, as performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House Poetry Jam (who knew there was such a thing?).  Click on the video link and snap along!

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