As we struggle with the implications of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, it seems clear that the party, through a lack of energy, direction, and initiative, has created a vacuum. One that some candidates are attempting to exploit by appealing to voters’ economic insecurity and frustration.
In getting the initiative back, our lodestar should be the extraordinary life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton’s role in the founding of America was significant. In my opinion, he’s on par with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Franklin.
I might add that this group wasn’t comparable to the “political elite” in England, and as Joseph Ellis points out in Founding Brothers, “would have languished in obscurity in England or France.”
Hamilton’s Colorful Life
The importance of Hamilton’s contributions in the founding of America is underappreciated and misunderstood by the vast majority of Americans.
This is regrettable given his extraordinary journey from the West Indies to student revolutionary leader in New York, as an artillery officer and aide-de-camp to General Washington, as a key leader, author, and strategist through the constitutional convention, as an ardent abolitionist, and as America’s first and most influential Treasury Secretary.
Most importantly, Hamilton has much to teach us as we face our serious economic, financial, and foreign policy challenges. Hamilton’s trademarks were energy, creativity, flexibility, openness, resilience, accountability, initiative, and, above all, a love of liberty.
Alexander Hamilton’s life especially is a quintessential story of American mobility, merit, and ambition. He was an ardent nationalist and capitalist, a daring military leader and strategist, the principal author of The Federalist Papers, and one of the key architects of the American political and economic system. He represented that rare breed of leaders who are both thinkers and doers.
Hamilton’s rise was based on merit rather than connections to the crown. He caught the eye of General Washington as an impossibly young officer commanding an artillery unit and was invited to join General Washington’s “family” where he made himself indispensable.
One of the themes threading through Hamilton’s career was his call for “energy in the executive.” This was his calling card throughout his life, as well.
During the Constitutional Convention and the battle for ratification, he played an instrumental role as the leading author of The Federalist Papers and proved his mettle as a persuasive and agile New York politico.
Then came the crown of his career as our nation’s first Treasury Secretary. You may think that the challenge of dealing with the current financial turbulence is unprecedented, but you would be wrong.
As he took command of the Treasury Department and served as President Washington’s de facto chief of staff at the age of 32, the new nation’s finances were in complete disarray.
We were very fortunate to have had Hamilton, a man of bold ideas who stuck to his guns, whom the financier of the American Revolution Robert Morris described as “a man of superior talents.”
To refer to America as in a financial crisis would be an understatement. There was no central bank, the war debt was enormous, each state had its own currency, there was little if any federal revenue, and most states didn’t want much of a central government at all.
Undaunted, Secretary Hamilton jumped into the breach with all cylinders firing. In short order, the wheels were in motion for a budget and tax system, a mint, a central bank and customs service, a coast guard, and a strategy to make America a commercial empire on par with the glittering capitals of Europe.
Although 95% of Americans tilled the soil at this time, Secretary Hamilton envisioned an economic balance between agriculture and industry, and his Report on Manufactures set forth a strategy to achieve this goal. This strategy, challenged by cabinet rival and Anglophobe Thomas Jefferson – who wanted America to remain largely an agrarian society – was controversial.
Hamilton also added the third dimension of finance and understood its pivotal role in fueling and lubricating industrial growth outlined in his Report on Public Credit. The growing role of corporations, shareholders, and management in America’s emerging economy was welcomed and fostered by his policies and personal involvement.
Mr. Hamilton’s goal of a more independent and self-reliant economy was sharpened by his wartime experience. He stated that “a free people” ought to “promote manufactories such as to render them independent of others for essential, particularly for military supplies.”
Secretary Hamilton’s ability to dominate the first cabinet was due not only to his energy, creativity, and decisiveness, but because President Washington shared his
vision for America. The president grasped the basic elements of the Hamiltonian plan, while the treasury chief managed the complexities.
The speed at which his proposals moved forward staggered his critics as Jefferson proclaimed him to be “a host unto himself.”
But for America and the Republican Party, what’s much more important than Hamilton’s accomplishments is the values and principles that ran through his life and service.
His record of accomplishment at a time of great uncertainty and turbulence has never again been equaled. It should also give us confidence as to just how much can be done in a time of crisis if decisive action is taken.
In his book The Great Upheaval, Jay Winik described Alexander Hamilton as “a force of nature, brilliant and tireless, thinking in rapid bursts and with broad sweeping strokes without peer.”
To get back on track, we just need to act on the legacy of Hamilton.