ood for a headache if you feel: The Discovery Channel’s Greatest American vote.
The total tonnage of Americans who should be ranking above those who made the top twenty-five on this list could go on for days, but I can’t help feeling that one name in particular stands out, a man who came in just seven places above Michael Jackson and just two above Hugh Hefner!
For those of you who may have voted and who obviously have no idea who Alexander Hamilton is, and for those of you who didn’t vote this time and need to know how Alexander Hamilton is deserving of, if not the number spot, then at least a spot more than seven places away from the man who helped to foist the song “We are the World” on the, well, world, I present to you a short (very) history lesson.
In 1786, Virginia’s legislature called for a convention of the states to consider changes to the nation’s commercial regulations. Alexander Hamilton attended as a representative of New York. With several states failing even to send delegates, it seemed as if the plan was headed for disaster. Perhaps the only conspicuous accomplishment to come out of the meeting was Hamilton’s call for a constitutional convention of all the states, which would meet in Philadelphia the next year. There, the delegates would have the power to make changes in the Articles of Confederation, but the general idea was that everything that had to do with the US government was a candidate for alteration.
Though he fought against its domination of the colonies, Hamilton was an ardent admirer of the British form of government. Holding low opinions of the mass of uneducated men, he believed than an educated elite should guide the favors and fortunes of this new country, this bold experiment in governing by the will of the people. For this reason, though he thought his own rejected form would hold better (including the election of a President for life, a little too much like King or Queen for life for a good many of the representatives at the Constitutional Convention), he advocated passage of the Constitution and abandonment of the Articles of Confederation, which left the central government of the US weak and without much in the way of effective power to control the country’s destiny.
He is to be admired, I think, for going all out with support of the Constitution by writing at least 51 of the Federalist Papers even though he did have reservations about what the Constitution actually was and what it could do. (Or, at least, what it could do before George W. Bush began his systematic dismantling of the first ten amendments.)
After George Washington was elected the nation’s first President, Hamilton was appointed to the job in which he did his most to guide this country’s course toward centralized government. Hamilton thought that “the proper role of the new government was to promote economic enterprise.” Hamilton conveyed a request to revenue agents and financiers around the country, asking for statistics and general information, in order to gauge the most efficient methods of revenue collection and spent a great deal of time attempting to demystify the concepts behind revenue and financing. In this, he was particularly influenced by the Scottish economist, David Hume.
“the proper role of the new government was to promote economic enterprise.”
Appropriating the support of the wealthy was simply a small step toward his visionary cause of a centralized economic system. The accumulation of wealth-though clearly very important to Mr. Hamilton-was not the Secretary of the Treasury’s ultimate goal, he rather wanted to nourish the use of private wealth for the later bountiful harvest of advantageous enterprises. Hamilton’s ultimate vision was that of a powerful economy in which everyone would participate and from which everyone would profit. Hamilton had a unique and rather vigorous vision of the economy and he was determined to use of all the possibilities of a young nation armed with seemingly unlimited resources and extraordinary potential.
He presented to the Congress a report on the public credit that provided for the funding of national and foreign debts of the United States, as well as for federal assumption of the states’ revolutionary liabilities. . The federal government would convert its debts into interest bearing bonds which would mature after an assigned period of time. A sinking fund of revenue from the post office would be established for the payment of the principal of the debt. It was his hope that the country’s finances would therefore be more stabilized and then credit could be established abroad. The voice of the opposition came from James Madison, one of his Federalist Papers co-authors and a friend. Madison and the opposition did not object to the funding of the debt, rather they disagreed as to who should be paid and how much. It was not without a fair share of fighting over this report that his proposals were ultimately adopted by Congress.
In due time he would present a report calling for the establishment of a national bank, which would be based on the National Bank of England, though he certainly wasn’t going to make that public knowledge and therefore fodder to be used against him by the anti-Federalists. The bank proposed by Hamilton would be a national institution run by a private board of directors. Hamilton was going on the assumption that private ownership of the bank would prevent corruption by governmental officials were it run otherwise. (Ah, well.) Hamilton explained to those who opposed his plan that a national bank would provide a safe depository for government funds while regulating banking practices around the country. Another argument in its favor was that it would arrange for a uniform currency. Finally, it would provide capital for investments and industry. In Hamilton’s vision, the national bank would be an engine driving national prosperity.
Once again, however, there was Congressional opposition against his plan, though this time it came almost completely from southerners who felt the primary candidate for whom a national bank would be a good idea would be a northern, non-slave holding merchant. One of the most virulent opponents of the plan was, once again, James Madison. Thomas Jefferson was so diehard against the plan that he wanted Pres. Washington to veto it. Pres. Washington was poised to do that very thing when he wrote to Hamilton urging him to send back a reply which would convince him otherwise. Hamilton wasted no time in coming up with that reply, Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank. This response was a comprehensive treatise on the subject of implied powers within the Constitution. Ironically enough, Hamilton’s basic argument was originated by Madison in The Federalist 44 that “wherever the end is required, the means are authorized; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it is included.”
The passage of the bank plan sent the Madison/Jefferson camp into a frenzy. The extent of power intrinsic to the position of Treasury Secretary had begun to hit home, as well as how much the vision and biases of the officeholder influenced the country’s future, financial and otherwise. Madison and Jefferson began increasingly to see Hamilton’s victories as serious losses for themselves and the interests of their constituents, the southern planter class. They viewed the Secretary of the Treasury as an uncontrolled force with the backing of powerful, monied men from the northeast. Cries of a monarchical conspiracy by Hamilton were heard and most likely originated from anti-Hamiltonians, like Madison, who were present for Hamilton’s speech at the constitutional convention. They determined that emergency measures needed to be taken to prevent Hamilton and his “monarchists” from taking over. I now see where my vision of Mr. Hamilton as a monarchist comes from. Political partisanship is the same now as it ever was, I guess.
Meanwhile, Hamilton issued a second Report on the Public Credit which touched on the issue of federal taxation through a series of excise taxes, including one on the manufacture of distilled liquor. Hamilton understood one of the finer points of government: The power to tax and spend was the power to govern. Hamilton had very strong opinions on the role that a central government would play in the burgeoning years of the US. Individual states would have practically little say in the forward motion of the country under Hamilton’s idealized view of the turn of the century.
Hamilton was quite successful in implementing the spokes that would result in his wheel of invention, but one case where he failed was his Report on Manufacturers in 1791. This report went further than any other report in projecting the future of the United States and its place in the world economy. Hamilton urged Congress to promote manufacturing so that the United States could be free from dependence on foreign nations for military and other essential supplies. In addition to national independence, manufacturing would provide a path to equality in the global market. The growth of manufacturing in the United States would create more of a market for the produce of farms. Hamilton felt that the nation was limiting its potential by dismissing manufactur-ing and insisting on an agrarian-based economy.
Hamilton was and is well known for his admiration of the government and economic policies of England. A funded debt and a national bank were both British policies with Hamiltonian adjustments designed to conform to the special governing factors of life in the early United States. Regardless of the recent war and its ravages on the American consciousness, he felt that it was simple politics that US relations with Great Britain be stable. In Hamilton’s view, a Franco-American alliance at the expense of relations with Britain-recommended by his anti-Federalist rivals Jefferson and Madison-would be catastrophic to his own fiscal vision.
Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, but he still had one more report up his sleeve, his Report on a Plan for the Further Support of Public Credit . His plan was for redemption of the public debt to stabilize the current system of funding, and to prevent progressive accumulation of debt. Hamilton configured the current system by counting existing sources of revenue, provisions for funding the debt and its interest, and provisions for extinguishing the debt completely. In a bold move, what the plan actually did was to address the fears of the Republicans that the debt would become unmanageable in the future. In the report, Congress was reminded that the United States was still quite young, and needed to maintain vitality and energy through the “invigorating principle” of credit.
Alexander Hamilton is perhaps most well-known for being one of the authors of The Federalist Papers and for being the first US Secretary of the Treasury. Perhaps he would have placed higher on a list of greatest Americans ever if he had just decided to ride a bike or host a talk show or start an unnecessary and illegal war instead.
Well, there’s always the hope of reincarnation left for him.
Note: This was written more than a decade before the Broadway musical and so, in a way, was prescient in that, in a way, Hamilton has been reincarnated.