Columnist’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the influence of Alexander Hamilton on American economic history and traditions.
“When America sings for you … Will they know what you overcame? Will they know you rewrote the game? The world will never be the same …” Lyrics from the Broadway play “Hamilton”
Two hundred and forty years ago, he helped stabilize and define our economic system. Today, his life story dominates the bright lights of Broadway.
Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” marries hip-hop style lyrics and dance with the story of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, set against the backdrop of early American history. The themes that characterize the play are very familiar to us today: the contributions of immigrants to the American workplace, centralized federal power vs. states’ rights, and dealing with the national debt.
Thomas Jefferson spent his childhood on a Virginia plantation, and this influenced his vision of America’s future as a burgeoning agrarian democracy. Alexander Hamilton, whose upbringing involved commerce, believed that population and power and money would eventually be concentrated in urban regions, a worldview that ultimately proved more accurate.
Hamilton issued federal security bonds to investors to pay off debts incurred by individual states during the Revolutionary War, an act that served to unify the new nation both politically and economically. He was primarily responsible for creating our centralized currency and our national bank. And he foresaw the importance of international trade and the value of credit.
Hamilton was born in the Caribbean. A Scottish trader, Hamilton’s father left the family. Orphaned at age 11 when his mother died, Hamilton went to work as an accountant (hard to believe, but true) for a mercantile company in St. Croix. The island was linked through trade with Europe, Africa, and the American colonies, so Hamilton’s formative business experience involved international exchange. His employer and other townspeople pooled money to send him to study in America in 1773, when he was only 16, but he remained for only a year at King’s College in New York, later to become Columbia University.
In 1774 he wrote a treatise supporting the colonial revolution. Shortly thereafter he left school and joined the New York Provincial Artillery Company. He served the Continental Army for five years; was promoted to lieutenant colonel; became George Washington’s aide-de-camp and wrote many of Washington’s personal letters; and married a woman of New York society named Elizabeth Schuyler. Hamilton petitioned Washington to be allowed to lead a charge at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781, the victory that became the tipping point resulting in the British surrender.
It was an auspicious immigrant’s beginning, but Hamilton was just getting started.
Next week: Hamilton’s adult years and the rise of the American economy.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.