Please Mr. Lew, Do Not “Diminish” Alexander Hamilton

June 25th, 2015
in Op Ed

by Michael Pettis, China Financial Markets

What can they possibly be thinking? This is not the sort of thing I normally write about, but I have to say that if I had any say in the matter I would most strenuously oppose removing or 'diminishing" Alexander Hamilton's portrait from the ten-dollar bill.

Follow up:

He never made president, of course, but only George Washington and perhaps Abraham Lincoln could possible have a greater claim on the loyalty and gratitude of Americans, and while it is all fine and good (and true) to say that Alexander Hamilton's monument is the United States itself, there is no question that along with being possibly the greatest of Americans, he is by far the least recognized.

I used to think Hamilton was easily the single most important person in consolidating and directing the mixed group of colonies that ultimately became the United States until I read Ron Chernow's absolutely brilliant biography of George Washington, which convinced me that Washington was more than the well-meaning, slow-witted patriot I always thought he was, whose greatness consisted mainly of recognizing the genius of Hamilton and of stepping down just at the moment when the United States was poised to become either a new kind of monarchy or a true democracy.

Chernow's book made me see that Washington was far more than that. Washington was an astonishing leader without whom the US could have never survived and prospered, but all that means is that if Hamilton is not easily the greatest of all Americans, then he is among the top two.

Hamilton's greatest enemy was Thomas Jefferson, a man I used to despise for his hypocrisy. He demanded freedom for all men but never quite got around to freeing his slaves. He hated banks and debt and yet spent his whole life borrowing money, dying heavily in debt. He loved the sturdy common man but always either at a distance or when that sturdiness was being employed usefully in beautifying Monticello. He raged against the elite of birth and yet was a thoroughgoing aristocrat who managed to fall in love with another aristocrat - a wealthier one at that, although surely that was just a lucky coincidence. He was a fiery supporter of violent revolution, demanding that we have one every twenty years, because, of course, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants", and yet when the British marched on Richmond, Charlottesville, or Monticello, Jefferson, with such deceitfulness and suavity, managed never to be there, although unlike the much more loveable Macavity he shirked his responsibilities and allowed the British access to information they certainly found useful.

As I have aged and mellowed my opinions about Jefferson have too. He was an astonishingly brilliant man for all his maliciousness and hypocrisy, and I recognize how lucky the US was to have him. Twenty years ago I used to get into a rage walking into a major bookshop in New York and finding over a dozen books and some times far more, on Thomas Jefferson, with, at best, one book on Hamilton. That's changed, although clearly not enough.

With age, and the prodding of my friend Bruce Wolfson, I have also learned to appreciate and respect John Adams, another man who loathed Hamilton, and while Adams could be nasty to many (Washington's success, it seemed, was due mainly to his "handsome face", "tall stature", and the "reverence granted to great fortune") but he truly hated Hamilton, who he dismissed with his arriviste snobbery as "that bastard brat of a Scottish pedlar (sic)!

His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I'm convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn't find enough whores to absorb!

Yes, Hamilton may have had a weakness for pretty young women who needed help, even when they were out to blackmail him, but Hamilton's real sin was to find corruption so much more horrifying than adultery that he confessed to the latter in order to dispel rumors of the former (rumors that were gleefully propagated by Jefferson and Adams even as they publically frowned upon anyone who would be so base as to acknowledge Hamilton's' immorality).

But what about Hamilton himself - why is he the greatest American? It is almost impossible to believe the sheer daring of his imagination. He envisaged a United States of America that was improbable beyond reason, and then set about systematically putting into place the conditions that made his astonishing vision a reality. I cannot even begin to describe the greatness of the man, and suggest that anyone who is interested read Richard Brookhiser's 2000 biography, Ron Chernow's 2005 biography, or Willard Sterne Randall's 2014 biography. If I had to recommend only one, I suppose I would recommend Chernow's, but anyone whose appetite for Hamilton is as insatiable as mine will always have a hard time choosing.

For those especially interested in Hamilton's economic policies, I have always loved Forrest McDonald's Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (1982) and of course there is Clinton Lawrence Rossiter's brilliant Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution (1964). I also understand that Charles A. Conant wrote a biography in 1901, which I have never read, but would love to.

But aside from the books, here is the shortest of lists of his accomplishments and his claim to being the greatest American:

  1. The Federalist Papers is in my opinion the greatest and most subtle American book of political philosophy and one of the greatest in history. It was dashed off in a short period of time by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, and of the 85 essays, 51 were written by Hamilton and another two were probably written jointly by Hamilton and Madison. It is a truly universal book - I remember several years ago one of my smartest Chinese students at Peking University began reading the book and became completely obsessed with its brilliance. He couldn't discuss anything else for weeks.
  2. Because he was a practitioner, and not a theoretician, most people do not know that Hamilton was probably among the world's dozen greatest economists. He may have coined the phrase "infant industry" and certainly developed the basics of what later became known as the "American System", which became the basis not just of the astonishing success of the US economy but was later codified by Friedrich List and led directly to German and Japanese economic success, along with that of many other countries. Probably the single most complete explanation of Hamilton's thinking occurs in his brilliant Report on the Subject of Manufactures presented to Congress in 1791.
  3. Not content with being the most brilliant economist of his time, he was also perhaps our most brilliant financier. He founded the Bank of New York in 1784, making it the oldest bank in US history, and presented two brilliant reports of Congress known as the First Report on Public Credit (January, 1790) and the Second Report on Public Credit (December, 1790), sometimes known as The Report on a National Bank, which, among other things, created the first US central bank.
  4. His fiercest battle was to get the Federal government to assume the outstanding debt of those states that had not yet repaid their American Revolutionary War bonds and scrip. By unifying the fragmented debt he simultaneously restored American credit (ironically his great opponent on the assumption, Thomas Jefferson, was able to use this credit to fund the Louisiana Purchase, probably Jefferson's most important act as president), created a unified capital base, and redirected elite loyalty from local state capitals to the Federal capital, thus almost certainly guaranteeing that the country would not immediately break apart.
  5. Of all the other Founding Fathers only Benjamin Franklin was not either an aristocrat or at least upper middle or upper class. Hamilton, however, personified the American dream, having been born into the lowest possible stratum of American society. Only slaves had lower social status than Hamilton at birth, and none of this was made any better by questions about paternal legality. It was sheer brilliance that had him sent from Nevis, where he was born, to King's College in New York (renamed Columbia University) to become aide to George Washington, finally to end as the first US Secretary of the Treasurer under Washington (a position then more akin to the British Prime Minister) and the leading lawyer of his time. The rags-to-riches story is part of US mythology, but no one exemplified it earlier and more astonishingly than Alexander Hamilton.
  6. Alexander Hamilton, as is well-known, was wholly opposed to slavery, but his opposition was neither theoretical nor patronizing and, unlike many abolitionists, he had no interest in helping slaves return to Africa. He expected them to become full American citizens, demanded that they be armed during the Revolution because he expected them to play their part in fighting for freedom. Perhaps because as a young boy he spent much of his life dealing with freed slaves, Hamilton was famously impatient with the supposed intellectual inferiority of Africans and argued that their "natural faculties are probably as good as ours". He also claimed that "the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience." This is typical Hamilton. As a practical man in principle he was perfectly willing to accept any argument, including the argument that some races are inferior to others, but he needed evidence. Neither his reason nor his experience gave him that evidence.
  7. After the Revolution many of Hamilton's most important legal cases involved protecting the legal and property rights of Americans who had opposed the Revolution and supported the British. During the Revolution he stopped a mob from lynching the President of King's College, a well-known British sympathizer. Hamilton never doubted that the rights Americans proclaimed were universal, and applied not just to friends but also to "enemies". And if all that weren't enough, he risked destroying his friendship with Washington because the old general found Hamilton too useful as his aide to allow him actually to lead a group of soldiers into a fight. In the end Hamilton got his wish and performed with amazing bravery.

I can go on and on, but you get the point. There is no greater American than Alexander Hamilton. He is one of the greatest economic and political thinkers of modern times. He was perhaps the only important white American in our first 100 years of history whose attitudes towards African Americans is not today embarrassing. He was completely self-made. And the only important official recognition he has received from the US government is his portrait on the $10 bill.

Although Hamilton tended to support England rather than France in the great battles of the day, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, prince de Bénévent, then prince de Talleyrand, a French bishop, politician and diplomat who became one of the most powerful men in Europe, famously said:

I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton, the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton. He divined Europe.

Treasury secretary Jack Lew is said to be considering replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman. Of course we understate the role of women in our official observances and of course we need to redress this. But to do so at the expense - or "diminishment", we are now hearing - of Alexander Hamilton? Is it possible that the current Treasury Secretary knows so little about American history, and about his most illustrious predecessor, that he cannot find someone less deserving of honor than Alexander Hamilton?

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