Hamilton: What is a Legacy?

After Alexander Hamilton’s death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Oliver Wolcott Jr. was faced with the daunting task of writing and delivering the eulogy for his friend who had preceded him as Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton was a complicated tangle of brilliant accomplishments and fatal flaws which combined to make Angelica Schuyler Church’s reference to him as an Icarus all too accurate.  Having focused in class on Hamilton’s many faults, it is important to recognize the vast scope of his positive legacy as well.  Hamilton ultimately had more impact on the country than many presidents, and he lived at exactly the optimum time for his exceptional talents to be used to their maximum scope.

In the lyrics of Hamilton, Burr tallied up many of Hamilton’s accomplishments.  He was a decorated war veteran, Washington’s right hand man, and founder of the New York Post, since it was important to have a newspaper to distribute a political party’s priorities and perspective.  When singing the lyrics describing Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, I have noticed that the students’ voices rise in volume and unity when they announce, “Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!” of the 85 essays, so that accomplishment is obviously notable in their opinion. What comes out less in the musical is the intricacies of Hamilton’s accomplishments in constructing the country’s financial system.

Upon becoming America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was faced with a country burdened with a $79 million war debt and no means of raising funds.  Understanding the power of rapid and decisive action, on his first day in office, he secured a $50,000 loan to the federal government from the Bank of New York, and he simultaneously requested a similar amount from the Bank of North America in Philadelphia.  He would ultimately acquire a large loan from the Netherlands to stabilize the country’s credit internationally.

Hamilton identified taxes on imported goods as being the most promising source of revenue for the new government so he created the Customs Service to collect those monies.  Unfortunately, during the American Revolution, smuggling goods to avoid British tariffs had become a point of pride to the colonists, so Hamilton also created the Coast Guard to enforce the lawful collection of duties on imports.  To this day, Americans still hate to pay taxes, but Hamilton did what was necessary to secure the vital revenue stream to make the government solvent.

Having played a considerable role in founding the Bank of New York, Hamilton also devised and executed the plan to create the Bank of the United States, the first federal bank, which would stabilize and expand the money supply, collect revenue, extend credit, handle foreign exchange, and generally keep and handle government funds.  Indeed these two banks were two of the first five securities traded as securities in what would become the New York Stock Exchange, which Hamilton designed and enabled.  The other three securities were Treasury securities that were also created by our man.  By the time Hamilton left office, he had set in place all six of the crucial pillars of an effective financial system, including setting the dollar as the national currency.  Knowing all this history, I find it infinitely appropriate that Hamilton’s picture still resides on the ten dollar bill.

When I try to summarize Hamilton’s legacy, I inevitably come back to a story from Jefferson’s presidency.  After Jefferson became President in 1800, he directed his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, to go through the department’s records and archives to reveal “the blunders and frauds of Hamilton.”  Gallatin undertook the task to tear apart Hamilton’s work and reputation with great relish.  After a time, Jefferson asked what he had found, and Gallatin felt he greatly disappointed his mentor when he responded,

“I have found the most perfect system ever formed.  Any change that should be made in it would injure it.  Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds.  He did nothing wrong.”

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