One of our greatest Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was born this week (Jan. 11) in either 1755 or 1757; Hamilton gave 1757 as his birth year but probate records support 1755. In either case, Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate on Nevis Island in the British West Indies to a shiftless father, who soon abandoned him, and a poor mother who died when he was (probably) 13. Early on Hamilton realized he would have to make his own way in life.
I mention this because even at the height of his influence as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, as co-author of the Federalist Papers and—finally—as our nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton never forgot where he came from. Indeed, it would shape his entire economic and political philosophy and have a profound impact on the new nation he did so much to create.
It would also put him at odds with another great Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, who was so aghast at Hamilton’s plans for America that he literally formed the Democratic-Republican Party to stop him. Jefferson envisioned a nation based on an agrarian economy and a polity in which yeoman farmers gathered in small villages to settle local matters, leaving the national issues to “their betters,” the landed gentry of which he and his friend James Madison were so prominent.
Hamilton thought differently. He envisioned an activist, mercantile, industrial America in which the “moneyed class”—tied closely with a central bank—lent capital that would be used to start new businesses and industries, including manufacturing, thereby allowing America to expand trade and create hundreds of different career opportunities. To these ends, Treasury Secretary Hamilton founded a national bank, worked to expand capital, promoted passage of high tariffs to protect domestic industries, and supported technological development.
In Hamilton’s mind, a mind forged by the poverty of his youth, not every American had the luck to inherit thousands of acres of prime farmland from their rich daddies or rich wives, as was the case with Jefferson, Washington and other Founders. So Hamilton worked to create an America in which background and social class deferred to talent, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. He agreed with Jefferson that America should make possible “the pursuit of happiness,” but he thought that the more avenues of pursuit, the better.
Today, of course, there is no doubt whose vision was realized. We are everything Hamilton worked for—a thriving meritocracy and a nation of industry, technology, banking, trade and opportunity.
Yet Jefferson is considered the greater Founding Father, in part because he became president. But the columnist George Will put it nicely when he wrote, “We honor Jefferson, but we live in Hamilton’s country.”