MARIGOT, St. Martin -- Barack Obama is wintering in the Caribbean. His visage adorns T-shirts everywhere on this small dot in the Leeward Islands beyond the eastern tip of Puerto Rico -- T-shirts worn by black, brown and white folk, natives and tourists alike.
The Caribbean has a rich and controversial sociology, but Americans think mostly of the islands as idyllic latitudes for winter lassitude. Few native-born islanders have made it into American history. One striking exception is Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the tiny West Indian island of Nevis and grew up in nearby St. Croix.
He's a founding father who might have been president even though he was foreign born -- "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," in the derisive description of John Adams. He was considered a "citizen" of the new United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. But he had many political enemies. Thomas Jefferson derided him, unfairly, as a secret "monarchist." Martha Washington called her tomcat "Hamilton" to mock his scandalous sexual appetite.
Despite all that, and the vicious thrust and parry of his Republican opponents, Hamilton is nevertheless one of our most important original political thinkers, and he sounds like just what we need to lead us out of the contemporary economic crisis.
Although Hamilton's reputation suffered in the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson, liberal and conservative alike now agree that revisiting his words of wisdom would benefit us all. I packed up a small library of revisionist interpretations of the first secretary of the treasury, including Ron Chernow's wonderful biography, to read for reflection in St. Martin while back in Washington the politicians are huddling to give away taxpayer money in ways that would have surely appalled him.
Hamilton understood that money collected by the government is the people's money and should be spent responsibly, with appeals to reason, not as gratification for ambitious spendthrift legislators. A responsible government inspires confidence, and doesn't provoke suspicion and fear. A responsible government aims to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit, and its decisions tend to send the stock market up, not down.
Government debt, Hamilton said, was tolerable to pay for necessary wars, and debt can be run up carefully when the economy falls into trouble and expanded for the infrastructure repairs with specific "internal improvements" for the common good.