NEW YORK CITY – “The Grange” in Upper Manhattan is the only home that Alexander Hamilton ever owned.
Standing in front of it, an impeccably dressed elderly man says it’s hard to pin down exactly who Hamilton was.
“The one thing he wasn’t, was a politician,” said Steve Laise, an historian and park ranger who serves all of New York City’s national park sites. “But, oh, was he brilliant.”
Hamilton’s home, newly relocated after being squished between an apartment building and a church a block away, once was a 90-minute carriage ride from lower Manhattan. Over at Federal Hall, where the original Congress met and George Washington was inaugurated as president, Laise said most people think of Hamilton as having died in a duel and of imposing a tax that led to the Whiskey Rebellion.
“He felt that if our new country had to pay down its debt because of the costs of the Revolutionary War, well then, doggone it, everyone was going to pay,” explained Laise.
Hamilton and Washington (and a healthy-sized army) rode to Pennsylvania to show rebelling farmers that they meant business. It was an act of leadership that today’s politicians would be loath to consider – except, perhaps, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
As America’s first treasury secretary, Hamilton established a monetary system that still exists today, said Dr. Ronald Surmacz, a Duquesne University expert on American economic history. And he was “one of the primary authors of the Federalist Papers, the literary defense of the Constitution, and helped create parts of the Constitution.”
As such, Surmacz contends, Hamilton was as much a Founding Father, if not more so, than Jefferson, Madison, Adams or Franklin.
Despite preferring urban life to that of a farmer, Hamilton was the original self-made man.
Jefferson, so often described as a “man of the people,” was a plantation owner and, unlike Hamilton, a master politician.
Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton actually fought in the revolution – no “desk-jockey,” he – and was Washington’s most trusted lieutenant after Nathaniel Green.
Last week marked 220 years since Hamilton delivered his "Report on Manufactures" to Congress at Federal Hall. Two years in the making, it laid out a vision for a national economy based on immigrant labor, ingenuity, a vibrant manufacturing sector and agriculture resources.
Standing atop the stairs of Federal Hall where the iconic statue of George Washington overlooks the New York Stock Exchange, you can look right toward Wall Street and Broadway Avenue and see the Trinity Church graveyard where Hamilton was buried.
A few blocks away are the remnants of the Occupy Wall Street commune, whose protesters blame Wall Street for greed and unfairness.
President Barack Obama seized on their rhetoric Wednesday in a speech in Kansas that some pundits hail as his comeback moment. Embracing progressive and populist tones, Obama emphasized the lack of fairness in our economic infrastructure.
Hamilton likely would have laughed at the thought of “fairness” or lack of opportunities. Born in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a ne’er-do-well, his circumstances were hardly “fair” when he came to this country.
He succeeded despite not being part of the moneyed set and, “through his own hard work … made himself into the greatest secretary of the treasury,” according to Surmacz.
“It is his ideas on money and the economy that have served as the foundation not only for this nation but many others.”
Hamilton started as a West Indies shipping-office clerk and used that experience to establish America’s coast guard and customs service. He learned the importance of a uniform currency in stimulating trade, and the necessity of credit.
He understood how government credit is like individual credit, and why it is important for government to build trust in the world through its timely repayment of loans.
And while Hamilton believed in a limited sphere for the federal government, he believed that within its sphere the government should be powerful and effective – and efficient.
He never saw government, within its limited sphere, as a distributor of fairness. Instead, he figured, you should make it on your own without the government holding your hand.
Not that doing so would be easy.
After all, it hadn’t been easy for him – but that never stopped him.