Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alexander the great

It is fashionable these days among some political circles to speak disparagingly of the country's debt. One of the most commonly repeated bits of "wisdom" is--we wouldn't run our own finances that way; how can we allow the country to go into debt?

To which I usually respond--poppycock. Of course, we all do (or most of us do)--we borrow money when we have need to buy some item for which we do not have the ready cash. How many of us have ever borrowed money? If you own a house on which you are paying a mortgage, you borrowed money. Or if you own a car that you bought on time. Or if you use a credit card and do not always pay the balance due at the end of the month. All these are ways in which we do, on our own small scale, what the country does.

Of course, we can argue the merits of how MUCH debt the country should have. But, really folks, arguing whether or not the country should have any debt is just plain...silly.

It was Alexander Hamilton who, though he was never president, did as much as anyone in those heady revolutionary days, to make it possible for the young country to succeed.

I would venture that if I were to ask you to rattle off what you know about Alexander Hamilton, you might say--in this order--

  • he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr

  • he was a most important aide to George Washington, both during the American Revolution and also in Washington's cabinet

  • he was the bastard child of an Scottish father

  • he was born in the Caribbean

  • he was the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury

  • he was denied admission to Princeton (because of his bastard birth), and was then admitted to King's College (which became Columbia)

  • he was one of the primary authors of the Federalist Papers

All those things are true of Hamilton.

There are some slightly more obscure things about Hamilton.

He fought actively during the American Revolution, including leading troops in battle--the Battle of Monmouth.

He also had an affair which resulted in the U.S.'s first sexual scandal of a prominent politician--he admitted it publicly and since it was determined NOT to have any connection to his political position, it was eventually forgotten.

He had two sons named Philip. The first one was killed in a duel in 1801; the second son named Philip was born in 1802, not long after his elder brother had died, so he received the name of the deceased son.

He had a contentious political career, including a falling out with Washington, with whom he had worked so closely. In the presidential election of 1800, he worked against the candidate of his own party--John Adams who was the sitting president. When the election results were basically tied, Hamilton ended up throwing his support behind Jefferson (over Aaron Burr), giving Jefferson the win. Needless to say, Burr was not happy, and the enmity between him and Hamilton began to grow. Of course, we know it ended with the infamous duel in 1804.

I don't know what got me to thinking about Hamilton lately. Maybe it's because we recently passed his birthdate--he was born on January 11. Or maybe it's because I read a fascinating biography of him a year or so ago (written by Ron Chernow).

I think it most likely that I think of someone like Alexander Hamilton as I despair, listening to what passes for deep thinking from members of the so-called Tea Party on how to manage the country's economy. Alexander Hamilton, who helped create the U.S. Mint, who founded the first national bank, who recognized the need of the infant country to set tariffs, would roll over in his grave.

The talk of not raising the debt ceiling--so the country defaults on its debt obligations--would have garnered Hamilton's scorn. Hamilton took the mishmash of the financial system that had emerged during the period of the early confederacy of states, and honed it into a national unified system that stabilized the country and gave foreign investors the confidence to invest in the U.S.--in us.

There are many maddening by-products of the degree to which some politicians fail to know the history of our country. A few years ago, someone wanted to change the portraits on the U.S. paper currency, by placing Reagan's picture on the ten dollar bill. Part of the rationale was--we only have presidents' portraits on money--so get rid of Hamilton on the $10. Never mind that Benjamin Franklin's portrait graces the $100. It certainly wouldn't hurt if people today would pay a bit more attention to someone who was never president. Were it not for Hamilton--our Alexander the great--the United States might not be at all.
Source of engraving of the Burr-Hamilton duel: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/duel.htm

The graphic of Reagan and Hamilton: http://money.cnn.com/2004/06/08/news/economy/reagan_hamilton/


Anvilcloud said...

And ... even if you pay your credit card off every month (as I do 99% of the time), it's still a debt until then.

Jayne said...

Interesting tidbit of history there. :c)

Anonymous said...

Great job, Donna! I swallowed this early morning history without needing a spoonful of sugar! I really enjoyed it. Much I didn't know.

I wholeheartedly agree with you. I despair that we insist on sending, not the most intelligent to Congress, but the snarkiest. They have no sense of history nor depth of thought.

A public service, Lady. . . !

Ginnie said...

You always give me food for thought and I agree with your use of the word "poppycock" !sante

Anonymous said...

To Donna & Ginnie:
Why not balderdash instead of popycock? Our pastor Sunday last week used balderdash to describe people who live by the horoscope. I suggested popycock to him. He said he didn't know it, but it sounded British. Then again this past Sunday he refered to balderdash & popycock.
Father "C"

Anonymous said...

The one big concern I have to the National debt is the size and the Chinese.
Father "C"

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I am not a big fan of what is referred to as American exceptionalism, particularly when it is viewed as something ordained by God. If anything is exceptional it is the group of intelligent men who came to shape the Nation. Without these men ,like Hamilton, the nascent Nation may never have gotten off the ground.

troutbirder said...

Oh my what a fun post. More tidbits. Alex led a small unit of artillery at Trenton and was the first to fire on the town (having just read Prof. Fischer's wonderful Washington's Crossing). (My review on Troutbirder II) He also led the attack on Redoubt #7 ? paving the way for the victory at Yorktown. His vision of America's future was right on. Jefferson perhaps more idealistic.

Denise said...

I do agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. However, I do have one question. In Re: to your 2nd paragraph. Poppycock? Having worked in banking and being a lender, I can tell you that there is a day when funds are denied to a prospective borrower due the fact that they are “way over their heads” in debt. How is this not different for a country? Is the argument/fear truly the fact that there is debt, or that there is too much debt?