Alexander Hamilton was the singular most unlikely candidate to become one of the founding fathers of the USA. He was little more than an orphaned son of a prostitute, growing up in St Nevis, a forgotten spot in the Caribbean, yet he underwent a meteoritic rise to power, became George Washington’s right hand man and almost singlehandedly sustained the USA beyond its infancy, shaping it’s political and economic landscape forever. To some, he could be considered the very embodiment of the American Dream – a young, scrappy and hungry individual who, supported by a developing meritocracy, reached the pinnacle of political success. By contrast, his political rivals views him as, ‘an American Machiavelli’, citing his explosive temperament, infidelity and uncompromising ambition. Perhaps most notably, Hamilton served as the USA’s first Secretary of the Treasury (1789 -1795) and his economic successes indisputably cemented his laudable position in history. However, when we consider his political successes, hugely controversial, it seems myopic to assign his significance primarily to his economic prowess.
The Battle of Yorktown (1781) was the last major battle of the American Revolution and the Britons (led by Lord Cornwallis) officially surrendered to a Franco-American army. The world had been turned upside down and George Washington, as the unanimously elected first president was tasked with building this new nation. Subsequently, he entrusted Hamilton to reshape the emerging American economy. Following the Revolution, the economy was in tatters, crushing war debt weighed down the federal government and a shortage of stable currency stifled commercial growth. Hamilton designed the First National Bank in order to galvanise American commerce by providing currency and loans to businesses and individuals. This National Bank could hold up to $10 million in capital (an astronomical sum at the time – more than five times more than all other American banks combined) and operate across state borders. Most crucially, for Hamilton who was a staunch Federalist, the National Bank would assume all the States’ debt and thus strengthen the government’s control over the nation’s financial future. This notion was hugely controversial for two primary reasons. Firstly, because Hamilton’s political opponents, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Maddison believed the bank was a subtly-veiled means for Hamilton to gain more control over the country as nationalisation of the banks would specifically vest more power in the Department of Treasury, which Hamilton chaired. Secondly, the cohort of anti-federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State), advocated for states’ rights instead of centralised power. Jefferson famously wrote that, ‘The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale’, ie the common use of credit was detrimental to the future generations who would be sidled with that same debt. Hamilton overcame this criticism by ensuring that the federal government would have a minority stake in the Bank, but its board of directors would be private individuals, ensuring a mix of public oversight and private enterprise.
Despite the aforementioned backlash, Hamilton succeeded in establishing the National Bank and this economic success is one of the key reasons that Hamilton’s legacy is preserved by history. The National Bank exceeded all of Hamilton’s expectations in how influential it proved to be.
The bank became an integral part of a national financial infrastructure and bolstered the economic climate. Indeed, it still serves as the template for today’s monetary economy based on a stable currency and access to credit. Hamilton’s plan to evolve the USA into a commercial, cosmopolitan republic succeeded and put the newly founded nation on par with the European superpowers. Following Hamilton’s death in 1804, his political rivals were unable to dismantle his economic system, as it truly was a work of genius that shifted the USA from bankruptcy to prosperity. Moreover, in addition to the National Bank, Hamilton founded the U.S. Mint, created a system to levy taxes on luxury products (such as whiskey), and outlined an aggressive plan for the development of internal manufacturing that ensured that the American economy was not wholly dependent on European powers. The very fact that his fiscal system remains the basis of 21st century banking structure is testament to the significance of his creation and the manner in which his innovative economic prowess contributed to the preservation of his legacy.
Arguably, Hamilton’s lasting legacy could be ascribed to his political success. His polarising style of politics and refusal to compromise inadvertently led to the formation of political factions; tensions emerged concerning how much power the federal government ought to be given. The so-called Federalists, who sought a strong central government, rallied around Hamilton, whilst the Anti-Federalists, led by Jefferson, advocated for states’ autonomy instead of endorsing a singular centralised power. The discrepancies between the parties burgeoned, Federalists coalesced around the commercial sector of the country while their opponents favoured an agrarian society. The ensuing partisan battles characterised the political landscape and continues to be the basis for the USA’s congressional system. That being the case, it does not seem implausible to suggest that the Hamiltonian legacy primarily manifests itself in the political ripples that continue to influence our modern political systems.
Moreover, the Federalist Papers could be considered Hamilton’s political and constitutional legacy. During the Convention in Philadelphia (1787), the delegates devised the US Constitution. Although Hamilton was a relatively minor presence because he was the minority voice in the New York Delegation, he refused to be subdued and propped, he proposed his own form of governments and purportedly spoke for 6 hours – the convention was listless. Nevertheless, when the Constitution was devised and facing criticism for being contradictory and convoluted, Hamilton successfully negotiated its ratification, supported by John Jay and James Madison, by publishing the Federalist Papers—a collection of 85 articles and essays written under the pseudonym “Publius” to convince the people of the Constitution’s validity. Hamilton was integral because John Jay got sick after writing five, James Madison wrote twenty-nine and Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one. To this day, his essays are still widely consulted by scholars and the Supreme Court. The Federalist Papers have be named, ‘the most important work in political science that ever has been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States’, and through his political works, Hamilton’s legacy has been maintained.
Furthermore, Hamilton was a controversial figure throughout his career, openly contemptuous of democracy and he consistently intensified factionalism by publicly criticising his colleagues Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Burr in the elections of 1796 and 1800. Arguably, the manner of his dramatic and untimely death also contributed to his lasting legacy as the Burr-Hamilton duel has since become emblematic of the impassable divisions between Democrats and Republicans, raising the topical question of whether the world is wide enough for the two parties to coexist and work collaboratively for the betterment of the nation.
Unfortunately, Hamilton’s political career was characterised by his inclination to make enemies; he was contemporarily described as, ‘an American Machiavelli’.
Despite the significance of all of the aforementioned actions, it is evident that the true reason that Hamilton’s legacy will be preserved by history is the monumental and cultural significance of Hamilton: The Musical. The Broadway production has received almost unprecedented accolade, not only due to its seamless lyricism, but because it seamlessly fuses American history with current politics and highlights the continuous relevance of Hamilton’s story. Startling parallels can be drawn between Hamilton’s political landscape and that which we observe today, crippled by division, xenophobia and amoral political figures. Whilst comparable political figures may grace the face of Mt Rushmore, Hamilton’s legacy has been divulged to (and subsequently appreciated by) historians, Americans and laymen alike. Therefore, in light of Hamilton: The American Musical’s cultural magnitude, Hamilton’s legacy is no longer consigned to dusty shelves but his story is brought to light in a magnanimous fashion. Most strikingly, the multiculturalism that is represented in the BME cast adds a whole new gravitas to the performance as it encourages non-white Americans to take ownership of their origination story. Although in actuality the founding fathers and prominent political figures would have been exclusively white, the musical emphasises the fact that America was built upon immigration and ensures that the cast is diverse and representative of modern day America.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the most controversial figures in modern history. He refused to throw away his shot and was utterly committed to smashing every expectation and achieving his political ambitions. His name was libellously sullied postpartum, as popular figures such as Jefferson and his acolytes, diminished his character, labelling him as ‘a monarchist of Caesarean ambition, an anti-democratic dilettante, and a corrupt creature of Wall Street plutocrats’. However, the truth is, Alexander Hamilton’s influence and legacy is keenly felt in the very composition of American society. Indisputably, he $10 founding father, rose to political stratospheres and his successes in the politico-economic spheres ought not to be diminished. However, it is evident that the true reason that Hamilton’s legacy is everlasting is because of his dynamic and controversial character; his story that was once resigned to dusty bookshelves has been reinvigorated by the Broadway production and his legacy has thus been enshrined in pop culture and common awareness. Throughout his life, Hamilton was acutely aware that history has it’s eyes on him and alongside his ascension, he envisioned a time when history history books would mention him and the world would know his name. Hamilton’s legacy was of paramount importance to him (a quest that seems as futile as planting seeds in a garden you never get to see) and he succeeded in building a legacy that outlived him. America, as a fledging nation owes much of its identity to Hamilton’s work, indeed, America was Hamilton’s great unfinished symphony and his legacy will never wane because it is inseparably intertwined with the USA’s history.