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Happy birthday, Mr. Hamilton

Marketplace Staff Jan 11, 2007


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Pull out $10 bill out of your pocket and say, “Happy Birthday.”Today is Alexander Hamilton’s 250th birthday, although some say its more like his 252nd, but let’s not quibble. Though his life was brief, Hamilton became one of our most important founding fathers. Some say he’s right up there with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin. Business Historian John Steele Gordon says Hamilton fully deserves his place in the American pantheon.

JOHN STEELE GORDON: Alexander Hamilton wasn’t like the other Founding Fathers.

He was the only one not born in what is now the United States, but rather in the British West Indies.

And he was not born rich as most of the others were. Unlike even Franklin, whose family was middle class, Hamilton grew up poor.

Hamilton’s parents weren’t married and the father soon abandoned the family and the mother died, leaving Hamilton an orphan by the age of 10.

He went to work in a trading firm owned by two New York merchants, gaining an understanding of business and practical economics that the land-owning other Founding Fathers did not possess.

By the time he was in his mid-teens he was running the place. His boss brought him to New York to further his education and Hamilton’s fierce ambition, capacity for hard work, and his world-class mind did the rest.

George Washington appointed him the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, when he was still in his early 30s.

There was much work to do as the United States then was effectively a banana republic without any bananas.

Hamilton had to design a tax system from scratch, reorganize the unpaid national debt, establish a customs service, and create a regular money supply to replace a hodge-podge of foreign coins and near-worthless paper money.

Despite fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson and his political allies, he did all that and by the time he left office in 1795, the United States had the best credit rating in Europe.

He lies today buried in Wall Street’s Trinity Church yard, at the very beating heart of American capitalism. It is a fitting place for “the Founding Father of the American Economy.”

After the disaster of September 11, 2001, it was the United States Coast Guard that volunteered to clean up the church yard. Why, you ask? Because Alexander Hamilton also founded the Coast Guard, that’s why.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hamilton, and thank you.

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