Alexander Hamilton: Switzerland or the Caribbean, Anyone?

McCraw uses the  immigrant experience to explain in part the development of a national perspective (see here and here for the 1st 2 installments in this series). Being originally outsiders, immigrants could see the forest for the trees while many, if not most of their native born friends were freighted with the prejudices of particular states. (363) It was this, combined with Hamilton’s and Gallatin’s natural brilliance, McCraw contends “that enabled them to envision and then to execute the responsible deployment of rootless capital in the forging of a new economy.” (326)

Looked at from this perspective, McCraw understandably connects only partially to his subjects pre-American experiences, and then more for Hamilton than Gallatin. Much of the former’s sense of urgency and impatience stemmed, as he notes, from Hamilton’s youth on the island of Nevis: “He knew from his boyhood that things could fall apart on short notice.” (49)

The Caribbean was not the most stable region politically. Hamilton’s own French Huguenot background through his mother,  and his father’s origins in Scotland, testify to the imperial seesaw that characterized the geopolitical reality of the islands. Yet for Gallatin, he misses a similar opportunity.

Read More

Alexander Hamilton and the Politics of Impatience (and Immigrants): Part II

So returning to Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance, McCraw’s interpretive concept around which he builds his narrative is the idea of the “immigrant,” but not just any immigrant. Rather, he has highlighted the traits of a select few: those with commercial and financial experience and understanding. This group, he points out, had particular facility with numbers. They were at home with account books. They understood commercial instruments. They could handle all manner of complex transactions.

Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin were exemplars of this type. But aside from their technical proficiencies, McCraw finds one further trait to be of paramount importance: a national perspective on their adopted homeland. (363) And among this select few, it is Hamilton who takes the lead, rising to the level of brilliance.

Read More

Alexander Hamilton and the Politics of Impatience: Part I

Editor’s note: Occasioned by Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, this is the first post in a series by Liberty Fund Senior Fellow Hans Eicholz that will explore the contrasting visions for the early American republic in the financial, economic, and foreign policy thinking of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. Stay tuned for further developments.

The Founders and FinanceThomas McCraw has given us a compelling portrait of two major figures at the outset of American financial and economic history in The Founders and Finance.  His primary aim is to draw out their similarities—their foreign origins, their experiences in commerce, their capacity to see the big picture of American nationhood—but I was struck more by their striking dissimilarities.

Where Albert Gallatin aspired initially to commercial success; Hamilton very early determined on a political career. Where Gallatin felt somewhat awkward on the political stage, Hamilton thrilled at the prospects of a public career and a public reputation. Where Gallatin learned to roll with the political punches of a diverse and rollicking republic (adapting policies to commercial and political realities), Hamilton formulated a clear, even unitary conception of where America needed to go and what he needed to do to get it there.

Read More