Documenting the contributions of Alexander Hamilton
By J. Chambless
Col. Alexander Hamilton (played by Gene Pisasale, right), along with Gen. George Washington (Carl Closs) and Gen. Lafayette at the 2014 Battle of Brandywine reenactment.
By John Chambless
Historian and author Gene Pisasale is fascinated with all aspects of American history, and his latest book, “Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System,” explores yet another dimension of America's storied past.
Hamilton – at least until a certain Broadway smash musical put his name back into the spotlight – had been a somewhat overlooked figure. But Pisasale points out that the fledgling United States would likely have collapsed without Hamilton's forceful guidance.
Pisasale recently answered some questions about Hamilton, and his critical contributions to getting a young America on its feet.
Q.: Had you been well versed in
Hamilton's background and contributions before deciding to write the
Pisasale: Yes, I’ve had an interest in Alexander Hamilton for several years, well before the play came out. I decided to pursue my master’s degree almost three years ago with the intention of writing my master’s thesis on Hamilton, which I completed in December 2016. I’ve read numerous books about Hamilton, his life and times, his associates, his policies and his impact on the creation of our government.
What do you think about the success of 'Hamilton,' the Broadway musical?
I saw it on Broadway this past November and truly enjoyed it. Although the musical genre is not my cup of tea, the production is very engaging and fascinating!
Was there a firm plan for forming a United States financial system in the 1700s, or was it more chaotic?
The 13 colonies were in very bad shape financially after the Revolutionary War, with a haphazard mix of state-issued banknotes, promissory notes, Continental Congress-issued currency and several foreign currencies (British, French, Spanish and Dutch) in use. We’d defaulted on our debt repayments, so the young republic was technically bankrupt. There was no centralized system for debt issuance, debt repayment or revenue generation, and Hamilton had the talents and genius to provide a system which fully resolved all these problems.
Without Hamilton's plan, would America have survived, or would we have collapsed in financial insolvency?
Without Hamilton’s plan, it is likely that the United States would have floundered for many years, possibly going through “rolling defaults” as we’ve seen in recent decades by some less-developed countries around the world. Hamilton had an enormous range of skills -- in finance, banking, investments, international trade, currencies and related fields – which places him above almost every other Founding Father in terms of ability to resolve these issues. Robert Morris came close to his skill-set. Hamilton had written eloquently many years before the creation of the U.S. Constitution about the need to form a centralized government and banking system (which turned into the First Bank of the United States, in Philadelphia; the building is still there today), a system to issue and repay debt, a new monetary system with the dollar as its functional unit, the formation of freely trading markets in government securities, which helped spawn the New York Stock Exchange and many other areas which benefited from his talents. It is important to note that Hamilton was the only Founding Father who spoke and wrote eloquently about the need for a new centralized government and a new financial system, and also put his life on the line fighting as a soldier in the American Revolution to help create both of those entities. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and had a very strong influence on crafting the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 is the life blood of the Constitution; it specifies the powers of Congress to tax, issue debt, pay down debt, issue currency and regulate the financial system so that it functions. Hamilton’s fingerprints are all over it, and most scholars acknowledge that the financial framework for our nation was almost single-handedly created by Hamilton.
In his day, was Hamilton regarded as an "outsider" to government, given his humble origin?
Some of the Founding Fathers deeply distrusted Hamilton, most notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. John Adams called Hamilton “the bastard son of a Scots peddler” and had misgivings about his ambitions and policies. Among these men, Jefferson disagreed most often with Hamilton; Madison initially agreed with many of Hamilton’s policies, but later opposed many of the same policies after he came more strongly under the influence of Jefferson.
What about Hamilton surprised you in your research for the book?
Most surprising to me was the fact that Hamilton started out in life in a broken home. His father left the family when he was about 10; his mother died when he was 11. Yet he found strength in chaos as he utilized his superior mind and dedication to improve himself. He was a lowly clerk at the trading firm of Beekman and Cruger on St. Croix, and his talents were so obvious that the owner put Hamilton in charge of the entire operation when Hamilton was only 14 years old. Hamilton truly rose up above his humble roots to not only survive, but thrive, with the many gifts given to him by God. Hamilton excelled amidst chaos -- a remarkable feat.
In your books and your performances as these historical characters, do you strive to include all aspects of their personalities -- even the less-than-flattering ones?
In my Hamilton presentation, I talk briefly about his affair with Maria Reynolds (one which he admitted, wrote about and deeply regretted for the rest of his life), along with disagreements with Jefferson and Madison. President Washington trusted Hamilton implicitly, and without this trust and approval, Hamilton’s policies may never have been implemented. The men were “brothers-in-arms” on the battlefield. Hamilton not only fought as a soldier, he was later Washington’s aide-de-camp for four years. Washington had deep respect for Hamilton, his intellect and his abilities. The two men were perhaps the most important elements in the formation of the young republic -- the new nation – along with Madison and Jefferson. I do note that Hamilton was likely viewed as a tad aggressive (some might say overly aggressive) in pursuing his policies. I portray Hamilton with his noted self-confidence and surety in his actions, which may have rubbed some of the others the wrong way at times. I feel it’s important to note that Hamilton was a uniquely talented man, with a superb suite of talents, only a few of which were possessed by his contemporaries. None of them had all of his talents.
One thing I’d like the public to know is that we would not have the America we know today without Alexander Hamilton. It is quite possible we would have become a second-tier nation, with limited economic growth, muted potential and fewer achievements on the world stage. Our banking system, our overall economic system, our securities markets, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service -- all of them were formed or touched by Hamilton. We can thank him for the fact that America is the most successful nation on Earth.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.