Hamilton, the movie musical, is a hit. Why? Viewers can not learn a thing from it. It makes no effort to tell history as it happened. Rather, it reinforces the false image of Alexander Hamilton as one of the good guys. In real life, Hamilton became famous in the way that today a military contractor goes from being a millionaire to a billionaire by draining the public purse. His whole career, Hamilton attacked the newborn American republic like a virus or parasite.
His beginning was classic rags to riches. A Caribbean bastard of a mother jailed for adultery and a father who failed in business, he had to go to work at age eleven. Making something of himself, he had confidence, spoke with a pleasant voice, and peered deeply into the eyes of others. Moved to America, he rose through the ranks in war and peace. America, in those days, truly was a land of opportunity for the humblest immigrants.
Hamilton allied himself with others of scanty scruples, one being fellow immigrant Robert Morris. Like Hamilton, Morris had a Scotsman father, but unlike Hamilton his father was rich. How they enriched themselves was not a matter of morals.
Morris would sell the ragged Continental Army faulty military supplies at outrageous prices, enfeebling the already feeble bluecoat army. A frustrated General George Washington complained that the military contractor at home was a second front worse than the enemy in the field since the latter may be defeated while the former is as intractable as soldiers cussing.
Later Morris enticed Ben Franklin to join him in a land speculation deal. Ben lost all his money but being lovable his friends bailed him out. Years later, Morris set up an even bigger deal and lost all his own money. Not being nearly so lovable, he died friendless in abject poverty. Friend Hamilton died rich.
While both were in Congress, Hamilton put Morris in charge of the first National Bank which had been set up to house the gift of gold from the French king, Louis XVI (who was thinking less gift, more loan, silly him). Morris and friends (including Hamilton is not easy to show) did a series of paper transactions. They lent the gold to themselves, used it to buy the bank, and paid themselves enormous salaries and dividends.
Additionally, they printed too much currency, inflaming inflation, inflating land prices, further enriching land speculators. When their banknotes lost value, they refused to redeem them, preferring to keep the gold for themselves. Essentially, they legally looted the US’s first national bank.
At the end of the war, Hamilton offered the crown to Washington—the colonies’s biggest landowner—this just after people had fought and died to rid themselves of a crown.
After the war as President Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton refused to redeem the scrip that the inchoate United States used to pay their soldiers, claiming the US lacked the funds. After years of waiting, soldiers faced the fact that the word of Washington and of Hamilton was no good. The soldier farmers had to sell the scrip for whatever they could get. Only after Hamilton’s cohorts bought it up for pennies on the dollar, then did Hamilton redeem it at face value. Those few insiders got to legally steal the earnings of those many who’d put their lives on the line.
Hamilton’s party, the Federalists, then the majority in Congress (thanks to the popularity of George Washington), passed its Whiskey Act, to service the national debt, they said, swollen by war and redeeming scrip. The tax on whiskey fell on frontier growers of corn who must distill their crop in order to ship it, since corn itself would rot on the long journey to big cities on the eastern seaboard. As city land is so much more valuable than country land, farmers instead proposed a tax on land. They knew about the tax as it was the first William Penn’s settlers levied two centuries earlier.
As Yankee tax rebels before had refused to pay an unfair tax to the UK, they refused to bow to the US and instead tarred and feathered excise men. The US Government, as the UK before them, responded with armed might. It was needed, Hamilton declared, as a measure of social discipline. Against the farmers, he and Washington led an army of conscripts over double the size Washington had ever led against the British.
While out West, the soldiers spent huge sums on food and whiskey, the largest injection of specie the region had ever experienced. No longer cash-poor, farmers spent it on land, enriching speculators. Washington saw his vast holdings rise by half again. Hamilton urged him to execute the rebel leaders but George granted them clemency.
To stifle dissent, the Hamilton’s Federalist administration arrested even notable protesters, including Ben Franklin’s grandson, for sedition—all were innocent. The region where his party was in the majority—New England—threatened to secede if Jefferson won in 1800. Jefferson did win. He repaid the victims of Hamilton’s party, with interest. The Federalists backed down on their threat, but sure had put the thought of secession in the heads of other national regions.
Out of office, Hamilton became a lawyer in six months. And not just any lawyer. He was the first to finagle an outrageous settlement in a civil court case, an aspect of American jurisprudence that has amazed observers down through the centuries, especially observers in foreign countries not so afflicted with lawyeritis. He reaped what today would be hundreds of millions of settlement dollars.
Hamilton boasted of his successes. His superciliousness got him into a duel with a superior shot, yet he did not worry, he cheated. He adjusted his pistol to have a hair trigger which was his downfall. He accidentally just touched it, firing the gun too soon, sending his ball harmlessly into the air. Aaron Burr played by the rules.
The above and more is why Hamilton is still popular with the powerful. And why he makes a cameo appearance on US currency. All is testimony to the fact that winners write history.
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JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.