Alexander Hamilton—the Man, the Musical, the Financial Founding Father

Contributed by: Benjamin Wright Benjamin Wright

As the 70th Tony Awards approach this Sunday, the rap-infused musical, Hamilton, has grabbed a record-breaking 16 nominations and seems to be all anyone can talk about. The musical premiered on Broadway in August of 2015, yet tickets are still extremely expensive, fetching no less than $700 per seat. Alexander Hamilton is portrayed by writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 36 year-old Puerto Rican native. Miranda has recently spoken out, and sometimes even rapped, about the economic and debt crisis Puerto Rico is currently experiencing. During Miranda’s recent trip to the White House, he jokingly offered Hamilton tickets to Congress if that would help solve Puerto Rico’s problems. The parallels are uncanny as Miranda’s most famous and increasingly most popular work, Hamilton, dives into the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his role in the early American financial system, including our nation’s very first debt crisis.

Born in the Caribbean, Hamilton had to grow up quickly not having a father and losing his mother when he was thirteen. When Hamilton was seventeen, a hurricane devastated his town and he immigrated to New York seeking economic opportunity. After Hamilton served under George Washington in the Revolutionary War, he practiced law and founded the Bank of New York. The young United States found itself experiencing economic hardships and was in a heap of debt after borrowing from other countries, its own colonies, and even private colonists in order to support the revolutionary war effort. The government under the Articles of Confederation lacked sufficient tax authority over the states which only grew the national debt. Dissatisfied with the inefficiencies of the federal government, Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers which were a collection of essays promoting the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. Under the newly approved Constitution, George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury.

In this role, Hamilton engineered a compromise with political opponents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, that would overhaul and centralize the debt market through the federal government. Hamilton’s plan was a major success and by demonstrating America’s willingness to pay off their debts, the U.S. became attractive to more foreign investors. Hamilton then proposed and helped create a national bank and paper currency. Additionally, Hamilton believed that the U.S. dependence on imports and exports limited the American economy. He supported high tariffs, government subsidies, and government-financed transportation improvements which were designed to protect American manufacturing. Most strikingly, it was an economic vision that had no place for slavery. Hamilton’s economic outlook contradicted Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” laissez-faire, approach. Mixtures of these ideas have helped shape the modern capitalist economy the U.S. flourishes under today.

The popularity of the musical Hamilton is partly due to its groundbreaking format of rap/hip-hop with an almost all minority principle cast, but also in part due to the reentering and popularizing of Alexander Hamilton’s important role in history and in the development of our modern financial system. Though we generally learn the Founding Fathers’ roles in the creation of our country in school, Hamilton has effectively brought Hamilton to the center of our attention, making his contribution to our modern day economics impossible not to notice. So whether you’re watching the Tony Awards on Sunday, listening to coworkers and friends rave about the music, or using cash to make a purchase, it’s all thanks to Alexander Hamilton.