Hamilton's Legacy and the great man theory of financial history.

Author:Stringham, Edward Peter
Position:Alexander Hamilton - Critical essay

Is Hamilton as important and visionary as most people say or an overrated mashup of often contradictory elements? It depends on whether we are talking about Hamilton the musical or Alexander Hamilton the politician. I must admit that I am not generally a fan of Broadway shows or anything related to hip-hop (Johann Strauss II is about as close to contemporary as I get), but I actually think Hamilton the musical is brilliant in multiple ways. It showcases the life and times of someone who was becoming an increasingly forgotten Founding Father, and it presents many details of his life and the history of America's Founding. As an art form, it is pathbreaking, and I can understand why it has won so many awards. In addition to its innovative musical form, I love its message about how an impoverished immigrant and an upstart nation can overcome barriers. In the words of the main character,

I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy and hungry, And I am not throwing away my shot. ("My Shot" [Miranda and McCarter 2016, 26]) I also very much appreciate its assertion that the principles of the American Revolution can be inclusive to all groups: "And when I meet Thomas Jefferson ...

I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel!" (Angelica, "The Schuyler Sisters" [Miranda and McCarter 2016, 44]).

Even though I have no criticisms of this excellent work of theater, Alexander Hamilton the politician may not deserve as much praise. He was certainly an intriguing and important historical figure, but we must be careful not to ascribe too much importance to him or to any other one person for founding America or American financial markets specifically, as the Economist has done by calling Hamilton the "founder of 'Wall Street'" and a "visionary of capitalism" ("Hamiltonian America" 2011).

Although I believe that individuals, including Hamilton, have influenced historical outcomes, saying that a politician founded Wall Street is far off the mark and an unfortunate example of the great-man theory in action. In Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History ([1843] 2000), Thomas Carlyle advanced the theory that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men" (29). Early famous critics of the great-man theory included Leo Tolstoy ([1869] 2008) and Herbert Spencer (1873), who argued that societal outcomes are determined by the totality of individuals in society, not just by a few great men. Using more modern economic language, market outcomes are a spontaneous or emergent order--a product of the choices and interactions of billions of people (Stringham and Curott 2015). Each person makes conscious choices to advance his own wishes and desires; each person can influence outcomes; and some people can influence outcomes more than others. But societal or market outcomes are not the products or inventions of one great man or even of a few great men. To attribute modern American capitalism to Hamilton greatly exaggerates his importance. Hamilton is an amazingly creative adaptation of the life of an interesting person, but Hamilton mania should not be used to advance the narrative that politicians are responsible for inventing our financial system or American capitalism itself.

Does Hamilton Overemphasize the Importance of Politicians?

It would be unfair for a tweed-wearing professor to criticize a musical for lacking footnotes or the long meandering caveats found in academic journals or for containing rap battles with lines that are not 100 percent historically accurate. So nothing in this article should be interpreted as anything close to a critique of this excellent musical. But what people think about a particular topic or take away from a particular work of art is nevertheless important. Hamilton does not present the characters, including the lead, as flawless, and many characters, including George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, advance good arguments at various points. Besides King George III--whom everyone should dislike--the musical does not come across as preachy about who is right or wrong in any debate. In certain ways, the musical takes the Socratic discussion of old ideas to a new level. Even if most of the audience is there for the musical experience and is unable to follow all of the fast-paced arguments, they will at least be exposed to some of the important debates that took place before, during, and after the American Revolution.

As an economist interested in the historical growth of financial markets, in watching Hamilton I was most focused on the debates between Hamilton and Jefferson regarding Hamilton's plan to create a system of national debt.1 During the American Revolution, many colonies issued bonds to finance the efforts to break free from England. After the revolution, although many state bonds seemed likely to be repaid, others were in a tenuous situation. Many holders of these bonds, who anticipated a lower probability of being paid, ended up selling them to speculators, who would assume the risk of default or the potential gain of any repayment. In modern times, we would call such bonds "distressed debt." A market for distressed debt exists because some people want to cash out now, whereas others are willing to assume more risk. At the time, Hamilton believed that having the federal government buy all state debt and redeem it at par would strengthen the federal government by enabling it to borrow more in the future. Much of this idea was based on the system of government debt in England, which was controversial to many who had just fought a revolution against such a relatively large centralized government.

Hamilton presents this economic debate in a way that I and most others never would have predicted: through a high-speed rap battle. After the musical's first half depicts the American Revolution, it then moves to a discussion of governance and Hamilton's financial plans, among other things. With Jefferson still basking in victory...

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