What would “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor … the 10-dollar Founding Father without a father” think about Bernie? About Trump? About manufacturing vs. finance, main street vs. Wall Street? About China?
Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary and now the protagonist of an insanely popular Broadway musical, remains an embodiment of the tensions characterizing the American political debate some 240 years after the events depicted in Hamilton. He is somehow, simultaneously, patron saint both to American protectionists and Wall Street financiers. His plan to invest in and protect American manufacturing in its infancy arguably helped the U.S. become the industrial giant that gave the eventual global superpower its backbone. At the birth of the nation, Hamilton also helped institute trading in credit and debt, and helped establish capital markets as the lynchpin of America’s eventual dominance of the global economy.
But today and throughout America’s history, there has been a palpable ambivalence about the country’s global engagement, whether military, diplomatic, or economic. As America’s current treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, this ambivalence is evident “from George Washington’s Farewell Address [written, incidentally, with an assist from Hamilton], to the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations after World War I, to the initial reluctance of the United States to enter World War II, and to the difficult process of winning congressional support for the postwar economic system itself.”