On a spring day in 1858, the president of the New York Historical Society shared a letter from another New York institution offering an unusual donation from the Bank of New York: an elaborate clock. To convince his fellow members of the storied history of the bank and, by association, the clock, the president singled out one man from the bank’s original board. “Among the directors,” said the president, “Was General [Alexander] Hamilton, another immortal name, whose genius has stamped its impression on the political events of that momentous and memorable era.” The Historical Society welcomed the clock to its collection.
A hundred years passed—enough time for a fairy tale to cook. A legend grew around the clock. A subsequent director of the Historical Society referred to it as the Hamilton clock. The story emerged that Alexander Hamilton had gifted the clock personally to his financial brainchild, like a father bestowing a pocket watch to his firstborn. Whether he really did remains an unsolved mystery.
The timepiece in question was monumental. It towered nine feet tall with an enormous dial face that made it look like a bobblehead toy. The mahogany waist of the body, inlaid with a circlet of 16 stars, tapered in as if the clock had been squeezed into a corset. The stars, meant to represent the ever-growing number of states in the union, suggested the clock was made around 1796, when Tennessee achieved statehood. It was just at that time that Hamilton, having left the director role at the Bank of New York to become secretary of the Treasury, launched his vision of a federal financial system, enthroned in the Bank of the United States. The institution sparked heated debate between states’-rights advocates and central-government proponents like Hamilton.