“And why can we not have an American bank?”

Excerpt from an enormous letter written by Alexander Hamilton to James Duane in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Hamilton is 25 years old, and years away from becoming Secretary of the Treasury. Years away from his formation-of-the-bank extravaganza. Yet he is already (of course) pondering the issues, grappling with the inefficiency of the current system. He wrote this letter in 1780 – 7 years before the Constitutional Convention – long before the convention was even thought of … the Articles of Confederation were the law of the land … but here in this letter Hamilton is already sensing that things need to change. The letter is incredible. It’s quoted at length in various Hamilton biographies – but it sure is worth it to go and read the whole thing. When you think of the circumstances under which the letter was written – Hamilton, camped out in the middle of a war, working his ass off for Washington, handling all of Washington’s correspondence as well – not to mention courting Elizabeth Schuyler – it is even more amazing. The intellectual energy of the man. Surely he had more than 24 hours in a day. And this letter to Duane (which went through many drafts) was written on the same day as a bunch of other letters … this was not the ONLY thing he wrote that day. It’s over 6000 words. Extraordinary. Oh, and the last 2 times I have posted on Founding Fathers, I have gotten snotty condescending responses from the usual suspects. If you want to discuss this stuff, be civil. And also: Don’t assume I haven’t read the books you have, and that’s why my opinion is different than yours. I probably have read the books you have.

Here’s just one excerpt of the mammoth letter:

And why can we not have an American bank? Are our monied men less enlightened to their own interest or less enterprising in the pursuit? I believe the fault is in our government which does not exert itself to engage them in such a scheme. It is true, the individuals in America are not very rich, but this would not prevent their instituting a bank; it would only prevent its being done with such ample funds as in other countries. Have they not sufficient confidence in the government and in the issue of the cause? Let the Government endeavour to inspire that confidence, by adopting the measures I have recommended or others equivalent to them. Let it exert itself to procure a solid confederation, to establish a good plan of executive administration, to form a permanent military force, to obtain at all events a foreign loan. If these things were in a train of vigorous execution, it would give a new spring to our affairs; government would recover its respectability and individuals would renounce their diffidence.

The object I should propose to myself in the first instance from a bank would be an auxiliary mode of supplies; for which purpose contracts should be made between Government and the bank on terms liberal and advantageous to the latter. Everything should be done in the first instance to encourage the bank; after it gets well established it will take care of itself and government may make the best terms it can for itself….

A bank of this kind even in its commencement would answer the most valuable purposes to government and to the proprietors; in its progress the advantages will exceed calculation. It will promote commerce by furnishing a more extensive medium which we greatly want in our circumstances. I mean a more extensive valuable medium. We have an enormous nominal one at this time; but it is only a name.

In the present unsettled state of things in this country, we can hardly draw inferences from what has happened in others, otherwise I should be certain of the success of this scheme; but I think it has enough in its favour to be worthy of trial.

I have only skimmed the surface of the different subjects I have introduced. Should the plans recommended come into contemplation in earnest and you desire my further thoughts, I will endeavour to give them more form and particularity. I am persuaded a solid confederation a permanent army a reasonable prospect of subsisting it would give us treble consideration in Europe and produce a peace this winter.

If a Convention is called the minds of all the states and the people ought to be prepared to receive its determinations by sensible and popular writings, which should conform to the views of Congress. There are epochs in human affairs, when novelty even is useful. If a general opinion prevails that the old way is bad, whether true or false, and this obstructs or relaxes the operation of the public service, a change is necessary if it be but for the sake of change. This is exactly the case now. ‘Tis an universal sentiment that our present system is a bad one, and that things do not go right on this account. The measure of a Convention would revive the hopes of the people and give a new direction to their passions, which may be improved in carrying points of substantial utility. The Eastern states have already pointed out this mode to Congress; they ought to take the hint and anticipate the others.

A phenom, this dude. “I have only skimmed the surface…” Ha! I grapple with his ideas myself, going this way, that – seeing his points, recoiling from others … There’s something about all of “these guys” that demand engagement. Just ENGAGE. Read their words and engage with them. See what comes up. See what you gravitate towards, and what you back off from. And also see how two things, two seemingly contradictory things, can be going on at the same time. That’s why the primary sources of all of “these guys” – in the middle of a conflict – are so invaluable. It’s a fight that goes on and on. The disagreement is built into the system. It’s not perfect. But what it does do is ensure that the dialogue will continue. And I love these documents for that.

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One Response to “And why can we not have an American bank?”

  1. Happy birthday to my dead boyfriend – Alexander Hamilton

    Photo by me, that’s near my house On this day, in 1755, Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies. Happy birthday to one of the most compelling (to me anyway) founding fathers that we have. He was…

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