Obama and the Real Hamilton; Sunshine on Rhetoric and Prudent Economic Policy

Article excerpt


MARIGOT, St. Martin -- Barack Obama is wintering in the Caribbean. His visage adorns T-shirts everywhere on this small dot in the Leeward Islands beyond the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, T-shirts worn by black, brown and white folk, natives and tourists alike.

Biographies of Obama and Michelle, written in French, line the window of a bookstore in Marigot, the capital of the French side of the isle. Caribbean music wafts over the eggplants, plantains and bottles of homemade guavaberry liqueur a visitor is taking home for the evening meal. Syncopated syllables of Barack Obama's name are set to the music that makes everyone want to dance in the street.

The Caribbean has a rich and controversial sociology, but Americans think mostly of the islands as idyllic latitudes for winter lassitude. Few native-born islanders have made it into American history. One striking exception is Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the tiny West Indian island of Nevis and grew up in nearby St. Croix. He's a Founding Father who might have been president but for his foreign birth - the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar in the derisive description of John Adams. Thomas Jefferson derided him, unfairly, as a secret monarchist. Martha Washington called her tomcat Hamilton to mock his scandalous sexual appetite.

Despite all that, and the vicious thrust and parry of his Republican opponents, Hamilton is nevertheless one of our most important original political thinkers. He sounds like just what we need to lead us out of the contemporary economic crisis.

Hamilton's reputation suffered in the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson, and liberal and conservative alike now agree that revisiting his words of wisdom would benefit us all. I packed up a small library of revisionist interpretations of the first secretary of the Treasury, including Ron Chernow's wonderful biography, to read for reflection in St. Martin, while back in Washington the politicians huddled to give away taxpayer money in ways that would have surely appalled him.

Hamilton understood that money collected by the government is the people's money, and should be spent responsibly, with appeals to reason, not as gratification for ambitious spendthrift legislators. A responsible government inspires confidence, and doesn't provoke suspicion and fear. A responsible government aims to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit, and its decisions tend to send the stock market up, not down. …