Reflections on Historical Leadders
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Reflections on Historical Leaders

September 16, 2015: Alexander Hamilton

Today marks the beginning of our online posts for the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership. Throughout the coming months, Dr. Rick Pointer, professor of history and Fletcher Jones Foundation professor in the social sciences at Westmont, will offer a brief reflection on great leaders in American history. I hope these posts will stimulate an ongoing conversation throughout the year connecting the Lead Where You Stand conferences. This past year, we presented a lecture series on Moral and Ethical Leadership in the American Presidency. Although he never served as president, Alexander Hamilton played a significant role in the founding of our country. I hope you enjoy this new feature of the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership.

- Dr. Gayle D. Beebe

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont

Which American, besides presidents, has had the greatest influence on our nation? That’s the survey question being asked in the current issue of The American Historian. It’s a fun matter to ponder and maybe even debate. Lots of possibilities come to mind depending on what criteria we use. When I came upon the survey last week, I had just read a news article about Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s plan to replace the nation’s original Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, on the ten dollar bill with a yet-to-be-determined distinguished woman from American history. No doubt there are good candidates and the move is perhaps long overdue to give women more equitable representation within the national historical consciousness. Apparently the British have something similar in mind; novelist Jane Austen will start appearing on one side of the £10 note in 2017, replacing Charles Darwin.

Hamilton won’t go away until 2020, just about exactly a century after he first appeared on the bill in 1929, and even then, it will be a long time before all of the current tens go out of circulation. There’s even some chance that his image will share “billing” on some of the new tens with whichever woman is chosen. However all of that turns out, here’s hoping that no further erosion occurs of our national memory of Hamilton’s enormous impact. Unlike other founders who came from privileged backgrounds, Hamilton had humble beginnings and gained a college education only through the benevolence of friends. He then served impressively in the Continental Army, became a lawyer, and was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Although he had little influence there, he soon emerged as one of the new republic’s keenest political theorists through his contributions to The Federalist.

Alexander Hamilton on the Series 1928 $10 Gold Certificate

Once in George Washington’s administration, he arguably left the greatest mark of any of his peers upon the future course and well-being of the United States through his program to stabilize the nation’s tangled finances, strong commitment to enhancing the power of the central government, broad interpretation of the Constitution’s meaning, plans for government aid to bolster American commerce and manufacturing, and composition of much of Washington’s Farewell Address that set out a foreign policy the nation followed until the late 1940s.

Today Republicans and Democrats alike find elements of Hamilton’s legacy worth championing, while also concurring with his opponents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that Hamilton didn’t get everything right. For my money, he was a bit too pessimistic about what motivates people to act – not everything is a matter of economic self-interest – and placed too little weight on the need in a republic for self-sacrifice for the common good. Still, I can imagine plenty of worse answers to that survey question than Alexander Hamilton.