When President Donald Trump told a rally in Iowa that "I just don't want a poor person" running the economy on Wednesday, in response to questions about why he prefers multimillionaires and billionaires to hold Cabinet positions, he seemingly forgot that the mind behind the original American economic system was Alexander Hamilton, the poorest of the Founding Fathers.
Ron Chernow, author of the bestselling 2004 biography "Alexander Hamilton," calls him "the foremost Treasury secretary in American history," a man of "manifold accomplishments" and "undeniably the most influential person in our history who never attained the presidency."
Yet Hamilton was born with almost nothing and died with so little that his family had to take up a collection to bury him. In between, he married into some money and earned more, both as a government official and as a lawyer, but he never achieved anything like the wealth necessary to impress a billionaire like Trump, who has put together the richest administration in history, composed in large part of .
As the Washington Post reported at the end of 2016, "many of the Trump appointees were born wealthy, attended elite schools and went on to amass even larger fortunes as adults. As a group, they have much more experience funding political candidates than they do running government agencies."
Hamilton would have been out of place in their company. Born illegitimate in the West Indies, he was abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother not long after. Hamilton started working at age 12, emigrated to the colonies as a teenager and rose to prominence in 1777 serving under Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War. He then segued into politics and became America's first Treasury secretary.
In Chernow's words:
With its tax collectors and customs inspectors, Hamilton's Treasury Department eclipsed in size the rest of the federal government combined, making him something akin to a prime minister. Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax, and accounting systems. In quick succession, he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service, and the Bank of the United States — the first central bank and the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System.
Most significantly, he took a country bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and restored American credit. All the while, he articulated an expansive vision of the Constitution, converting it into an elastic document that could grow with a dynamic young country.
Though he's on the $10 bill, Hamilton's contributions had largely been overlooked until he got his 15 minutes of fame in 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda's breakthrough, prize-winning musical "Hamilton, " based on Chernow's biography, took New York, Hamilton's adopted hometown, by storm.
The show makes its message clear: Only in America could "a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman " who grew up "in poverty and squalor" attain the kind of prominence he did by virtue of hard work and intellect — and, indeed, it was self-made man Alexander Hamilton who played an out-sized role in first making America great.