Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Chapter XVI

Congress reassembled, and on the 2d of January Hamilton sent in his Report on Public Credit. By this time excitement and anxiety, to say nothing of cupidity, were risen to fever pitch. All realized that they were well in the midst of a national crisis, for the country was bankrupt, and her foreign and domestic debts footed up to quite eighty millions of dollars--a stupendous sum in the infancy of a nation, when there was little specie in the country, and an incalculable amount of worthless paper, with long arrears of interest besides. If Hamilton could cope with this great question, and if Congress, with its determined anti-government party, would support him, the Union and its long-suffering patriots would enter upon a season of prosperity and happiness. If the one were inadequate to meet the situation, or the other failed in its national duty, the consequences must be deeper wretchedness and disaster than anything they yet had endured. The confidence in Hamilton was very widespread, for not only were his great abilities fully recognized, but his general opinions on the subject had long been known, and approved by all but the politicians on the wrong side. The confidence had been manifested in a manner little to his liking: speculators had scoured the country, buying up government securities at the rate of a few shillings on the pound, taking advantage of needy holders, who dwelt, many of them, in districts too remote from the centre of action to know what the Government was about. And even before this "signal instance of moral turpitude," the fact that so many old soldiers who had gone home with no other pay than government securities, to be exchanged for specie at the pleasure of a government which nobody had trusted, had sold out for a small sum, was one of the agitating themes of the country; and opinion was divided upon the right of the assignees to collect the full amount which the new government might be prepared to pay, while the moral rights of the worthy and original holder were ignored. It was understood, however, that Hamilton had given no more searching thought to any subject than to this.

The public was not admitted to the galleries of Congress in those days, but a great crowd packed Wall and Broad streets while the Report was reading and until some hint of its contents filtered through the guarded doors. Hamilton himself was at home with his family, enjoying a day of rest. It is one of the most curious incidents in his career, as well as one of the highest tributes to his power over men, that Congress, after mature deliberation, decided that it would be safer to receive his Report in writing than in the form of a personal address from a man who played so dangerously upon the nerve-board of the human nature. There hardly could be any hidden witchery in a long paper dealing with so unemotional a subject as finance; but no man could foresee what might be the effect of the Secretary's voice and enthusiasm,--which was perilously communicable,--his inevitable bursts of spontaneous eloquence. But Hamilton had a pen which served him well, when he was forced to substitute it for the charm of his personality. It was so pointed, simple, and powerful, it classified with such clarity, it expressed his convictions so unmistakably, and conveyed his subtle appeals to human passions so obediently, that it rarely failed to quiver like an arrow in the brain to which it was directed. And this particular report was vitalized by the author's overwhelming sense of the great crisis with which he was dealing. Reading it to-day, a hundred and eleven years after it was written, and close to the top of a twelve-story building, which is a symbol of the industry and progress for which he more than any man who has ever dedicated his talents to the United States is responsible, it is so fresh and convincing, so earnest, so insistent, so courteously peremptory, that the great century which lies between us and that empire-making paper lapses from the memory, and one is in that anxious time, in the very study of the yet more anxious statesman; who, on a tropical island that most of his countrymen never will see, came into being with the seed of an unimagined nation in his brain.

To condense Hamilton is much like attempting to increase the density of a stone, or to reduce the alphabet to a tabloid. I therefore shall make no effort to add another failure to the several abstracts of this Report. The heads of his propositions are sufficient. The Report is accessible to all who find the subject interesting. The main points were these: The exploding of the discrimination fallacy; the assumption of the State debts by the Government; the funding of the entire amount of the public debt, foreign, domestic, and State; three new loans, one to the entire amount of the debt, another of $10,000,000, a third of $12,000,000; the prompt payment of the arrears and current interest of the foreign loan on the original terms of the contract; the segregating of the post-office revenue, amounting to about a million dollars, for a sinking fund, that the creation of a debt should always be accompanied by the means of extinguishment; increased duties on foreign commodities, that the government might be able to pay the interest on her new debts and meet her current expenses; and more than one admonition for prompt action, as the credit of the nation was reaching a lower level daily, besides sinking more hopelessly into debt through arrears of interest. The indebtedness he divided as follows: The foreign debt, $10,070,307, with arrears of interest amounting to $1,640,071. The liquidated domestic debt, $27,383,917, with arrears of interest amounting to $13,030,168. The unliquidated part he estimated at $2,000,000, and the aggregate debt of the State at $25,000,000; making a total of nearly $80,000.000.

He also hinted at his long-cherished scheme of a National Bank, and a possible excise law, and gave considerable space to the miserable condition of landed property and the methods by which it might be restored to its due value.