Hamilton and the U.S. Financial Revolution

In these excerpts from their recently published collection of Alexander Hamilton’s writings on “Finance, Credit, and Debt,” the authors provide an overview of “the neatest, quickest financial revolution in history”—the one that took place in the United States during the six‐year tenure of its first Treasury Secretary. Between Hamilton’s appointment by Washington in September 1789 and his resignation in February 1795, and as foreshadowed in letters that Hamilton was writing as early as 1780 (as a 23‐year‐old colonel in the Revolutionary army), the new nation saw the emergence of virtually all of what the authors identify as the six key components of modern financial systems.

The financial revolution that produced the American financial system was accomplished through the following six developments:

  1. The establishment of effective institutions of public finance, including a well‐functioning Treasury debt market, that would enable the government to fund its operations, to restructure its then massive unpaid debts (much of it owed to foreigners), and, perhaps most important, to establish the public credit that would enable it to borrow ever larger amounts on favorable terms.
  2. The founding, in 1791, of a central bank to aid and oversee the government’s finances and serve as the main supervisor and coordinator of the country’s emergent banking and financial systems. By 1795, the Bank of the United States had five offices in different states and thus the beginnings of a national branch banking system.
  3. The creation, in 1791, of the U.S. dollar as the country’s first national currency. With gold and silver as the monetary base into which bank notes and deposits were convertible, the dollar was endowed with the stability of value that would make it a sound basis for long‐term contracts (such as bonds) as well as a safe asset in which to hold savings. By 1795, all the states, which had earlier issued their own notes and currency, had become members of the national currency union.
  4. The development of a private banking system by encouraging state governments to charter banks to support their own finances and lend to businesses and individual entrepreneurs. By 1795, the three state‐chartered U.S. banks that existed in 1789 had become 20, providing the beginnings, with the five offices of the central bank, of what would become a vibrant (if crisis‐prone) American banking system.
  5. The establishment of securities markets designed to make financial assets—both government and private‐sector bonds, and equities (including stock in the Bank of the United States)—liquid and transferrable. By 1795, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston all had established organized exchanges for trading national as well as local bonds and, in some cases, stocks.
  6. The growth of business corporations, financial (such as banks and insurance companies) as well as industrial (utilities, manufacturers, and road, bridge, and canal companies), thereby encouraging the pooling of individuals’ capital that would allow the creation of larger enterprises that could realize economies of scale.

Thanks to these six developments, the United States was transformed from a bankrupt and severely divided nation in 1789 with huge debts to overseas creditors to a country whose government in 1795 produced a large budget surplus and whose securities were viewed by foreigners as among the most creditworthy in the world. And that was important since, as Hamilton clearly foresaw from the start, the U.S. government would have to rely heavily on overseas capital to fund its operations.