Sunday, November 18, 2012

a Nation of immigrants

Many years ago, I won the equivalent of over $800 in today's dollars in a contest based on knowledge of the life and ideas of Alexander Hamilton.  I've been a Hamilton fan ever since.

The more I study Hamilton, the more impressed I am with his understanding of economic forces and his prescient vision for American greatness.  Yes, he wrote that "a national debt is a national blessing," but only because federal assumption and financing of the debt would bind the former colonies together. The key word there is "national," not "debt." But he also wrote the 1971 Report on Manufactures that advocated government support for research and development as well as a few protective tariffs for certain infant industries.  This was encouraging entrepreneurs, not picking winners and losers.

I'm currently reading a fine by by Thomas McCraw, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School who died shortly after the book was published in October. McCraw has dual biographies of Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, the longest serving Secretary of the Treasury, that argue for their superior understanding of economic policy compared to their early American contemporaries.

McCraw has an important repetitive point I hadn't thought about before -- that men like Hamilton and Gallatin were able to take a national perspective on policy matters precisely because they were immigrants. They identified with the new nation while many of the other founders had their strongest loyalties to their home states.

He notes this of participants in the Constitutional Convention in 1787:
"Of the fifty-five delegates who had assembled in Philadelphia,. thirty-nine signed the Constitution.  Seven of the eight immigrant delegates signed and one did not. By contrast, of the forty-seven native-born delegates, thirty-two signed and fifteen did not -- including two of the three from New York and four of the seven from Virginia."
Among those non-signers were George Mason and Patrick Henry.

I think he's right. America is a nation of immigrants and more of a nation because of immigrants.

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