As you might know, I’ve been working through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. At my current pace, I probably won’t have it finished before the end of the year. But if I speed it up, I might have it done…by the end of the year. At better than 700 pages, it’s a bit daunting, but the quality of the work makes it a worthy task. And as a guy who’s always looking for the specific date an event occurred, Chernow has accomodated me nicely. I’ve gots tons of stuff, like this…
On September 2, 1789, Congress acted to create the Department of the Treasury. The responsibility of this department was pretty simple: manage the government’s money. Well, it sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Collecting taxes, managing government accounts, handling debt, supervising the banks, and paying the government’s bills are all part of job. And there’s the crime-fighting role, going after evaders and cheats and such. It’s probably a “25-hour-a-day” job.
Anyways, in 1789, when President Washington was looking to fill the position, he selected Robert Morris. A Pennsylvanian who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a strong backer of the Constitution, Morris had an important role in the finances of the Revolutionary War. When the Revolution ended, he was appointed Superintendent of Finance, though mostly what he managed was war debt. What I’m getting at is that Morris was a pretty good candidate.
So it comes as something of a surprise that he refused the job. It wasn’t due to health reasons, hidden scandal, or ambitions of his own (a bigger surprise, since that’s usually why one refuses the President). Robert Morris refused because he believed he wasn’t the best man for the job (the biggest surprise of all, since people in these situations tend to let their egos rule the day). His choice was Alexander Hamilton, and Morris told the President that Hamilton should be his selection, too.
Washington listened, and he had a history with Hamilton that reached back to the Revolution, when Hamilton had served on then-General Washington’s staff. They had a good relationship and a strong respect for each other, though they didn’t always agree (a subject we will cover down the road). And nine days later when Hamilton walked into an empty office, he probably had little idea of how much that space would shape his legacy.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton