Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Banking on Hamilton

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet play with the U.S. economy

The Maria Chronicles, #26

The play has been distributed, the parts assigned, and now the class is ready to go. Maria flicks the lights to indicate it's time to begin, and starts reading her own part as the narrator who will set the stage for what follows:

Today on American History Now, we’re at a post office in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s the summer of 1790, and a group of Revolutionary War veterans have gathered, as they often do on summer afternoons while waiting for the harvest. Some of them actually come to read newspapers, but mostly they gather to relax and exchange stories, since it’s cheaper to hang out here than at the local tavern, where the ale is expensive and their wives tend to keep track of expenses.

Today is a little unusual because a stranger has come to town. He’s a man calling himself Al the Banker. He has been discussing politics with the men, who are up to date with the issues from their reading and discussions. A debate is raging in the new Congress over the nation’s financial policy and the way it intersects with veterans’ issues. As everyone knows, many war vets have been promised payments for their service in the war for independence. And, as everyone also knows, these men have not been paid – and there’s no knowing if (when?) they’ll ever be. That’s why some of these vets have been selling their pension certificates, at a fraction of their face value, to speculators. One group of leaders, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, asserts the pensions should be paid in full. Another group or faction, under U.S. Representative James Madison of Virginia, says the government cannot—and should not—reward those exploiting the service of others. The Hamilton faction contends that such speculators actually serve the cash-strapped vets by offering them hard cash when they need it, and in any case are essential for the development of a strong American economy. The Madison faction replies that a strong American economy will not depend on such people, but rather the productive capacity of the nation’s farmers. This is a debate that has grown increasingly spirited – and, some might say, acrimonious.

That’s why the arrival of Al the Banker is such a novelty here in Medford. Suddenly, it seems, national politics has arrived on the post office doorstep. Some of those who have been listening to Al the Banker make his pitch have been intrigued; others repelled. But everyone is very interested in the proceedings, which continue and get renewed every time someone enters the post office. Let’s listen in as Nathaniel Ballard becomes the latest person to enter and receive Al the Banker’s pitch.

Al: Well, now, who do we have here?

Nathaniel: Name’s Nathaniel. Nathaniel Ballard.

Al: Very good indeed, Mr. Ballard. I see the insignia on your coat. And tell me -- where did you serve?

Nathaniel: I fought with Benjamin Lincoln. Was at Yorktown for the surrender in ’81.

Al: Excellent! (Change of tone indicates change of subject. Slightly conspiratorial): Mr. Ballard, the nation has been in your debt—and I mean that literally—since the time you enlisted in the army. Promises have been made, promises of payment for your service to our country. But you and I both know that even with the best of intentions, the U.S. government is struggling these days, and well, let’s face it: You have real doubts you’re ever going to see that money. Am I right?

Nathaniel (warily): That’s right.

Al: Well, Mr. Ballard, I’m here to help. My name is Al the Banker. I happen to know that you are in line to receive $100 for the U.S. treasury. But as likely as not you’re going to get nothing. That’s why, right here, right now, I’m prepared to give you $10 in cold hard cash (sounds of bills/coins). You sign that paperwork over to me and I’ll give you the money. Immediately.

Nathaniel (flatly): Is that right.

Al: Now let me be clear, Mr. Ballard, lest you think this is some kind of mendacious scheme that I am perpetrating here. I’m not making you this offer wholly out of a sense of altruism. I’m offering you this buyout of the government’s debt to you because it’s my hope that someday, somewhere down the line, I’ll get that $10 and more. If our Treasury Secretary, Mr. Alexander Hamilton, has his way, I stand to make a tidy profit. But we don’t know right now if he will get his way, or when. I could end up with that whole $100. Or I could end up with nothing. I’m asking you to take a chance, but I’m taking a chance, too.

Evan Baker (pipes in): Where are you getting the money?

Al: Well hello, sir. (offers his hand, which Evan takes half-heartedly.) Al the Banker here. And yourself.?

Evan: Name’s Evan. Evan Baker. Live in Medford now. But I’m from Maine. Down East country.

Al: Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Evan Baker. The short answer to your question is that I’m borrowing it. From London. There are people over there who believe in the value of what I’m doing. That’s the wonderful thing about free markets of the kind we now have in these new United States: People get to make choices. (Addresses Ballard): So what do you say? Would you like that $10 now? Buy your pretty little wife a dress? Maybe get yourself a new horse?

Nathaniel: I don’t know. I need to think about this.

Al: Fair enough. I’ve checked out of the Mason’s Arms – lovely inn you have there – and will be leaving in two hours. Would hate to see you miss your chance, Mr. Ballard.

Thomas Baxter: Ten dollars is a lot of money, Nathaniel. Not enough to turn you into a gentleman, but certainly make your life a bit better.

Al: There you go, Mr. Ballard. A voice of reason. And you Mr . . . .

Thomas: Thomas Baxter. I’m a journeyman in the smithy across the way.

Al: Are you a veteran holding a pension certificate, Mr. Baxter?

Thomas: Yessir.

Al: And so may I infer that you would like to avail yourself of this offer?

Thomas: Yessir.

Al: Excellent! I have the paperwork right here. Let’s fill it out right now and then I’ll walk over to your shop or house and pick up that certificate.

(Sounds of paper pushing. Improvise language as Thomas signs on the dotted line.)

Joe Allgrant: Mr. Banker, I’d be obliged to enter into this proposition.

Al: That’s wonderful. Excuse me, Mr. Baxter as I take a copy of this document here for Mr. . . .

Joe: Allgrant. Joe Allgrant. Own me a small farm over in Somerville.

Ezekiel: You people are fools. Don’t you recognize a rascal when you see one?

Joe: I been sittin’ on my certificate for years, Ezekiel. What’s the point? We’re never going to see any of that money.

Ezekiel. Bankers are evil. Don’t care if they say they’re from London or from Boston. They’re all from hell, far as I’m concerned.

Al: The gentleman here is unpersuaded as to the value of my proposition. Fair enough. Mr. Baxter and Mr. Allgrant are aboard. As I prepare to take my leave, I’ll ask you, Mr. Baker, as to your disposition. Would you like to sell your certificate?

Evan: I will sell my certificate. For $25.

Al: Oh dear. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to accept such an offer, Mr. Baker.

Evan: Well, $20 then.

Al: You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Baker. I’m afraid I can only offer you $15.

Baker (pauses. Then, uncertainly): Well all right then.

Joe: I want $15!

Thomas: I want $25!

Al: I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Allgrant, or Mr. Baxter. Our paperwork has already been filled out. You can of course refuse to turn over your certificates, but there can be no renegotiation of the terms.

Thomas: Well I’ll be damned! You are one slick operator, Al the Banker.

Al: Be that as it may. Mr. Ballard, you are the only one here whose stance is unresolved.

Nathaniel: Well, I . . . I

The voice of Mary Ballard is heard in the distance.

Mary: Nathaniel! Nathaniel! Are you in that godforsaken saloon again?

Nathaniel (shouts out the door): No, Mary. I’m here with the boys at the post office.

Mary (entering): Well now that’s a relief. For a minute there I thought you were actually doing something productive with the chickens!

Evan (deferentially): Good Day, Mary.

Joe, Thomas: Good Day, Mrs. Ballard.

Ezekiel: Wonderful to see you, Mary.

Mary: Oh stop lying, Ezekiel. You haven’t been happy to see since I caught you with Hannah Tillings behind the church fourteen years ago.

Nathaniel (trying to mollify her): Now, Mary. We were just discussing business with Al, a banker from out of town.

Mary: Just what we need! A bunch of country bumpkins matching wits with a city swell. Let me guess: He’s offering you boys the deal of a lifetime.

Joe: Well, as a matter of fact he is, Mary. I’m about to get me ten dollars in hard cash today.

Mary: I didn’t think your soul was worth ten dollars, Joe.

Evan: You’re quite the jester, Mary. Actually, Joe was selling his pension certificate for the ten dollars. I myself finagled fifteen. We’re never going to see a full redemption from this government.

Mary: No, Evan, I reckon you won’t.

Nathaniel: You think I should try and sell mine then, darlin’?

Mary: Certainly not!

Nathaniel: Why not? Do you think Al the Banker is a devious businessman?

Mary: Not more than any other businessman. But you boys are in over your heads. You can be sure that whatever proposition this man offers you is going to be less than you might get for yourselves.

Al: Madam, I’ve made clear already to these gentlemen that I am in fact counting on using my connections to realize gains that they will never be in a position to pursue. But the something they get will still be more than the nothing they now have.

Mary: Be that as it may, sir, my husband will not be participating.

Al: And why is that, Madam?

Mary: Because he has some chickens to slaughter. And if he doesn’t get home to do it, then he’s going to pay a price that can’t be measured in gold coins. Now let’s get out of here, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel (defeated): So long, boys.

Evan, Joe, Thomas, Ezekiel: G’bye, Nathaniel. (The Ballards depart.)

Al: Well, I can see Mr. Ballard is married to a formidable woman.

Ezekiel: You don’t know the half of it, Mr. Al the Banker. Mary Ballard makes the best strawberry jam in Middlesex County. She’s begun to jar and sell it to general stores. Made over $400 last year alone. John Hancock himself loves the stuff. So does vice-president Adams.

Al: Where do the Ballards live?

Joe: Over near Winthrop. You can get there through the Fells.

Al: What a fortunate coincidence. I have to head that way myself. Come, Mr. Baxter and Allgrant. Let us get those certificates. Then I can pay a visit to the Ballard homestead on my way out of town. (They leave.)

Thomas: So, Ezekiel, what do you think is going to happen? Will Hamilton succeed in getting full redemption on those bonds?

Ezekiel: Of course. The rich always figure out a way to come out ahead. C’mon, Thomas. I’ll buy you ale at the tavern. I figure my pension certificate is good as gold.