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Commentary By Manhattan Institute

2022 Alexander Hamilton Awards: Ferguson and Griffin

The following is a transcript of remarks delivered by Niall Ferguson and Ken Griffin at the 2022 Hamilton Award Dinner.

Niall Ferguson:

Ladies and gentlemen, long before he'd become a character in a rap musical by a composer who nearly got canceled for being insufficiently woke, Alexander Hamilton was described by his wife, Eliza, as having a character perhaps too frank and independent for a democratic people. The United States—that’s not an applause line, except for the undemocratic people—the United States has at its core a paradox. It has a strongly egalitarian streak, hence the persistent aversion of Americans to monarchy and aristocracy, things to which Alexander Hamilton, though his origins were lowly, was undoubtedly attracted. 

Yet because of America's fundamental commitment to the idea of individual liberty, there is no place in the world where a man of exceptional ability stands a better chance of making his fortune and his mark. Those like Hamilton who achieve great things with the opportunities America presents are not universally loved, indeed, they often come under vituperative attack despite the immense contributions they make economically, politically, and philanthropically. It's fitting, therefore, that tonight the Manhattan Institute is bestowing a Hamilton award on my friend, Ken Griffin. 

Now, I don't want to overdo the comparison with Hamilton for obvious reasons. I'm pretty confident Ken won't be challenging anyone to a duel, for example. Okay, I'm slightly confident. Ken is also, of course, a great deal more—vastly more—financially successful than Hamilton was. 

Now, just why, just why has Ken Griffin been so astonishingly successful? There are obvious answers to this question, which you can read about in the many profiles that have been written about him: the fierce intelligence, the competitive drive, the strategic vision. But I have a different perspective, and it goes back to my first meeting with Ken many years ago. We think it was in 2004. 

I couldn't help noticing that that night he seemed ill at ease, especially with the people immediately around him. I asked him earlier today if he remembered that first meeting, and I'm glad to say that he did. "Yes, Niall," he said. "That was the night you told me the lesson of history is that only ruthless men build successful financial businesses." In particular, I asked Ken if he'd read Machiavelli's The Prince. Having been to Harvard rather than Oxford, he hadn't. 

Well, the next time I saw him was in this city about a year later, and he was a changed man. He was smiling, relaxed, transformed, and I had to ask, "What had changed?" 

"It's simple," he said. "I took your advice. I read The Prince, and then I fired half of my management team." I still feel a bit of remorse about that. 

The key passage in The Prince, as Ken later told me, is actually chapter six, Of New Principalities That Are Acquired Through One’s Own Arms and Virtue. Let me quote the passage in question from Harvey Mansfield's excellent edition. "Those who become princes by the parts of virtue acquire their principality with difficulty, but hold it with ease, and the difficulties they have in acquiring their principality arise in part from the new orders and modes that they're forced to introduce so as to found their state and their security, and it should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders for," Machiavelli says, "the introducer has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders." 

 “This lukewarmness arises partly from fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of men who do not truly believe in new things, unless they come to have a firm experience of them. Consequently, whenever those who are enemies of opportunity do attack, they do so with partisan zeal and the others defend lukewarmly so that one is in peril along with them." 

I think that brilliant passage sums up both the way Ken has built Citadel, and Citadel Securities, and the opposition that he's often encountered in the process. And it has been the same when he's engaged politically and philanthropically. 

He told me earlier today that the achievement of which he's most proud is the role he played in the last administration in getting Operation Warp Speed to happen, the one extraordinary triumph of the annus horribilis of 2020, but you all remember, that not everybody was an enthusiastic supporter of Operation Warp Speed at the time. There were even those who cast dispersions on the vaccines before their astonishing efficacy was proved. Mentioning no names, Kamala Harris. 

The immense amount that Ken has spent in trying to improve K–12 education has had all kinds of positive results for kids in deprived neighborhoods in Chicago and Miami and elsewhere, but perhaps the most newsworthy aspect has been the noisy protests by teachers’ unions outside his apartment. You know you're above the target when that kind of flack is incoming. 

I asked Ken recently which author had influenced him as a young man, the pre-Machiavelli Griffin, and his answer surprised me. No, not Ayn Rand, whom as he said people often come to admire only after they become successful. No. He picked John Rawls' Theory of Justice. In one of his most famous arguments, Rawls says, "We need to imagine ourselves in a situation before any particular society exists." Rawls calls this situation the original position. The idea is if we want to design a just society, we have to put ourselves behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing what our own talents or lack of talents may be. 

This brings me to a story about Ken's family, which I want to share with you. The most influential man in Ken Griffin's life, I learned today, was a man he never met, the grandfather who died before he was born. Let me tell you about Wayne Grants, Ken's grandfather. He was a small-town-Midwestern, self-made, hard-scrabble entrepreneur. He ran a gas station, and he acquired in time car dealerships. When he was a young man, the rich guy in town said, "If you marry my daughter, I'll send you to Northwestern." 

Wayne said, "No," and he didn't go to college. He and his wife, Ken's granny, who outlived Wayne, were poor, poor in the depression. They accumulated their first nest egg literally by selling eggs. What Ken Griffin has achieved I think would've made Wayne Grants proud if he had lived to see only the first five years of Citadel. And I think he would also impress very much a man who not only shared but in many ways created his vision of an America, based on free-market capitalism, the quality of opportunity, and an individual freedom to compete, but also on public schools and public health that serve the public and not vested interests, whether teachers’ unions or hereditary elites. The visionary I'm talking about was, of course, Alexander Hamilton. The recipient, the deserved recipient of our award tonight is Ken Griffin. 

Kenneth C. Griffin: 

So I wrote in my notes, "Thank you, Niall, for the very kind introduction." I will say that's the most extraordinarily unique introduction I've ever been given my life. Yes, my grandfather really was my inspiration as a young man. He and my grandmother grew up in the Midwest. They grew up dirt poor. My grandmother had no running water, and the business they started, the proceeds from selling eggs, turned into a successful small-town business in the northern suburbs of Chicago, which is where I came to call home when I graduated from college in 1989. 

I was attracted to Chicago to work with a man who I thought was just extraordinary, who I thought would help me to build a business, and he supported me in launching Citadel, and Chicago at the time was one of the great financial centers not only of the United States but of the world. Futures exchanges were developed in Chicago, a very, very robust capital market center for the world, and the city, vibrant, full of life; we built an incredible number of skyscrapers in the early years that I was there, rapidly expanding beautiful streets, great restaurants, a place you could call home, a place that my partners and I recruited thousands of people to move to from across the country. We were really proud of Chicago. We were proud of the place that we called home. 

Now, unfortunately, over the last several years, growing our business in Chicago has become extraordinarily difficult. I see my friends, fellow business leaders leaving our state. In fact, today, Illinois has one of the greatest levels of outward migration of any state in America. 

Why are people fleeing the Land of Lincoln? There are three reasons: the senseless violence that grips our streets, the adverse impact of corruption, and schools that are simply not preparing our children for the present, let alone the future. Now, I know that every person in this room is familiar with the crime pandemic that grips the city that I call home. 

Last year, there was a shootout between gang members, open warfare in the middle of the day. 70 shots fired, a man left dead. The police, to their credit, arrested everybody, but the state's attorney general charged no one. You see, these men engaged in consensual mutual combat and, therefore, would not be prosecuted under the wisdom of our great state’s attorney general. 

Now, what happens when there are no consequences for criminal acts? You might say, "That's an awful story, but probably didn't happen in the neighborhood where Ken and his colleagues live." No. Where my colleagues and I live, I've had roughly four colleagues robbed at gunpoint in the last year and a half. I had a colleague stabbed hundreds of feet away from the office coming to work in the morning. I had a colleague experience a bullet fly through the window of his car blocks away from the office. 

You see, when crime reaches the level that you can't walk on your streets at night, you can't let your kids play in the park, and you don't feel safe even going to a restaurant without the fear of your car being carjacked, your city loses its energy. It loses its life. 

Now, what's regrettable is it's not just crime that plagues Illinois, it's corruption. That is the second weight that all of us as taxpayers carry on our shoulders, corruption so extraordinary that our last speaker of the House has recently been indicted for racketeering. Four of our last 10 governors spent time in prison after their public service to the state of Illinois, and regretfully, the story doesn't get better when it comes to education. 

Chicago school students have one of the shortest school days and one of the shortest school years of any city in America, in a city plagued by challenging demographics. Children are often born in a house with not one book. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who worked so tirelessly as mayor of our city, took on the teachers’ union for a longer school year and longer school day to help our children and experienced the stiff-arm of the union in a teacher strike as the teachers put their self-interest above the interest of the kids whom they supposedly serve. So against this backdrop, you can understand why people are leaving Chicago. 

Now, over the last 15 years, we've seen this abyss grow before our eyes. The reckless spending, the loss of leadership, and we made a conscious decision to change our global footprint at Citadel. We made a decision that Chicago could not be our business’s only home. To get right to the point, today, New York City is by far our single largest office in the world. 

I will share with you that we've had our concerns about New York over the last eight years, but I would say that the important contributions of the Manhattan Institute over this time on critical issues that define long-term economic stability and growth based on public safety have helped to drive a forward-looking vision in this city, and I am pleased that Mayor Adams has successfully run on an agenda that also focuses on these areas. I wish him and all of New York success in changing the trajectory of this city. 

It is an honor to be here tonight as the recipient of this recognition, but I want to say that I am so thankful that the Manhattan Institute will continue to serve as a valuable voice on important policy issues not just for New York, but also our entire nation. I'd like to thank Reihan and everyone at MI for their incredibly important work and thought leadership. Thank you so very much. 

Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Please email for any corrections.