What is the U.S. Treasury thinking? Only in Washington would it be considered a good idea to keep on the currency the president who didn’t believe in paper money and remove from it the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and architect of the American financial system.
Soon after the Treasury’s plan to replace Alexander Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill was leaked last night, Twitter erupted with queries as to why Hamilton was getting the boot instead of Andrew Jackson, who many have campaigned to replace on the $20 with a woman and/or member of a minority group.
After all, Jackson owned slaves, slaughtered Native Americans, and detested banks, finance, and corporations. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a staunch abolitionist, helped found a school whose original mission was to assimilate Native Americans (today’s Hamilton College), and single-handedly placed the finances of the fledging nation on a solid footing.
Oh, yes, he was also Washington’s aide-de-camp during the revolution and the primary author of The Federalist Papers.
As Ron Chernow writes in his magisterial biography of Hamilton, he was “the messenger from a future that we now inhabit. We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned.”
If the debate is between Jackson and Hamilton, it’s not really a close call.
The Treasury is explaining today that the $10 bill is the next in line for a redesign that includes needed security upgrades. (“Hunky” Hamilton’s last makeover met with rave reviews.)
The Treasury also says that it will probably keep Hamilton on the currency in some fashion. Still, it’s a stupid decision. Why not just redesign Hamilton on the $10 bill and put a woman on the twenty? Or put a woman on the ten and move Hamilton to the twenty?
I’m all for having a more diverse group of American heroes on the nation’s cash. Hamilton, among the most inclusive of all the founders, probably would be too. But Hamilton is one of the last figures we should consider discarding. His basic philosophy—that a strong, effective, yet circumscribed federal government, along with a well-functioning financial system, are the keys to America’s greatness—is just as relevant today as it was in 1789.
Open the newspaper and current events—the Pacific free-trade agreement, the Export-Import Bank, our failing infrastructure, our mess of a tax code—cry out for sensible Hamiltonian solutions. Perhaps no figure better embodies the principled pragmatism and public policy seriousness that are so needed in our politics today.
It’s especially ironic that Hamilton is being diminished by the Treasury just when a genius new musical about his life is set to open on Broadway. Much has been written about the musical Hamilton, which I was fortunate to see in its run at the Public Theater.
All the rave reviews are accurate. It is an American masterpiece, one that is greatly needed at this moment when cynicism seems to have reached record levels, a vulgar clown named Trump animates the ugliest elements of the body politic, and blood stains the floor of a historic black church in Charleston.
Hamilton the musical, like Hamilton the man, appeals to the better angels of our nature. It is the antidote to cynicism, ignorance, and racism. The incredibly talented, multiracial cast of Hamilton tells the story of the immigrant striver who put in place the framework of our government and our economy in such a fun, modern, inspirational manner that one can’t help leave the theater without a renewed appreciation for America and the American Dream.
As the last lines of the musical make clear, however, although Hamilton “wrote some notes for the beginning,” America has always been a “great unfinished symphony.” We all need to do our part to continue to move the nation closer to its founding ideals.
Putting more diverse faces on the currency helps accomplish that goal, but removing Hamilton does not.