On Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced that after 2020, the image of Alexander Hamilton will share a place on the $10 bill with a to-be-determined woman. It has yet to be decided if Hamilton will share each bill with the yet-unnamed woman, or if there will be multiple series of $10 bills in circulation.
It’s a good idea to put a woman on a major piece of currency. Money doubles as a symbol of the American story, in which many women have played an essential role.
Nevertheless, the decision to demote Hamilton is a terrible one. Allahpundit, Mollie Hemingway, and Ben Domenech had solid takes on this, and I would like to second their objections.
Our major paper currency displays some true heroes of American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Franklin. Yet even among these august figures, Hamilton stands out.
It is embarrassing that the Treasury Department, of all agencies, needs a recap of why Hamilton is so essential, but I shall oblige. Though he died at the young age of 49, he did more than even the best among us could do in three lifetimes. He was George Washington’s indispensable man during the Revolutionary War. He was a key behind-the-scenes player in the movement for a Constitutional Convention. He defended the new Constitution with remarkable erudition and sophistication in the Federalist papers, of which he was the most prolific author. During his brief tenure at Treasury, he not only righted the nation’s teetering public finances, he also formulated policies that became the backbone of our political economy for the next century. He even saved the country from an economic panic in 1792 by initiating a prototype of what the Federal Reserve calls open market operations.
Above all, he was the first statesman to grasp the full potential of the new nation. Somehow, he could see beyond these thirteen fractious, misbehaved states of 1788 to a future where America dominated the world. As he wrote at the conclusion of Federalist 11: “Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!”
He had his faults, as all men do. As treasury secretary, he allowed his friends to enrich themselves with insider information (though he himself never took a dishonest dime in public life). He had an affair with a woman whose husband then blackmailed him. He publicly turned against John Adams ahead of the 1800 election, and in an ungentlemanly way. Even so, Thomas Jefferson -- his greatest political opponent -- once said that he was, “a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, and duly valuing virtue in private life.”
If, for the sake of diversity, the Obama Administration is looking to demote a current figure on the currency, there is an obvious choice: Andrew Jackson, currently on the $20 bill. In fact, Jackson should be removed altogether. If Hamilton was ahead of his time, then Jackson was behind his. His invasion of Florida was of dubious legality. He held the people of New Orleans under martial law for weeks after the Treaty of Ghent became known. As president he broke the law when and as it suited his interests; the Senate rightly censured him for illegally removing deposits from the Second Bank of the United States. Whereas Hamilton secured the nation’s public finances, Jackson, who was largely ignorant of these matters even by the standards of his day, set them back a half century, and in the process he paid off his political cronies. He established the spoils system, which would debauch public administration for a half century. Worst of all, Jackson was cruel and duplicitous in his dealings with the Native Americans.