With all the grave issues confronting the nation in these dangerous times, it may seem frivolous to worry overmuch about whose picture appears on the $10 bill. But public symbols matter. They are one of the ways we tell each other, and the world, what we honor as Americans. Treasury secretary Jack Lew announced in late June that Alexander Hamilton will be replaced on the $10 bill by a woman—no particular woman, not yet, but someone of the female sex, to be selected at some point in the future.
I agree it is high time an American woman should grace the currency. But there are three things wrong with Jack Lew’s decision. Congress should not let it stand.
First and most important, it is wrong to scuttle Hamilton. Other than Washington and Lincoln, our most important and admired presidents, Hamilton is the worthiest and most appropriate person to honor in this way. As the first secretary of the Treasury, he was the architect of our financial system: His plans for money, banking, taxation, trade, manufactures, and control of the public debt set the course of American prosperity forever. Great presidents belong on Mount Rushmore, great generals belong on equestrian statues in parks, great civil rights leaders belong on memorials—and Hamilton belongs on a bill.
But Hamilton’s role in creating our financial system was but one of his accomplishments. As a penniless and illegitimate immigrant to our shores who rose to the highest positions of statesmanship, he is an especially fitting symbol of the American dream, representing the aristocracy of talent and hard work—not of birth. No one was more responsible for the calling of the Constitutional Convention, or for defending its work during the struggle for ratification. James Madison wrote two of the most celebrated of the Federalist Papers, but Hamilton originated the project and wrote most of the essays, including those on the presidency and the judiciary. He almost single-handedly led the charge for ratification of the Constitution in New York, where anti-Federalist sentiment ran high. If New York had not ratified, it is hard to see how the Union could have come into being. It is not an exaggeration to say that, without Hamilton, there would have been no Constitution.
It is an act of historical vandalism to tear Hamilton’s image from the currency.
Second, if one of the current subjects is to be removed from the currency, it should be Andrew Jackson. The cruelty and racism of his Indian removal policy is one of the great stains on our national honor. And Jackson also engaged in unilateral executive action in defiance of the law—both violating enacted statutes, for which his attorney general was censured by Congress, and refusing to enforce a decision of the Supreme Court he disagreed with. Finally—and most pertinent to the currency—Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States and deliberately inflicted monetary instability on the nation for the next 90 years.
Perhaps worst of all, Jackson was the first president to be an aggressive defender of slavery. All the southern slave-owning presidents before Jackson—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—regarded slavery as a moral evil and either spoke or took modest steps against it. Not Jackson. Not only did he defend slavery where it existed, but he supported the spread of slavery to the territories. He publicly called opponents of slavery “monsters.” He appointed to the Supreme Court the future author of the Dred Scott decision. Jackson’s political party, the Democrats, became the avowed champion of slavery and later of opposition to civil rights—a stance that would persist for generations.
After Britain ended slavery in the West Indies in 1833, reformers initiated a concerted effort to abolish slavery in the American states. The legislature of Virginia actually debated abolition. But Jackson’s administration prevented the circulation of abolitionist literature through the mail by the insidious method of publishing the names of those who chose to receive it. This effectively ended the movement, at a cost to freedom of speech and of the press as well as emancipation.
Hamilton, by contrast, was a lifelong opponent of slavery, an early member of the New York Manumission Society.