Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the American financial system—the basis of America’s prosperity and power—doesn’t have a grand memorial in Washington, D.C. He’s not on Mount Rushmore. But he is commemorated in a very appropriate place, somewhere we all see every day: on our money, specifically the ten dollar bill. Only, not for much longer.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced yesterday that by 2020 (the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote), the Treasury will replace Hamilton’s image with that of an as-yet-unspecified woman—she’ll be chosen later this summer. The reports, which are somewhat muddled in details, suggest that Hamilton will remain on the bill in a “diminished” capacity—perhaps like the watermark image of an eagle in the background of the $20. But the bill will no longer be his.
There has for some time been a movement to place a woman on one of the bills for the 2020 anniversary. But while there may be a strong argument that a woman should appear on a banknote, Lew’s decision to play Aaron Burr and shoot down Alexander Hamilton was made for rather narrow reasons. According to The Wall Street Journal:
A group called Women On 20s has urged President Barack Obama to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a woman. Organizers sent a petition to the White House last month calling for the change. […]
Mr. Lew, however, said the $10 bill already was the next up for a redesign, making it the most practical vehicle for the symbolic portrait change.
Mr. Jackson may have been seen as more easily replaced. As the nation’s seventh president, he led a successful campaign to kill off the nation’s central bank and stridently argued against the dangers of a paper currency, which he said concentrated too much power in the hands of bankers.
But federal agencies in 2013 recommended starting with the $10 bill as part of a broader currency redesign that will include tactile features for the blind and visually impaired.
Hamilton should keep the ten dollar bill. Not only was he our first and greatest Secretary of the Treasury, and the founder of the system of capital markets and government finance that enabled the United States to become the greatest power in the history of the world, he was of all the Founding Fathers the one who speaks most clearly to American society today. He was an immigrant who became a pillar of the American establishment, a penniless kid whose talent brought him to the top. He believed in an open society. He was the most abolitionist of the Founders, supporting New York’s society to abolish slavery in that state—even if that cost him support in other parts of the country.
If we want to make room for new figures, whether a woman or for any other consideration, there are better options. President Grant, whose image decorates the $50, was, though a great general, neither the greatest general in American history nor a particularly good president. If need be to make some room, he would be a strong candidate.
It may be that in the future we need to think about changing up the currency more—not for PC reasons but to stay ahead of counterfeiters. If so, changing portraits from time to time could be a good thing, as would honoring people other than politicians and generals. America has great inventors, great writers, great musicians, great artists, and great athletes as well.
But Hamilton’s relationship to the currency is unique, and he should not be so easily tossed aside—not least by the department he founded. As the reaction since the announcement shows—and as did the initial drive to put a woman on a banknote—for many Americans, our bills are not just means of exchange, but memorials. Leave Alex where he belongs.