WASHINGTON, June 22, 2015 – Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced in mid-June that the Treasury Department’s 2020 redesign of the $10 bill will feature a female portrait. While including women on our currency is long overdue and a welcome step, removing Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill makes no sense. In fact, it is an assault upon American history itself.
Alexander Hamilton is a towering figure in American history. His story is an inspiring one. The illegitimate son of a British officer, he immigrated from the West Indies and rose by the sheer force of intellect to shape our entire nation. He died at the age of 50 in 1804. In those short 50 years, his achievements were extraordinary.
Three years before he died, Hamilton founded the New York Evening Post, which is still published. George Washington promoted him from an artillery captain to a colonel on his staff during the Revolutionary War. In 1785, Hamilton helped found the New York Manumission Society to work for an end to slavery in that state. Emancipation was not achieved in New York until 1827, long after Hamilton’s death.
In 1787, Hamilton, along with collaborators John Jay and James Madison, produced a series of 85 opinion pieces to support the ratification of the Constitution, what we now know as the Federalist Papers. Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays himself, using the pseudonym Publius. When we speak of an American political philosophy, the starting point is the Federalist Papers.
That government should be clearly limited and that power is a corrupting force were the essential perceptions of the framers of the Constitution. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton declared: “”It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The Founding Fathers were not utopians. They understood man’s nature. They attempted to form a government consistent with, not contrary to, that nature. Hamilton pointed out, “Here we have seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape. Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”
As our first treasury secretary under George Washington, Hamilton set the nation on a path of financial stability. He had the new federal government assume the debts of the states along with its own, He also declared that all holders of U.S. debt would be paid in a in non-discriminatory manner. Many were opposed to Hamilton’s plans, arguing the the assumption of state debts rewarded those states that had been lax in meeting their responsibilities and that a policy of non-discrimination in paying holders of U.S. debt rewarded speculators. In the end, Hamilton prevailed.
Hamilton also established a central bank, the Bank of the United States. This, again, was highly controversial. It would also be a private bank, selling stock and making loans. His collaborator on the Federalist Papers, James Madison, thought the bank was illegal, since there was no mention of a bank in the Constitution. Hamilton responded that a bank was necessary to fulfill a function the Constitution did mention, borrowing money on the credit of the United States. This was, Hamilton argued, an implied power. George Washington and the Congress agreed.
The response to the idea of removing Hamilton from the $10 bill has been uniformly negative from observers of all points of view. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said he was “appalled” by the idea of Hamilton’s removal. He said: “Replace Andrew Jackson, a man of many unattractive qualities, and a poor president, on the $20 bill. Given his views on central banking, Jackson would probably be fine with having his image dropped from a Federal Reserve note. Another, less attractive possibility, is to circulate two versions of the $10 bill, one of which continues to feature Hamilton…The importance of his achievement can be judged by the problems that the combination of uncoordinated national fiscal policies and a single currency has caused the Eurozone in recent years.”
Ron Chernow, the author of a highly regarded biography, “Alexander Hamilton” (2004), laments, “There is something sad and shockingly misguided in the spectacle of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew acting to belittle the significance of the foremost Treasury Secretary in U.S. history…Hamilton was undeniably the most influential person in our history who never attained the presidency…Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax and accounting systems. he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service and the Bank of the United States…He took a country bankrupted by Revolutionary War debt and restored American credit.”
Chernow declares: “Yes, by all means let us have a debate about the political figures on our currency, and, yes, let us now praise famous women. But why on earth should we start the debate by singling out and punishing Alexander Hamilton, who did so much to invent our country?”
Alexander Hamilton believed that genuine freedom can be found only in a society that guarantees economic freedom. In his Second Treatise, John Locke, the philosopher who most significantly influenced the thinking of Hamilton and other Founding Fathers, stated, “The great and chief end…of man’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property…Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removed out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”
Those who advocate an “equal” distribution of property claim that, in doing so, they are simply applying the philosophy of the Founding Fathers to matters of economic concern. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Federalist Papers state, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which all rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interest. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”
Writing in the New York Times, Steven Rattner notes that, “The various women who’ve been put forward for this pioneering role—including Susan B. Anthony (a second try after her dollar coin flopped twice), Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt–are all outstanding individuals worthy of recognition. Just don’t push Alexander Hamilton aside to make room.” Writing in the Washington Post, Steven Mufson charges, “By pushing aside Alexander Hamilton…the Obama administration has committed a grave historical injustice.”
Jack Lew’s assault on U.S. history has almost no defenders or supporters. Removing Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill is clearly a bad idea. What, we must wonder, was Mr. Lew thinking when he came up with this proposal?