Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced Thursday that Alexander Hamilton would be joined on the ten-dollar-bill by a woman to be named later, or perhaps relegated to appearing on some bills but not on others. Lew cited bureaucratic imperatives in choosing to ignore calls to remove the anti-paper money, bank-hating, Indian-killer Andrew Jackson from the twenty-dollar-bill, while adding that symbols on currency are a “way for us to honor our past and express our values.”
By downgrading the founder of his own cabinet department, Lew, perhaps with the best of intentions, continued a tradition that has deep roots in his own political party. From the moment Hamilton was mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr, the Democratic Party has done its best to relegate Hamilton to the ash heap of history. Jackson warmly welcomed Burr to his home as Hamilton’s killer escaped to the west, while Thomas Jefferson’s lieutenants scurried to contain the emotional impact of Hamilton’s death from damaging their party’s political prospects. Jefferson spent considerable time portraying Hamilton as an un-American, pro-British agent intent on importing monarchy and corruption. Part of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian contempt for Hamilton stemmed from the fact that Hamilton was an immigrant from the Caribbean, and thus his “Americanism” was constantly questioned. This sense that Hamilton was not “one of us” animates the writings of Jeffersonians and of Jefferson himself, who was appalled that Hamilton did not see eye to eye with him despite having been “received” by Americans and “given . . . bread” and having honors “heaped . . . on his head.”
In the twentieth century, Franklin D. Roosevelt led the effort to elevate Jefferson into the American Pantheon and downgrade Hamilton’s status. Roosevelt saw himself as a Jefferson for the new century, battling forces similar to those that confronted the Sage of Monticello over a century earlier. Roosevelt led the drive for a Jefferson Memorial in Washington and selected the truncated quotes that adorn its walls. Hamilton’s “monument” in Washington consisted of an undersized statue on the back side of the Treasury building in Washington, and to make matters worse, that statue had been erected during the corrupt Harding administration by its privileged Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. It was said time and again through the New Deal years that Hamilton referred to the American people as a “great beast,” or as Roosevelt put it, Hamilton had nothing but “contempt for the opinion of the masses.” The “evidence” indicating that Hamilton uttered the “great beast” quote is beyond laughable; nonetheless, due to the efforts of Roosevelt and his allies the image of Hamilton as an eighteenth century plutocrat took hold. By the time of the American entry into the Second World War, Hamilton’s status was slightly above that of Tokyo Rose, to the point where Fortune magazine felt compelled to observe that while Hamilton “hated the people” he would have opposed “fascists and Nazis.”
Hamilton’s image in the American mind improved somewhat at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in part due to his position on race, which stands in stark contrast to that of Jefferson and Jackson, two of the largest slave owners in their respective states. Hamilton fought for a plan to enlist slaves as soldiers in the Continental Army in exchange for their freedom and was a founder of the New York Society to Abolish Slavery. His immigrant status also contributed to burnishing his image, as did his sponsorship of a school in upstate New York for Native Americans. But Hamilton has never been a beloved figure, due to the fact that unlike Jefferson or Jackson, he never flattered the American public with feel-good rhetoric about their innate wisdom. Contrary to his populist foes, Hamilton believed that the people could sometimes err, although he also believed that the rich and the privileged possessed the same failing.
There is something shameful in the way Hamilton has been treated by many of his fellow citizens. Instead of celebrating the fact that Hamilton lived the American Dream – rising from obscurity as an immigrant and becoming George Washington’s most trusted confidant and a founder of a great nation, his accomplishments have been diminished due to the caricature drawn by his partisan opponents. By demoting Hamilton on the ten-dollar-bill, Jacob Lew has done well by his predecessors in the Democratic Party, but not necessarily well by a nation that owes much to its immigrant founder.
Knott is the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and co-author with Tony Williams of Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America.