On $10 bill, keep Hamilton, welcome Tubman, oust Jackson

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Last week saw a remarkable juxtaposition of events in the U.S. First, a Confederate flag-waving, white supremacist bigot murdered nine African-American churchgoers who had welcomed him to their evening Bible study in Charleston, S.C. Then the U.S. Treasury secretary announced that the only still-renowned U.S. founder to have actively fought for the abolition of slavery and founded a racially integrated college — Alexander Hamilton — would lose his sole spot on the U.S. currency he had done so much to make possible, all while a notoriously pro-slavery, “Indian-fighting” bigot — Andrew Jackson — would remain. That such a juxtaposition is so much as possible bespeaks a truly monumental degree of historical and cultural forgetfulness, if not outright obtuseness.

{mosads}What’s the big deal, you ask? Surely it cannot be gainsaid that a nation’s currency is pregnant with national meaning. It is one of the few places where we project what we take ourselves to be — and what we wish to remain or become. That is why only heroes and heroic places, along with resonant national mottoes — “In God We Trust,” “E Pluribus Unum” — figure upon our bills and our coins. It is also why so many Americans gave voice to distress, some 15 years back, when the U.S. mint began putting out coins that felt plastic and bills that bore “blow-dried” cartoonish images of our national heroes upon them. Yet now we are faced with a threat to the currency’s meanings as troubling as was that earlier episode. For what began as a long overdue call to replace Jackson on the twenty dollar bill with the image of a great non-male and/or nonwhite contributor to the American story is now poised to culminate in back-bumping his better — Hamilton — instead.

To understand why this is travesty, first please take a quick look at what U.S. currency you might have on your person right now. Printed across the top you will spot the inscription, “Federal Reserve Note.” The currency is, in short, issued by our central bank. Now look toward the lower right corner of the same bill. There you will spot a signature — that of whomever was Treasury secretary at the time that the bill was printed. Both of these critical features of the currency, as it happens, trace directly to Hamilton, as does the fact that there is a national currency at all. Hamilton was the nation’s first Treasury secretary, and virtually designed the office. He also established the U.S. Mint, which does the aforementioned “printing.” And Hamilton designed, passionately pushed for and ultimately succeeded in establishing the nation’s first Fed, so to speak: the First Bank of the United States.

Yet even while these contributions alone would suffice to name him the founder of the American monetary system, Hamilton did much, much more for which we still owe him. For starters, he established the nation’s fiscal and financial systems, as well. By federalizing the separate states’ Revolutionary War debts during the founding era, Hamilton began the process of welding the nation into a fiscal union — that which makes it possible, e.g., for New York and Mississippi to share a common currency despite having very different economies in a way that Germany and Greece nowadays find themselves conspicuously unable to do. Beyond that, the debt instruments that Hamilton issued to finance these state debts — Treasury securities, which now constitute by far the world’s most heavily demanded financial asset — both multiplied the new nation’s money supply and formed the foundation of its subsequently burgeoning securities markets, all of which fueled the world’s first “economic miracle”: the late 18th- and early 19th-century U.S. economy.

Turning from fiscal, financial and monetary matters to the “real” economy, Hamilton was also the first prophet and partial architect of American industrialization, articulating and pursuing a model of state-assisted technological and infrastructural development later successfully adopted by Germany, Japan, China and other “tiger” economies. He also cofounded, with one Isaac Roosevelt, the nation’s oldest private banking institution: The Bank of New York, which continues to this day as BNY Mellon. And beyond — not to mention before — the spheres of finance and economy, of course, Hamilton was one of our nation’s very founders. He was one of the drafters of the Constitution and wrote by far the lion’s share of The Federalist Papers — far more than James Madison and John Jay — that proved so important both in getting the new document ratified and, later, in properly interpreting it.

Even more impressive than all of these contributions is how unlikely they seem given Hamilton’s beginnings. Hamilton’s backstory renders him quintessentially modern American in a way few, if any, of the other founders could boast. Born to an unwed mother on a Caribbean island, then orphaned on a neighboring island when only 11, Hamilton was effectively running a shipping business by the age of 13, then working toward a university education at what later became Columbia University by age 16. Shortly after he left school to join the American war for independence, Hamilton’s talents caught the eye of George Washington, who made of Hamilton his chief aide. And the rest, as they say, is quite literally history.

Notwithstanding his remarkable successes from age 13 onward, Hamilton never forgot his own early struggles or those of the people he’d lived with as a youth. His early exposure to Caribbean slavery left him with a lifelong loathing of racialism and human exploitation. This passion led to his cofounding the New York Manumission Society — an early American abolitionist institution — in 1785 and the Hamilton-Oneida Academy (now Hamilton College) in 1793. The latter was one of the first ethnically integrated American institutions of higher learning, opening its doors to Americans of all backgrounds at a time when such arrangements were virtually unheard of in Europe or America.

Of how many American founders can one recount such things? Yet it is this man whom Treasury told us last week would lose his sole place on our currency, while another man previously slated for replacement would remain. Now consider who this other man is. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, assuredly had many fine qualities, and there is much to be said for the Jacksonian Democracy with which his political campaigns and White House tenure are associated. It is also difficult for anyone who spent his childhood in New Orleans, as did I, not to associate Jackson with gallantry and heroism in virtue of his gallant and heroic — though as it turned out, unnecessary — defense of that city against British invasion during the last phase of the War of 1812. But the fact remains, in spite of all of these qualities and deeds, that Jackson is a very strange figure to keep on our national currency.

For one thing, as noted before, Jackson was anything but tolerant or egalitarian where interethnic relations are concerned. He not only owned slaves, but passionately defended the institution of slavery, and used his office while president to discourage the shipment of abolitionist literature from North to South via the U.S. mails. Jackson also, notoriously, presided over the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Southeast U.S. as entire tribes of American Indians were forced to trudge westward outside the boundaries of then-U.S. states. And though Jackson’s reputed response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding for the Cherokee Nation in litigation associated with this policy — “[Chief Justice John] Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it” — is now thought to have been apocryphal; that it was plausibly attributed to Jackson at all says something about what his fellow Americans took to be his attitude not only toward native inhabitants, but the rule of law.

Jackson also, of course, famously disfavored the very idea of a national currency or national debt, and is perhaps best known for his veto of the charter renewal for the successor to Hamilton’s First Bank of the U.S. He was no more a friend, in other words, of the national monetary, fiscal and financial systems that Hamilton bequeathed us than he was of the abolitionism, school integration or commitment to racial equality that Hamilton commended to us. Against this backdrop, why in Heaven’s name would the U.S. Treasury wish — particularly in the wake of last week’s massacre and while Confederate flags and other symbols of bigotry now come under renewed scrutiny — to bump America’s most accomplished, most modern and most influential founder from the currency while retaining the most retrograde and antifederal president in U.S. history?

Over the weekend, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew offered a surprisingly weak explanation: The ten dollar bill, he said, is up for a “security upgrade,” while the twenty is not. That is a bit like saying that Confederate flags will not be taken down from public locations but will instead simply not be replaced once they wear out. Need it be said again? A nation’s currency, like its flag, is not just about the material in which it is embodied. It is about meaning. It is about past, present and future — and what we wish to connect all three together. A Treasury Department mindful of both its own and this nation’s past and present as well as their futures would return at once to the plan of replacing Jackson’s image on the twenty dollar bill with that of a prominent nonwhite and/or non-male contributor to the great American story. My vote is for Harriet Tubman. As for the planned upgrade of the ten, that is fine, too, so long as you leave Hamilton on it. Better yet, while you are at it, restore the fine John Trumbull portrait of Hamilton that used to be on the bill, too — back before the last “upgrade,” when Trumbull gave way to today’s silly blow-dried rendition.

Hockett, a regular contributor to The Hill, is Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University, senior consultant at Westwood Capital Holdings, LLC and a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Tags $10 Bill Alexander Hamilton Andrew Jackson Currency Department of the Treasury Dollar Federalist Papers First Bank of the United States Harriet Tubman Jack Lew James Madison John Jay ten dollar bill Treasury Department U.S. Mint
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