The shocking news broke yesterday that the Treasury Department is planning to kick Alexander Hamilton off the $10 bill, trading him for a woman to be named later.
It was quite a surprise, since the longstanding campaign to put a lady on our paper currency has usually targeted Andrew Jackson’s $20 bill. Old Hickory is out of favor these days for the political incorrect parts of his career, and besides, his most notable achievement as president was vetoing a central bank, so it has always been a little ironic that he ended up on one of its most common notes.
That’s why it’s such a shock that Hamilton is getting demoted. A new report indicates that he won’t entirely get the boot: “The note will continue to have some image, also to be determined, of the current $10 honoree.” It’s unclear what this means, but it sounds to me like the new girl will get main billing, while Hamilton will get the “Where’s Waldo?” treatment.
He deserves much more than that, because if there’s one man who has earned a prominent spot on this country’s money, it’s Alexander Hamilton.
I say that as someone who is way more of a Jeffersonian than a Hamiltonian, to put it in terms of the main political division of his day. Then again, we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists, right? And if anyone could hold a specific claim to being honored on our money, it would be Hamilton.
Hamilton was a man of legendary energy and intellect, and his achievements were enormous. He served as George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War; he helped re-found New York’s King’s College as Columbia College (later Columbia University); he was a key member of the Constitutional Convention and co-author of The Federalist Papers; and he was the founder of one of America’s oldest newspapers, the New York Post.
Among all those achievements, there are four reasons why Hamilton is America’s Mr. Money, and why our currency absolutely needs to keep him.
1) He was a self-made man.
Alexander Hamilton was a classic American immigrant success story. Born in the West Indies, he was orphaned at about 11 years of age. As a teenager, he distinguished himself as a clerk for local exporters until friends raised money to send him to be educated in New York, where he quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of American independence.
Within months of the British withdrawal from America, Hamilton became the founder of the Bank of New York, which today is America’s oldest bank, and he became the central figure in the new nation’s financial center.
2) He stabilized America’s finances.
Hamilton was the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, and boy did he have a mess to clean up. He convinced the federal government to assume responsibility for the debts of the states, as well as the still-unpaid debts from the Revolutionary War. Then he devised a “sinking fund” to pay down everything we owed, rehabilitating America’s credit.
I’ll leave you to decide for yourself what he would have thought of $16 trillion in government debt. So maybe there’s a reason today’s Treasury Department doesn’t want to be reminded of him.
Oh, and along the way, Hamilton helped establish the United States Mint, which makes the decision to take him off our money even more callous.
3) He was a founding father of Wall Street.
Alexander Hamilton was the first person to have a foot both in the Treasury Department and in Wall Street. Alas, he wasn’t the last to do so. But in that long and inglorious history, he has this distinction: he helped start both of them.
Hamilton’s cleanup of America’s debt helped create a lively market for buying and selling US government bonds, which flourished along the street outside Federal Hall in Manhattan, the first seat of the new federal government before it was moved to Philadelphia and later to DC. That street, of course, was Wall Street. Overheated speculation led to the Panic of 1792, which was resolved through Hamilton’s efforts and helped lead to the Buttonwood Agreement, an attempt to bring order to the financial markets, creating what would eventually become the New York Stock Exchange.
4) He was an early advocate of a central bank.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the first and most influential advocates of an American central bank, the Bank of the United States, that would give the federal government influence over the financial system. Given my bias as a Jeffersonian, I hold this as a mark against Hamilton. On this issue, I’m more sympathetic to the man on the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson, who viewed a central bank as a mechanism for granting special favors to big city speculators.
But that just makes it all the more appropriate that if we do have a central bank, and it issues currency, Alexander Hamilton should be on it.
No great American has had more to do with money, banking, currency, or the United States Treasury than Alexander Hamilton. Which is why it’s absolutely appalling that he’s the one man his unworthy successors at the Treasury have chosen to banish from our bills.
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