Social media was abuzz this summer when Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that Alexander Hamilton’s spot on the $10 bill would be given to a woman. While most agree that women, and other underrepresented groups, should be prominent on our currency, there is a major disagreement on how to make that happen. Two Hamilton faculty members are among many Hamiltonians who have spoken publicly and for the media on the topic.
Other nations change their currency regularly in an attempt to be socially relevant. Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law Frank Anechiarico states that, in contrast, the United States has had the same main figures on its paper currency since the 1920s, and even then only one or two people were different. Whether we choose to adopt the same principles and practices of routine change depends on what we view the purpose of historical figures on currency to be.
Anechiarico claims that this purpose is to “be a marker of what we consider to be socially and politically significant character traits and historical moments.” By those standards, he contends, Hamilton should absolutely not be taken off of our currency.
Many people are unaware of Hamilton’s “rags to riches” story. Contrary to popular belief, he was an immigrant, born in the Caribbean, and sponsored by his town to travel to the United States to study. As Winslow Professor of Classics Carl Rubino notes, Hamilton then became one of the country’s most skilled and egalitarian lawyers, founded the Bank of New York and the U.S.Coast Guard, hatched the ideas of implied powers and judicial review, and became the first secretary of the treasury.
Hamilton was also a key figure in getting the Constitution ratified; Anechiarico notes that Hamilton “turned the tide in favor of the constitution” at the New York state convention. Rubino also points out that whereas other revolutionary leaders of Hamilton’s time were slave-owners, such as Washington and Jefferson, Hamilton never owned slaves and was an avid abolitionist.
Instead of taking Hamilton off of the $10 bill, Rubino suggests replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Jackson does not embody current American ideals and was responsible for great atrocities in our history such as the Trail of Tears. Anechiarico also suggested having one bill with all of our important historical figures, and leaving the other bills open for contemporary heroes. One final proposition is to start putting figures on both sides of currency, without removing anyone.
Despite these suggestions, and the massive quantity of emails and letters Jack Lew has received, it appears that the decision will still be carried out. For those who feel strongly about this debate, the best way to get involved is to write to your Congress person or directly to Jack Lew.