Alexander Hamilton is the Necessary Face of the $10 Bill

The U.S. Treasury plans to replace one of the historical male faces on some denomination of paper currency with a woman influential in American history. It is not the first time a woman has appeared on United States money – think, for example, of the Susan B. Anthony dollar – but it is time for another.

Exactly who will now grace one of our newly printed bills remains to be seen. The Treasury has been asking Americans who they would like to see. Most of the potentials are good candidates for the position: Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, among others. A more contentious question is who will be replaced.

At first, Andrew Jackson seemed primed to be removed from the $20 bill. But this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that it would Alexander Hamilton that would be replaced on the $10 bill.*  (Or rather that Hamilton would share the $10 with a woman; “Mr. Hamilton will remain on the bill in a diminished way.”)

That is the wrong decision and unjust to Mr. Hamilton (not to mention whichever woman is chosen who will no longer appear on her own).

(The Federalist took up this topic with Ben Domenech agreeing that Hamilton is being treated unfairly here, saying it is “catering to our modern ignorance.” In a sardonic piece, Mollie Hemingway argues that we have strayed so far from Hamilton and the other founders’ vision that we don’t deserve him on our currency.)

Jackson, a dynamic and influential figure in his own right, is the type of person whose time on American currency has passed. A tough and independent man who once beat a would-be assassin with his cane, Jackson is responsible for much of the expansion of the United States in the 19th century.

But Jackson is also an example of a man who flouted the rule of law in favor his preferred Indian policy, the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, which resulted in the immense suffering and death of a number of members of various Native American tribes.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to remove Jackson, however, is the fact that he opposed a central U.S. bank and did not support the use of the very paper money that now bears his name.

If not Jackson, we could consider removing Grant from the $50 bill. A brilliant, indispensible Civil War general, Grant was a mediocre president at best and his administration was one of the most corrupt in American history. (Grant himself seems not to have been corrupt, but a major part of his failing was his incompetence in running his own administration.)

Hamilton deserves to be featured on our money, if anyone does.

For one thing, he is probably the most underrated founding father. In a class of men that included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams, Hamilton may be the most brilliant in terms of pure intelligence. If not as confident in his own opinions as Madison, he was as well read as any other man of his day, putting his knowledge and wisdom to great use in helping to craft and persuading the state to adopt the Constitution.

No one was more energetic in shaping public opinion on the necessity and efficacy of the new Constitution; he organized the writing of the Federalist Papers – of which he composed the majority – including some of the most important entries, such as No. 78, which anticipated judicial review, and No. 84, which contains erudite criticisms of bills of rights on the basis of their unintended consequences.

In advocating for the Constitution, Hamilton was advocating for a document that would bar him from eligibility for the presidency. Born in the Leeward Islands in the British West Indies, he was not, as the Constitution required of presidents, a natural-born citizen. Barring death by duel, Hamilton may well have become president, had he been eligible.

Instead, he rose as high in less than 50 years of life as anyone could expect a man of his background. Hard working and ambitious, but a bastard with no great family name, Hamilton found that the best way to achieve greatness in the colonies was through the military. He ultimately became an officer in the American Revolution, as well as George Washington’s chief staff aide.

This ultimately set him on the path that made him a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and a top Federalist leader. No wonder his vision for America was one of meritocracy.

But the pinnacle of his too short career was his time as the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Here he sparred with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson over matter of monetary, fiscal and foreign policy, each man allowing their strong opinions to carry them outside the confines of their own job description.

President Washington, who wanted Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians represented in his administration and needed their geniuses, was often stuck playing the father holding two rival sons back from engaging in more than their eloquent verbal fistfights.

The most important reason to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill is that, as Treasury Secretary, he did more than any other American to ensure the fiscal viability of the nascent United States. Debts had proliferated during the desperate War of Independence with Britain. The new government needed a way to pay off all that it owed in a responsible way. Hamilton, a fiscal genius, created a plan to build public credit and expand capital.

The Heritage Foundation’s Rich Tucker explains Hamilton’s approach:

Hamilton convinced Congress to assume all state debt that remained from the Revolution. That would require the new national government to run in the red, but Hamilton was not worried. “A national debt, if it is not excessive,” he argued, “will be to us a national blessing.” By this he meant that, if interest on the debt were paid regularly, the country would begin to build a positive reputation. Stanford law professor Michael McConnell writes that such a debt “would become a kind of liquid capital—a ‘blessing’ in a world where gold and silver was costly to transport and use for transactions.” As investment flowed to the new U.S., capital would be created.

But Hamilton favored a limited, controllable debt. It should “be remoulded into such a shape as will bring the expenditure of the nation to a level with its income,” he argued in 1790. “Till this shall be accomplished, the finances of the United States will never wear proper countenance.” Hamilton was especially worried about the crippling danger of interest payments. “Arrears of interest, continually accruing, will be as continual a monument, either of inability, or of ill faith and will not cease to have an evil influence on public credit.”

Hamilton also understood that the United States were no longer colonies, but their own country. It was necessary to develop the financial, commercial and industrial centers. Jefferson’s ideal agrarian society was satisfactory in a land of wealthy farmers, but not for the remaining citizens, especially in their dealings with industrializing Europe, in competition with which a diversified economy was necessary.

With this in mind, he sent a Report on Manufactures to Congress and co-founded private industrial corporation known as the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures. Additionally he oversaw the creation of the U.S. Mint. One wonders what else he may have done if it hadn’t been for the fateful duel with rival Aaron Burr.

Hamilton set a precedent and left a legacy of maintaining the full faith and credit of the United States. Additionally, he helped develop the mixed government structure of the Constitution, based on a realistic look at human nature. Finally, his own life story is one of pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the quintessential American biography.

In an era of economic flippancy, Hamilton represents fiscal responsibility. In an era of out-of-control government, his voice is one pondering seriously government’s role and how to organize and restrain it. We may not deserve Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill, but his sure is the one we need right now.


* (Note: the first version of this article did not address the simple, boring reason given for replacing Hamilton on the $10 bill instead of Jackson on the $20 bill: that the $10 bill is up for a redesign sooner than the $20 bill. This justification requires either that a new person on the bill is necessary for its redesign or that putting a woman’s face on the bill is an immediate necessity. Neither is true.)