COMMENTARY: Hamilton’s impact can’t be weighed by money

So, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wants to create a precedent by portraying the face of a woman on U.S. currency. No issue there. However, Lew wants to accomplish his proposal by displacing Alexander Hamilton from $10 bills.

Big problem there.

Question to Secretary Lew: What is it about Hamilton that you despise so much that you chose him for infamy? That he was a bastard child, founder of the Federalist party, that he changed his religion from Presbyterian to Episcopalian, or that he was a poor dueler? Given all these potentially dubious credits, Hamilton still shines above most during the founding period of American history. As George Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton shared the glory for the victory in the American Revolution and earned the military rank of major general by the time Britain surrendered.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Further, Hamilton’s role in prompting the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution is well-known, but what is less understood and appreciated is his influence on the content of the Constitution and on its ratification. Hamilton became New York’s only representative at the 1787 Constitutional Convention after the other delegates from the state went home to protest the move toward a more-powerful central government.

Although Hamilton was not allowed to cast a vote on behalf of New York once the other delegates left, he was allowed to make speeches. His June 18, 1787, speech opposing the New Jersey Plan and proposing his own version of a president had an immediate impact on the direction of the Convention and its eventual product.

Subsequently, Hamilton turned a near-lost-cause into a narrow victory in the New York ratifying convention, ensuring the Constitution’s implementation. Though James Madison and John Jay also contributed to the Federalist Papers in defense of the new government, Alexander Hamilton penned the majority of letters which became a classic of American political thought.

As Treasury Secretary for most of George Washington’s presidency, Alexander Hamilton set the economic course for the country at a time when conditions were uncertain. First, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton created the U.S. Mint. Further, he established the First National Bank, a national version of the Bank of New York which he had previously been in charge of.

Additionally, Hamilton’s leadership reversed the debt which the new government inherited from the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton’s vision for a manufacturing-based economy was prescient and, as it turned out, quite accurate.

Inserting the face of a woman on U.S. money is way overdue. The choices are many for such an honor, from Betsy Ross in the 18th century to Harriet Tubman in the 19th century to Rosa Parks in the 20th century. Yet, it should not be regarded as conservative or old hat to want to retain the face of a founding father on American currency, and while change is welcome, it should not occur at the price of political correctness. So, in my view, Secretary Lew still has some ’splainin’ to do.

Despite the strong opposition of powerful people like former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, the idea of changing who appears on the $10 may go forward.

Already, there have been proposals to move Hamilton to the $20 bill and expunge the still-controversial Andrew Jackson. But that would just create another backlash from Old Hickory fans.

That leaves creating a new currency space for Alexander Hamilton as the solution. As a way to commemorate AH’s seminal contribution to American history, the current Treasury Department should reauthorize the minting of the $10 Gold Eagle coin which Hamilton originally proposed and which Congress approved in 1792.

The government and people of the United States owe much to the courage, dedication, and skill of Alexander Hamilton. Such a debt cannot be repaid by money, any more than excising his likeness from $10 bills will erase memory of his immensely positive legacy.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has written and published extensively on the American Constitution and U.S. history.

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