Executive overreach can come in many forms. In this essay, we explore an executive department’s surprising announcement and its symbolic ramifications.
Save Hamilton! The Treasury Department has taken another shot at the founder of our financial system, announcing that Alexander Hamilton’s image will be replaced on the $10 bill. This move represents a glaring disregard for our nation’s history.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced Wednesday that he is replacing the current image of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, with that of a woman. He has not yet disclosed which woman, but he has singled out Hamilton for demotion. Putting more women onto U.S. currency is a laudable goal – but Hamilton is the wrong man to replace.
Hamilton was a self-made man who believed in the boundless potential of the United States as a self-made nation. Born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis and orphaned at the age of 13, Hamilton came to American shores alone as a teenager in search of education and opportunity.
The struggle against British rule became both his education and opportunity. As a war hero and aide-de-camp to George Washington, he was instrumental in winning America’s independence. As a writer and advocate, he persuaded the nation to ratify the Constitution that he had helped to frame.
Without Hamilton, the United States would not exist as we know it. These accomplishments alone make Hamilton worthy of recognition, but what makes him particularly suited for prime real estate on our currency is that he laid the foundations for the U.S. capitalist system.
After the Revolutionary War, the new United States was tatters. The economy buckled under staggering war debts, the first national currency had collapsed, states fought trade wars against one another, and the national Congress was, as Washington described it, a “half-starved government [that] limped along on crutches, tottering at every step.”
As the inaugural Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton rescued the fledgling United States’s credit, created a national bank to help manage the nation’s trade and finances, and utilized the tax system to encourage economic development. He believed in the limitless energy and ingenuity of American enterprise, writing: “As to whatever may depend on enterprise, we need not fear to be outdone by any people on earth.” But American enterprise could only flourish with the right financial framework in place. Hamilton was the architect of that framework.
Throughout history, many have argued with Hamilton’s methods and criticized his personal life. With his penchant for duels and a famous extramarital affair, Hamilton was no saint. But as he said, “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” And there is no getting around the fact that Hamilton laid the foundation for the United States to become the economic superpower it is today.
The impetus for this overhaul of U.S. bills stems from an online petition earlier this this year to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 with abolitionist Harriet Tubman. But under the Treasury Department’s current plan, Jackson retains his place, and it is Hamilton whom will be relegated to the reverse side of the $10 bill, in a separate series of bills, or alongside another individual. Sharing the space is likewise a disservice to the honored woman, who should likewise have her own bill.
Thankfully, under federal law, the $1 bill cannot be redesigned. Otherwise, the U.S. Treasury might next try to wipe the Father of Our Country, George Washington, off of our bills.
Since the nation’s founding, United States currency’s appearance has been viewed as a highly symbolic display of the American values. As such, it is commendable to include more women on our currency, but targeting Hamilton for replacement signals a disrespect for our history and founding.
General Washington wrote of Hamilton in 1781, “This I can venture to advance from a thorough knowledge of him, that there are … none whose Soul is more firmly engaged in the cause, or who exceeds him in probity and Sterling virtue.” The U.S. Treasury should take Washington’s word for it and preserve Hamilton’s prominent place on the sawbuck.
Logan Beirne is an ISP Fellow and Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and author of “Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency” (Encounter Books)
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