By J.F. McKenna
“Men will pursue their interest. It is as easy to change human nature, as to oppose the strong current of the selfish passions. A wise legislator will gently divert the channel, and direct it, if possible, to the public good.” – Alexander Hamilton, 1788
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has announced that former slave and Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman will be the new face on the $20 bill by 2020, taking the space now occupied by the face of President Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, a crack-shot duelist of his day, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and the trigger for many late-night “beer and bull sessions” at Kent State dormitories in years past. Secretary Lew also has remodeling plans for the back of the $5 bill to highlight various 20th century folks and events at The Lincoln Memorial.
Whether all this planned money-changing will generate additional public good is a topic for another day, although some public figures are quickly weighing in with comments. The Donald has dismissed this $20 image-transfer as “pure political correctness,” and Dr. Benjamin Carson has joined Mr. Trump in that criticism. After suggesting that Tubman appear on “another denomination,” such as the $2 bill, the retired neurosurgeon gave Secretary Lew’s move a thumbs-down: “Andrew Jackson was the last president who actually balanced the federal budget, where we had no national debt. In honor of that, we kick him off of the money.”
But let’s give the Treasury Secretary some credit for a channel diversion of sorts: he originally planned to displace the image of Alexander Hamilton himself from the $10 bill and then changed course, only to declare a fuss with the back of the bill as a way to honor well-known American women.
To refit a quote from an old KSU history prof of mine: “Partial credit, Mr. Lew—you didn’t completely disrupt this everyday glimpse at historiography. But keep in mind—Hamilton was the first boss of the Treasury.”
Were Hamilton still in charge of the Treasury, interestingly enough, he’d likely not be trying to score political points with the citizenry by retooling the look of its paper money; instead, as historians and economists have long noted, he’d be trying to retool the national economy toward being the world’s leading one again. Probably no finer summary of the Hamiltonian effect on the early Republic is that of Gordon S. Wood’s 2006 book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (The Penguin Press).
Often in a figurative second row when pictured with Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Adams, Alexander Hamilton left a bastard childhood in the British West Indies to become, as Wood writes, “celebrated for his nationalism, for his administrative genius, for his financial expertise, and for his hardheaded realism in foreign affairs.”
In 1789 President Washington—anyone can readily find GW on the $1 bill today—appointed Hamilton secretary of the treasury. Wood calls that pick “almost a preordained choice” that brought Washington’s “surrogate son’s brilliance” into the first national administration. “He treated Hamilton very differently [than other department heads],” Wood relates, “partly because he knew little about public finance but also because he believed the Treasury Department was constitutionally different from the other departments.” Ergo, Hamilton aimed to “strengthen central authority and the Union ‘by increasing the number of ligaments between the Government and the interests of Individuals.’”
“The severe criticism of Jefferson’s slaveholding and racial attitudes over the past several decades,” continues Wood, “has offered an opportunity for some positive reappraisals of Hamilton. He was after all opposed to slavery and worked to end it in his home state of New York. Also, in a land of immigrants he was the only one of the leading founders not born in what became the United States. In a major exhibition…at the New York Historical Society, Hamilton was once again celebrated as ‘the man who made modern America.’”
Admittedly, writes Wood, “Hamilton’s plans for an imperial America were out of touch with the realities of his world in 1800. Two centuries later, however, these plans do not seem so bizarre. Hamilton would be right at home in the present-day United States and present-day world.”
As will his image continue to be on the new $10 bill.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their dog, Lord Max. Reach him at email@example.com