The grassroots campaign Women on 20s has been generating publicity for several months with its effort to put a woman on the US 20 dollar bill, in place of the current honoree Andrew Jackson. Late Wednesday night, however, the Treasury Department surprised pretty much everyone by announcing that it had long been planning to redesign the ten dollar bill to include a woman. Jokes about the smaller denomination aside, this means that Jackson's spot is safe for the moment, because the person being demoted is Alexander Hamilton.
The design of our bills is an important national symbol, and it is well beyond time that we honor women and minorities by including them in it. But of all Americans who should be placed in a prominent position on currency, there are none more deserving than Hamilton. He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, and without his inspired policies and wonky insights, the United States would have been unlikely to survive. He established the first Bank of the United States, salvaged the credit of the debt-ravaged government and put the country on the road to a successful and diverse economy though it meant facing down the pernicious influence of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal. The now commonplace idea that the government bears some responsibility for the performance of the economy first entered American life through Hamilton's ideas and policies.
There are only a limited number of bills, and currency cannot represent all things to all people. But if we want to make way for new faces, as I think we should, Jackson is a better candidate for retirement. For one thing, Hamilton actively worked to end slavery as a member of the New York Manumission Society. This is quite different from slaveholders George Washington, who graces the one dollar bill, Thomas Jefferson, who appears on the seldom-seen two dollar bill, and Jackson. Slavery was a great stain on the nation, and it might seem odd that we give such a pride of place to anyone who actually owned other human beings. But the institution was so tied up with our founding that it is not completely incongruous, in my view, to say that we as Americans can be inspired and moved by people who participated in that unspeakably evil institution. So I would not go so far to say that there should not be any slaveholders on American currency. But I would say that three is too many. (There is a small amount of evidence suggesting that Hamilton may have briefly owned slaves on some occasions. In his excellent biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow argues that even if this evidence were to hold up--in 1804 Hamilton's daughter wrote that the family did not have slaves--any instances of Hamilton owning slaves almost certainly resulted from the fact that had had married into a slaveholding family and sometimes got reluctantly intertwined with its business. So I don't count Hamilton as a slaveholder.) Also, the fact that Jackson lived in a later period does make his slaveholding a bit more odious. Finally, Jackson's orchestration of Indian removal has not aged well. If someone has to go, Old Hickory seems the best choice.
David Greenberg has argued against removing Jackson from the currency. (He advocates replacing Washington on the dollar bill, because the first president is also on the quarter.) "Andrew Jackson," Greenberg correctly points out, "did more than any other president to turn the Founding Fathers’ genteel republic into a robust democracy." Jacksonianism marked a very important milestone in making American politics and government what it is today. I would not want to minimize what he represented. But slavery and Indian removal represent something on the other side of the ledger, and that should not be overlooked either. But most important for me is the fact that we are talking about currency, and no since person was more important to the development of the American economy than Hamilton. Jackson, on the other hand, destroyed the Second Bank of the United States out of a mixture of personal animus and an antipathy to the very institution of paper money. Maybe taking him off the currency would only be appropriate.