Replacing Hamilton on the U.S. $10 Bill

“Our democracy is a work in progress. This decision of putting a woman in the $10 bill reflects our aspirations for the future as much as a reflection of the past.”  — Jack Lew, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

You’ve probably already heard about it, and if you haven’t, you’ll likely hear more about it soon. The U.S. Treasury will be replacing the visage of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with that of a woman-to-be-determined. Or, rather, Hamilton will share the bill with a woman, though it hasn’t yet been decided how.

“There are many options for continuing to honor Hamilton. While one option is producing two bills, we are exploring a variety of possibilities.”

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren

The new bill(s) will debut in 2020 — 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote — and the theme of the redesign will be “democracy”. Apparently, there was a brief, grassroots campaign called “Women on 20s” that gathered signatures to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. But, despite the President’s apparent approval, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew decided to make the change to the $10 bill instead, since it was already due for a security redesign. This got me wondering about what the guidelines have been historically for deciding whose face will grace a particular denomination of paper currency, and who makes that final decision. I found this on the Treasury Dept.’s website:

“As with our nation’s coinage, the Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval. This is done with the advice of Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) officials.

The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities. Therefore, the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.”

Nothing more about what kind of people should be honored, but I guess that mostly answers my question. I was just thinking that they needed to be a president, statesman, or other significant holder of federal office. I guess not. I also thought that it might be limited to those who lived and were in office predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. (I.e., centered mostly around the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.) Wrong again. The discontinued $500 bill featured William McKinley (1843-1901), the $1000 bill featured Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), the $10,000 bill had Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) on it, and the $100,000 bill had the only portrait of someone who didn’t hold public office until the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924).

Social media has apparently been all atwitter (yes, that was a pun) about this, lately. Many from the political right are rather skeptical about the reasoning behind this decision. Some think that Hamilton is “a little too white for this administration” and that this is merely one more effort by “progressives” to remove “rich, white slave owners” — i.e., the Founding Fathers and others — from U.S. currency and other places of honor. Some have also suggested that doing this now will somehow give a boost to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Personally, I’m not sure how much of that I buy into. Other commentators have made other good points. S.E. Cupp, for instance, thinks it is an “empty symbolic gesture.”

“Surely, putting a woman on a U.S. banknote will be an important step forward for gender equality and advancing women’s rights, with a tangible, measurable return on investment, so to speak. Sorry to be sarcastic, but I just can’t summon the excitement to celebrate something so trivial and, in a way, insulting to women….

Why, after decades of complaining that our American economic system is oppressive, male-organized, unfair and broken, are modern feminists now begging to be featured on its most famous symbol? Moreover, what good are symbols in confronting reality? Putting a woman on the $10 bill has nothing to do with ending domestic violence, for example, or with preventing college rape. It won’t change the difficulties a woman faces balancing work and home life.”

Among other things, Mona Charen calls out the stupidity and arrogance of the move:

“Let’s start with stupidity. If there’s one figure whose face arguably does not deserve to adorn the currency, it’s the man on the $20 bill, not the $10. That is Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, adamant opponent of paper currency (!), friend of slave power and scourge of Native Americans. Who can forget that when the Cherokee appealed their treatment by the state of Georgia to the Supreme Court and won, Jackson refused to enforce the law? Jackson pushed for and signed the Indian Removal Act, which led directly to the forced deportation of nearly 17,000 Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee and others — known as the Trail of Tears….

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Here’s the arrogance: The Treasury Department is downgrading Hamilton, without whom there might not be a United States currency, just because they yearn to check a “diversity” box, and without consulting the American people. Hamilton was a poor kid from the West Indies who immigrated to New York, joined the patriot army at age 17 or 18 and organized an artillery company, became an aide to Gen. George Washington, authored more than half of the Federalist Papers, and served as the first treasury secretary of the United States, where he structured the finances of our infant republic so that we didn’t drown in debt. He was also a fierce opponent of slavery. Hamilton belongs in the pantheon of American heroes….

Here’s the solution: Upgrade the security features on the $10, but keep Hamilton in his spot. Dump Jackson from the $20 and hold an essay competition among American high school seniors for his replacement. It would be a great exercise in the appreciation of excellence. Both sexes may be nominated. There are many American women who could be chosen: Emily Dickinson, Harriet Tubman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan B. Anthony? But by announcing in advance that you’re choosing a woman, you’ve guaranteed that the honor will be downgraded to the ‘best woman’ rather than the best candidate.”

I am certainly not against the idea of having a woman and/or person of color on a U.S. banknote, as long as s/he is truly worthy of the honor and that another, true American hero is not displaced in the process. I absolutely agree with Charen (and Steve Forbes and others) that, if any, Jackson should be the one to go. (Note: Jackson’s military victories in the War of 1812 and/or the fact that he founded what became the Democratic Party may be additional reasons/excuses that the current administration has for not replacing him.) Also, it would indeed be preferable to have more input from the citizenry before making such an historic decision. But, assuming Sec. Lew won’t change his mind, the public can still chime in. The Treasury Dept. has a special site set up with more info on the subject, as well as the opportunity for people to suggest who they think should be given the honor of joining(?) Hamilton on the $10 note.

In addition to those Charen noted, various suggestions I have read included Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Wilma Mankiller, Ayn Rand, etc. Here are nine that I like….

Abigail Adams (1744–1818): Influential “Founding Mother” and First Lady (i.e., wife of John Adams, 1st U.S. Vice President and 2nd U.S. President)

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): Abolitionist, suffragist, and women’s rights activist

Clara Barton (1821-1912): Teacher and Founder of the American Red Cross

Sarah Livingston Jay (1756-1802): Influential “Founding Mother” and wife of John Jay (NY governor and first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court)

Lucretia Mott (1793-1880): Abolitionist and early feminist

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896): Renowned author, including on such controversial topics as slavery (e.g., Uncle Tom’s Cabin), religious reform, and gender roles

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): Former slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate

Harriet Tubman (c.1822-1913): Former slave and noted ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad; also served as a scout, spy, and nurse [for the Union] during the Civil War

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814): Influential “Founding Mother”, author, women’s rights advocate, and “Conscience of the American Revolution”

If aesthetics is a concern (i.e., having an attractive or noble visage), I suppose a few could be ruled out. But, I don’t know how much of a deciding factor that will be. I tend to favor the idea of honoring someone from the Revolutionary War era, especially since that is when our (representative) democracy began. With that in mind, I favor either Adams or Warren. Then again, the biggest advances in civil rights for non-whites and for women began in the mid- to late-1800s. For that era, I’m leaning toward Tubman or possibly Anthony. (Hey, if Washington and Lincoln can each get a coin and a bill, maybe Anthony can, too?) But, I’d be happy with any of them, I suppose. Heck, if they get enough good suggestions, maybe they’ll replace Jackson next.

What about you? Do you have a favorite? Or, do you think the whole thing is ridiculous?

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