“How can I stand here to speak of the Constitution of the United States, of the wisdom of its provisions, of the difficulties attending its adoption, of the evils from which it rescued the country, and of the prosperity and power to which it has raised it, and yet pay no tribute to those who were highly instrumental in accomplishing the work? While we are here to rejoice, that it yet stands firm and strong; while we congratulate one another that we live under its benign influence, and cherish hopes of its long duration; we cannot forget who they were, that in the day of our national infancy, in the times of despondency and despair, mainly assisted to work out our deliverance. I should feel that I disregarded the strong recollections which the occasion presses upon us, that I was not true to gratitude, nor true to patriotism, nor true to the living or the dead, not true to your feelings or my own, if I should forbear to make mention of ALEXANDER HAMILTON.”
In 1831, Webster gave a speech in New York, later quoted in Bartleby’s regarding Hamilton’s contributions to the financial system.
He smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the Public Credit, and it sprung upon its feet. The fabled birth of Minerva, from the brain of Jove, was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States, as it burst forth from the conceptions of Alexander Hamilton.
After the announcement on Wednesday about the Treasury Department’s decision to replace Alexander Hamilton with a woman as the face of the $10 bill, while leaving Andrew Jackson on the $20, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly compare these men’s respective legacies in terms of the financial system.
As the first Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton was the architect of creating a national financial system and establishing the constitutionality of a national bank. Hamilton faced an uphill battle, with ardent opposition from Jefferson and Madison, and a lukewarm reaction from President Washington. However, he cajoled, persuaded, and politicked in order to birth the new financial system.
Elizabeth Hamilton described Hamilton’s commitment to the Bank in a quote to a journalist years after Hamilton’s death, as quoted by Michael Newton:
“He made your Government! He made your Bank. I sat up all night with him to help him do it. Jefferson thought we ought not to have a Bank, and President Washington thought so. But my husband said, ‘We must have a Bank.’ I sat up all night, copied out his writing, and the next morning he carried it to President Washington, and we had a Bank.
Hamilton believed that a national bank would help establish public credit and place the new nation on the solid footing that would be necessary to secure its future.
In a 1781 letter to Robert Morris, Hamilton wrote:
The tendency of a national bank is to increase public and private credit. The former gives power to the state for the protection of its rights and interests, and the latter facilitates and extends the operations of commerce among individuals. Industry is increased, commodities are multiplied, agriculture and manufactures flourish, and herein consist the true wealth and prosperity of a state.
He clung to this opinion despite significant opposition, and established the federal debt and the national bank through sheer force of will. The financial system that Hamilton set up during his tenure as Secretary of Treasury outlasted him and left a legacy that shaped institutions for years to come.
As Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Secretary of Treasury noted in a letter to Hamilton’s son:
“I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.”
In contrast, Jackson despised the idea of a central bank, and believed the very existence of a National Bank was contrary to his narrow interpretation of constitutional powers. Jackson relished the idea of being able to destroy the bank by vetoing its charter, and engaged in the famous “Bank Wars,” taking on Henry Clay and Nicholas Biddle (then-president of the National Bank)
In November 1829, Jackson wrote to Nicholas Biddle:
“I find it right to be perfectly frank with you. I do not think that the power of Congress extends to charter a bank out of the ten-mile square. I do not dislike your bank any more than all banks. But ever since I read the history of the “South Sea Bubble” I have been afraid of banks.”
In his Bank Veto Message of 1832, Jackson stated:
The present corporate body, denominated the president, directors, and company of the Bank of the United States, will have existed at the time this act is intended to take effect twenty years. It enjoys an exclusive privilege of banking under the authority of the General Government, a monopoly of its favor and support, and, as a necessary consequence, almost a monopoly of the foreign and domestic exchange. The powers, privileges, and favors bestowed upon it in the original charter, by increasing the value of the stock far above its par value, operated as a gratuity of many millions to the stockholders….
This pro-Jackson cartoon about Jackson’s destruction of the central bank is actually entitled “the Downfall of Mother Bank.”
In light of Hamilton and Jackson’s respective impact and beliefs on the financial system, replacing Hamilton while leaving Jackson on currency is highly problematic. Removing the spiritual father of the Treasury Department while continuing to allow one of its sworn enemies to retain a place of honor shows a blatant disregard for history.
Yesterday, Jack Lew announced that the $10 bill would be undergoing a complete redesign to feature a woman on the currency.
The Fact Sheet released by the Treasury Department states that: “Secretary Lew has made clear that the image of Alexander Hamilton will remain part of the $10 note.” However, no specifics about what position Hamilton’s image would have has been released yet.
The Treasury Department website about the New Ten asks for the public to provide them with ideas and feedback and states:
In exercising the responsibility to select currency features and design, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has made clear that the public’s input is an important and valuable part of the process for the redesign of the $10 note. Treasury wants to hear from the American people and engage in a public dialogue about how we can use the new $10 note to best represent the values of our inclusive democracy. Treasury staff will also seek public comment through other forums including round tables, and open houses. Share your ideas, symbols, designs or any other feedback that can inform the Secretary as he considers options for the $10 redesign.
Chris Matthews of Fortune called Lew’s decision to redesign the $10, rather than removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 “the worst decision Jack Lew has made.” I believe that it is a fundamental mistake for the Treasury Department to abandon its spiritual father by removing Hamilton from the $10 bill. Without Hamilton, the Treasury Department and a national currency would not exist.
At the same time, I am fully supportive of the idea of removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 and replacing him with a woman. Jackson spent his career fighting the idea of paper money and a central banking system. Even the movement asking for a woman to appear on currency has been focused on putting a woman on the $20, and over 600,000 people (myself included) voted on candidates to replace Jackson on the bill at the website http://www.womenon20s.org/.
Alexander Hamilton is uniquely qualified to retain a prominent place on American currency. Hamilton fought vigorous opposition from Jefferson and other contemporaries to establish a national bank. He single-handedly established the economic foundations of the young nation. Hamilton also made significant, game-changing contributions to the Revolutionary War and had a major role in establishing Constitution and the foundations of our government.
Michael Newton posted several quotes from Hamilton’s contemporaries about his role in developing the foundation of the American financial system, including Daniel Webster’s statement that Hamilton:
“…smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the public credit, and it sprung to its feet. The fabled birth of Minerva from the brain of Jove was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States as it burst forth from the conception of Alexander Hamilton.”
Secretary Lew’s statement made clear that the Treasury Department is seeking public input on the redesign. If you are passionate about this issue, I urge you to participate in public forums, send comments and letters to Treasury, and use your social media presence to ensure that Hamilton’s image continues to be the face of the $10 bill.