Saving Hamilton

The decision to put a woman on the $10 bill has sparked a backlash in defense of the nation’s first treasury secretary.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

The $10 bill announcement by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last week was intended to set off both a celebration and a great national debate: For the first time in more than a century, the portrait of a woman would grace a major denomination of U.S. paper currency, and the government wanted the public to help decide which heroine of democracy would receive the honor. The redesigned sawbuck would be unveiled in 2020, in time for the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage.

The Treasury Department got its debate all right, but not the one it was looking for.

Instead of weighing the merits of America’s most iconic women, some of the nation’s most prominent voices have been fighting to save the founding father she would displace: Alexander Hamilton. Chief among them was Ben Bernanke, who as chairman of the Federal Reserve oversaw the central bank responsible for issuing the nation’s currency. “I must admit I was appalled to hear of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew's decision last week to demote Alexander Hamilton from his featured position on the ten dollar bill,” the typically-circumspect ex-chairman wrote on the blog he publishes for the Brookings Institution. In a piece devoted to the exaltation of the country’s first Treasury secretary, Bernanke added that placing a woman on a currency note was “a fine idea, but it shouldn't come at Hamilton's expense.” On the White House’s “We the People” website, two separate petitions have been launched to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill.

The controversy stems from the messy convergence of a grassroots movement and a federal bureaucracy moving at its ordinary, glacial pace. For months, a campaign called Women on 20s has been gaining steam in its bid to pressure the Treasury Department into replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a woman in time for the 2020 commemoration of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. This spring, the organization boasted that more than a million people had voted in an online tournament it held to nominate a woman for the $20. (Harriet Tubman was the winner.) And Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced legislation to mandate that a woman be placed on the note.

Women on 20s

Aside from the significance of the number twenty, activists had targeted Jackson because he is easily the most objectionable of the men now featured on the major currency notes. (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Hamilton round out the cast. The slave-holding Thomas Jefferson was no saint, but who actually uses $2 bills?) Jackson may have founded the Democratic Party and brought populist sentiment to the presidency, but he is equally infamous today for waging brutal military campaigns against American Indians. He was also a fierce opponent of the central banking system, making him, in the words of the Women on 20s movement, “an ironic choice for immortalization on our money.”

Hamilton, by contrast, has generated no such ill will (at least in modern times) and is actually enjoying something of a public renaissance. There is a hit musical that is moving to Broadway this summer with much hype and anticipation. He’s also a sympathetic historical figure, having been killed in a duel by then-Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. Though he was long overlooked among the founding fathers, Hamilton “was undeniably the most influential person in our history who never attained the presidency,” Ron Chernow, who authored a 2004 biography on Hamilton, wrote last week in Politico Magazine. After arriving on the continent as a penniless immigrant from the Caribbean, Hamilton wrote two-thirds of the Federalist Papers and ended up devising much of the executive branch, including the forerunner to the Federal Reserve System.

Yet while the Women on 20s push had gained momentum recently, the Treasury Department’s currency redesign process has been years in the making. And the note next slated for a new look was the $10 bill, not the $20. The driving factor behind any change in the currency is always technological rather than aesthetic—the Treasury Department needs to update each note every so often to stay ahead of counterfeiters, and according to the department, security officials in 2013 recommended that the $10 be prioritized “assuming no other counterfeit threats emerge.” In his public remarks, Lew has stressed that the decision was not meant as a snub of Hamilton, a man he hailed for laying “the groundwork for our economy and America’s longterm prosperity.” He promised that Hamilton wouldn’t be kicked off the sawbuck entirely; keeping two distinct designs is one option, or he could be featured in a smaller way or on the back of the note.

For the advocates of putting a woman on the $20 bill, Treasury’s announcement has made a jubilant moment considerably more awkward. “This is quite the conundrum,” Barbara Ortiz Howard, the founder of Women on 20s, told me. “This was originally supposed to be a celebration of women and their contributions to this country, and a great byproduct was going to be replacing someone who represents hate. And now we have a bit of a curveball.”

Howard said that while the organization had repeatedly reached out to Treasury officials as the campaign ramped up, she only met with them for the first time last Thursday, on the day of Lew’s announcement. She was cool to any plans to have a woman share space on the note with Hamilton, saying it was “critical that the first bill that comes out for the centennial be exclusively dedicated to the theme of women’s suffrage.” In the Senate, Shaheen has responded more cautiously and declined to criticize the Treasury Department. “I appreciate the contributions of the men who are currently on our paper currency, and I believe we can continue to recognize those contributions,” she said in an emailed statement. “But our country’s history owes just as much to the contributions of women, and we are long overdue for our paper currency to recognize them.”

Howard, on the other hand, argued that it was important not just which woman the government selected to honor but which man they chose to displace. “This is our brand. This is our logo,” Howard said. “This is what we say about ourselves.”

At least for now, the Treasury Department is sticking with its plan. It won’t respond to the criticisms from Bernanke and others, and officials have suggested that the Hamilton fixation is not shared by the public at large. The former Fed chief likely hit on the real reason behind the department’s silence when he wrote that “decisions like this have considerable bureaucratic inertia and are accordingly hard to reverse.” It takes nearly a decade to redesign and produce a new currency note, and the decision to push aside Hamilton was likely made long before last week’s announcement. The makers of the nation’s money, it turns out, can’t just turn on a dime.