J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Hogeland on Hamilton on the Ten-Dollar Note

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew recently announced a plan to add a notable American woman to the next redesign of the ten-dollar bill. It’s been more than a century since Martha Washington appeared on a U.S. silver certificate.

The Los Angeles Times reported:
Alexander Hamilton will still appear on the note even after the yet-to-be-selected woman makes her debut. The Treasury either will design two bills or Hamilton and the woman will share the same bill.
Somehow I think Hamilton would like the space-sharing solution. (Ladies…) Nonetheless, Lew’s plan has been decried as “replacing” Hamilton.

This announcement followed a campaign to put an American woman on the twenty-dollar bill in place of Andrew Jackson, a very important President with repressive policies and an antipathy to a national bank. But the ten-dollar bill happens to be the next up for redesign.

Fans of Hamilton (now appearing on Broadway) came to his defense, making the obvious argument that the Treasury Department owes loyalty to its founder. Some, such as Steven Rattner in the New York Times, added that Hamilton’s political views are better in tune with today’s values than Jackson (who hasn’t been the lead character in a Broadway musical in, what, two years).

William Hogeland, author of The Whiskey Rebellion, agrees on the irony of reducing Hamilton’s place on Treasury notes, but he thinks that Rattner’s comparisons are fallacious. The whole essay is a delight, but here are a couple of choice bits:
Jackson was a slaveowner, and he defended the institution. While there is ample evidence to suggest that Hamilton at times owned slaves, Hamilton opposed the institution, so Rattner repeats a familiar fallacy: “Hamilton was an abolitionist.” Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow says that about Hamilton too; most of the biographers do, and why not? it’s a lovely thought. But it’s not true.

Readers interested in that subject will want to start with this balanced, scrupulous paper by the historian Michelle DuRross. Hamilton the “staunch abolitionist” (Chernow) is such a longstanding biographical fantasy, with such a tangled history, that a certain kind of graduate student would have a ball unraveling it. Readers may be forgiven for believing that young Hamilton had the horrors of the slave markets of the Caribbean so painfully seared on his brain that in adulthood he was inspired to oppose slavery: most of the major and not-so-major Hamilton biographies — Lodge’s, Miller’s, Mitchell’s, Randall’s, McDonald’s, Brookhiser’s and Chernow’s — tell that story. Literally none can cite a primary source. Some cite one another: Randall cites Mitchell, Miller cites Lodge, e.g. The story is such common knowledge that I don’t think Chernow even gives it a citation. Its origin is unclear. But it’s made up.
DuRoss reminds us of the difference between promoting manumission (encouraging slave owners to free their human property) and campaigning for abolition (using the law to end slavery).

And as for Hamilton being more appropriate for a printed bill:
Hamilton’s entire career, before and after becoming Secretary, was based on demolishing paper finance, the depreciating populist currencies of his day that built debt relief into money. With the entire lending-and-investing class that he represented and promoted, Hamilton liked specie, metal. Big notes like those written on the Bank of the United States were not, to Hamilton, a “national currency,” as Rattner tortures history to assert. The federal government did not print paper currencies as long as (and well after) Hamilton had anything to say about it.

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