There’s nothing revolutionary about changes to the portrait gallery in your pocket.
Andrew Jackson appeared on the original tenner, while Grover Cleveland stared out from the twenty. And before the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, banks issued currency to their own specifications. Many designs looked similar to those used today, but others featured the likes of William McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, and the Civil War Union general George Meade. Some of the notes even featured women. In the 1880s and 1890s, Martha Washington appeared on one-dollar “silver certificates”—paper redeemable for its value in metal.
Even so, Treasury’s decision is a break with history. Apart from presidents, Hamilton has been among the most popular choices for depiction on currency because he is regarded as the architect of the American monetary system. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton laid the foundations for a national economy, overseeing the assumption of state debts by the federal government, the charter of a national bank, and the establishment of the U.S. Mint.
Have you ever wondered why our money is denominated in decimals, rather than the medieval division of 12 pennies to the shilling, 20 shillings to pound used by the United Kingdom until the 1970s? That was Hamilton’s idea.
In a video interview for The Wall Street Journal, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew suggested that Hamilton will live on in our wallets—partly because the current notes have a long lifespan. Considering Hamilton’s unique services to the Treasury Department and the country, however, it’s a mistake to deprive him of top billing. Lew argues that the decision makes sense because the ten was already scheduled to be redesigned. That’s like saying that you should go ahead and build a whole new house just because you were planning to replace the roof.
Changing the design of the twenty by getting rid of Andrew Jackson is much better idea. Some critics have argued that Jackson’s ownership of slaves and support for Indian removal should disqualify him from appearance on our money. That’s a sweeping criterion that would exclude too many important figures and obscure the role of slavery and ideas about manifest destiny in American history rather than illuminating them.
The stronger argument for replacing Jackson is that he opposed the national bank and paper money, and did all he could to thwart them. He shouldn’t be honored by institutions he despised—even if we have to wait a little longer for the change to take effect.
And what about the replacement? According to Treasury’s news release, the theme will be “Democracy.” Few American women have done more for that cause than Harriet Beecher Stowe, who combined abolitionism with advocacy for women’s rights. Beecher was also the daughter Lyman Beecher, who happened to be the early republic’s most prominent critic of dueling—a practice that took Hamilton’s life and that Jackson relished. By pronouncing the duelist a murderer, Beecher provides one more reason to keep Hamilton where he and give Jackson the boot.