Removing Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill would be an injustice.
THIS Fourth of July, as Americans contemplate their country’s birth and today’s global status, which founding father might they single out for celebration? Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison would be likely choices. But they would be the wrong ones.
For 200 years, the man who did most to set the United States on the path to prosperity and world power has been treated as a second-tier founder. Alexander Hamilton shares no granite on the face of Mount Rushmore, nor is he granted a monument or memorial in our nation’s Capitol. Adding insult to injustice, the U.S. Treasury has decided to strip Hamilton from the $10 bill, his only national tribute.
Yet history makes clear that we inhabit a land built by Hamilton’s ideas. This land has a strong central government, a massive military, an economy fueled by entrepreneurship, global trade and diverse industries. It has a national bank (the Federal Reserve) and invests greatly in science and technology. It is also a nation of immigrants, great cities and the goal (though often mixed with other purposes) to further democracy. The United States abolished slavery, eventually, which Hamilton — the only founder among those mentioned who never owned a slave — detested.
Hamilton was the one to see the perils and possibilities of the coming century. He spoke of Britain, at times injudiciously, as a nation to learn from — it would lead Europe by its launch of a revolution in industry. America needed to follow its lead and grow strong, or it would be prey. The War of 1812 proved him all too prescient.
By contrast, Thomas Jefferson wanted a rural America. He desired a small-town, small-government country, moderate in industry and dominated by farms. Each state would govern itself, including (by implication) decisions on slavery. Libertarian to the core, cultivating its own gardens, this America would forever seek “entangling alliances with none.” James Madison came to side with Jefferson, but President George Washington, who knew Hamilton well, had great confidence in him and helped implement his proposals. As Washington’s Treasury secretary, Hamilton single-handedly saved the nation’s finances, which were ruined by war debt. When Jefferson became president, most of Hamilton’s policies were left alone.
What of Hamilton’s life? He was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, a British slave colony for sugar, and was raised by his mother until he was 11, when she died. After a few displaced years, he was adopted by a merchant who sent him to America for an education. He arrived in 1773, a youth of 17, three years before the Revolution. While still under 20, he completed a degree at King’s College (Columbia University) while gaining the reputation of an eloquent speaker and writer for the patriot cause, publishing pamphlets that rallied defense of the Continental Congress against royalist critics.
During the war, he first distinguished himself as an artillery captain then as Washington’s most trusted aide, writing many of the general’s letters to Congress. Eager for honor, he gained command of a battalion and led a courageous charge at Yorktown. After the war, he became a principal advocate for the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and did more than any other individual to secure ratification of the new Constitution. Part of this involved conceiving and writing most of “The Federalist Papers,” the most influential text ever written on democratic political theory.
We can’t know what other deeds he might have done for his adopted country had he survived the duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. Those who feared Hamilton’s idea of strong federal government labored to damage his image, making him a monarchist. It is high time to overturn this propaganda. It seems backward that a Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” gets the story right, while the Treasury department, in its $10 campaign, fails so miserably its own founder.
Let us now, on this Independence Day, praise an immigrant boy who took America’s cause as his own and, as a man, gave it the path to maturity.