Hamilton and the Tenner

It does seem to me historically tone deaf for the Treasury Dept. to consider taking Alexander Hamilton, of all people, off U.S. currency, of all things, or even reducing his presence there. I can’t say I care who is on the money — easier to have nothing there but graphic design, I think — but if any face should be engraved on money, it’s Hamilton’s. Money is what he was all about.

That obvious fact has recently inspired a burst of Hamilton adulation, summed up in Steven Rattner’s New York Times Op Ed today. Rattner takes the controversy as an occasion for making a boatload of wrongheaded comparisons among the U.S. founders, arriving at the foregone conclusion that Hamilton was morally and politically superior to others. That requires glib assertions that misrepresent Hamilton and end up making no historical sense at all.

Leaning at first on the rickety Hamilton-vs.-Jefferson binary, Rattner says Hamilton created the first U.S. central bank against Jefferson’s fierce opposition. Jefferson did oppose the bank, but it was against Madison’s political opposition that Hamilton succeeded, and in that opposition lie many matters that complicate Rattner’s (and others’) simplistic historical and financial binaries (I wrote about some of them here [UPDATE: and also throughout my book Founding Finance, especially Chapter Seven]).

Rattner also lauds Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” which, as you won’t learn from Rattner, got no traction politically. And he mentions approvingly the project at Paterson, N.J., where Hamilton tried to create a strictly controlled model of a factory town. In real life, the project was another Hamilton failure; to Rattner it was the wellspring of what he seems to see as the unalloyed glories of American industrialization. If had been up to Jefferson, Rattner cracks, “we’d all still be farmers.”

Rattner then gets Andrew Jackson in his sites [UPDATE: Yikes. “sights”], suggesting like others commenting lately on Hamilton’s supposed superiority that we ought to get Jackson off the twenty. He says he wants to contrast the two men’s records, but instead he lists Jackson’s negative qualities — they are legion — to falsely imply, and in some cases falsely state, that Hamilton didn’t share them.

It gets weird. Jackson was a slaveowner, and he defended the institution. While there is ample evidence to suggest that Hamilton at times held 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, which addresses the realities of Hamilton’s famous participation in the New York Manumission Society, etc. 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 specific citation. Its origin is unclear, but it’s made up.

Anyway, is Rattner’s point that Jackson was a slaveowner, so he should go? Most of the other guys would have to go too, on that basis, and fine with me: hasta la vista, George, Ben, and Ulysses S., your time is up. But Rattner isn’t calling for that, so I begin to suspect that Jackson’s slaveowning doesn’t really bother Rattner all that much. He’s using slavery as a way to clear a place on the twenty for his guy.  Not the most edifying use of our horrible history.

Really, how finely do we think we can cut this stuff? “Jackson, slaveowner, ew” raises more questions about the entire founding of the nation than any goofy proposal for putting faces on currency can begin to answer.

Rattner goes on to tell us that Jackson hated paper money. I guess he hopes to imply that Hamilton liked paper money and therefore has a better right to be on it. But 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.

Worse, to Rattner: Jackson closed the central bank. That caused the Panic of 1837, Rattner tells us, implying that nothing like that could have occurred on Hamilton’s watch. He’s somehow missed the panic and crash of 1792, caused in large part by the corrupt dealings of one of Hamilton’s closest intimates and partners, William Duer, also involved in the Paterson debacle that Rattner so loves, and also involved in the bank. Hamilton had to do a lot of fancy dancing, and to his credit (ha!) he stabilized the markets, but a fair comparison in which the ’37 Panic is a mark against Jackson would have to cope with Hamilton’s own panic of ’92.

But “contrasting their records” is not what’s really going on here, as the conclusion of Rattner’s attacks on Jackson make especially clear. Jackson played an important role in “waging war,” Rattner complains, “particularly against Native Americans.”

Yes. Yes, he did.

But can Rattner seriously be trying to conjure, by unstated contrast, a peace-loving Hamilton with progressive ideas about indigenous people? Hamilton spent his whole career in love with war and trying to make more of it. He envisioned leading armies into Florida and Louisiana, and even into Virginia. He led lead a army into western Pennsylvania, complete with door-kicking mass arrest, detentions without charge, and loyalty oaths extracted by dragoon. And Hamilton’s efforts in helping Washington make war on the Great Lakes Indians, in what the U.S. called the Northwest Territory, were critical to the success of that war.

So what is Rattner talking about? If making war on and depopulating and trying to eradicate Indians means you shouldn’t be on the money, that’s yet another reason, along with his slaveowning, for Washington to go — and in this context, Lincoln has to go too. To Grant’s slaveowning add his campaign against the Plains Indians (“even to their total extermination,” Sherman reported to Grant, “men, women and children”); as well as General Order #11, by which Grant tried to remove Jews from parts of three states.

Who’s left? Nobody? Good. At least with nobody on our money, we’ll avoid the historical vacuity of essays like Rattner’s.

12 thoughts on “Hamilton and the Tenner

  1. ” start with this balanced, scrupulous paper by the historian Michelle DuRross” – a good paper, well considered. But unfortunately her last sentence fails her. After spending the entire paper considering the “who” in every point she raised, she ignores the “who” when praising Hamilton’s desire in building a strong and powerful nation. The who she should have named were the white 1% of their times. But without that “who”, it sounds like Hamilton wanted a nation for all, which her paper made clear that he did not.

  2. Once we’re buying chewing gum with credit cards, (part of) this discussion will go the same way the bills with them pretty (or not so) faces goes: the dinosaur’s. BTW, a Veloceraptor would look really cool on the tenner, don’tcha think?

  3. What a rambling load of crap and waste of time. You should have just wrote an article on the topic of what “nothing” is. And then just make a list of all the words you wanted to use to make yourself feel intelligent and to try to show others how well educated you are.

    A total waste of time considering there are far more important things, MUCH more important things, that could use your intellectual abilities. Your obviously talented and motivated so use what you have and who you are to assist with what is happening today that actually means something to someone. Stop wasting your time on absolute shit that doesn’t mean a damn thing in the scheme of the reality of today. Yeah, it may mean something to the other three people who care about the subject you eloquently rambled on about. But that just means that they will have to one up you in some other meaningless way that will waste the time that they spend on it.

    Here are a few ideas that come to mind that might mean something to someone other than your circle of intellectuals that are lost in the clouds and unaware that this country is in deep shit.
    1. Apply your magical and poetic prose to informing your readers of the perillous actions being performed in Washington DC as we speak that are moving us into position to begin WW3? Motivate them to take action and give them a few ideas to get them moving.
    2. Create an interactive dialog about these perils and provide updates real-time.
    3. Organize public debates with opportunities for press release.
    4Donate a few bucks to an organization that is trying to keep this country from being given away by the schmucks in DC and inspire others to do the same.

    Do you even KNOW that Obama just gave permanent control and leadership of 26k troops to the UN to be based in Spain? Didn’t think so. It isn’t written in the history books yet.
    Not trying to be rude. But time for niceties and sugar coatings is long over.

  4. Reblogged this on Ravenambition's Aspergers Blog and commented:
    This reminds me of a sort of implausible joke I heard as a child. It goes something like, “Lincoln and Washington were having dinner when Washington complained that Lincoln got to be on a bill which was a higher demonination. ‘Why should I be on the one? It’s unfair.’ Lincoln replied ‘ look at this way. More people will see you. More folks have singles in their pockets than fives.'”
    I suppose this was an example of perspective. I agree with you on perspective. And I would love to keep Hamilton and put Tubman on a two dollar bill why not do that and keep who we have. Simply reintroduce the $2.00 bill.

  5. I can generally agree with your point that people are often complex, and one cannot judge an historical personage from one single viewpoint. The Jackson-bashing crowd completely misunderstands his intention in fighting the Second Bank of the US. But in his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton does deserve some recognition on our currency (more than FDR on the dime, for one).

    The whole fuss over the matter of people on our money arose because a group of people petitioned to put a woman on our currency to mark the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment (the one giving women the vote). They wanted to get Jackson off the $20, for the reasons you refer to above. But the Treasury noted that they were already working on redesigning the $10 to add the latest in security features.

    Perhaps a compromise is in order.

    Put Alice Paul on the new $10, and when it comes time to upgrade the $20, put Hamilton on that.


  6. Loved your book, The Whiskey Rebellion. I’ve also read Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, among other historical tomes. I’d like to ask you what you think of this theory, my synthesis of what I know with what I suspect.

    Chernow says Hamilton went to work as a teenager for British slave traders, working as a bookkeeper, among other things. It is not clear who financed him to come to the United States. Once here, he moved quickly to associate with the wealthy and prominent, attend King’s College for something like six months, study for and pass the law exams, and ingratiate himself to George Washington. He appears to have been a Machiavellian influence who played to Washington’s ego, manipulating everything, including the US Constitution, through secret intrigues and “divide-and-conquer,” strategies.

    Most compelling to me is that he introduced legislation for the whiskey tax in Congress the day before introducing legislation for the first central bank. (December, 1790). In 1913, the income tax was tied to the Federal Reserve Act, which created our current central bank and debt-backed currency. In both cases, the tax-plus-central bank scheme put the government in the debt-creation business, and guaranteed a perpetual income stream to the bank as interest on government debt.

    Lots of people suspected Hamilton of being a British agent, but even if he wasn’t, I believe his loyalties remained with the slave traders who probably financed his move to North America. Specifically, British mercantilists were busy financing both sides of the Revolution, as well as supplying firearms, textiles, and other supplies. By supporting the whiskey tax, Washington essentially double-crossed the farmers who won his war for him. As a major whiskey distiller, he stood to gain financially from the tax. It’s hard to tax a bartering system, which Hamilton and Washington both knew. Also, the whiskey tax effectively set the precedent for the federal government to invade any home, for any reason, and confiscate whatever it wants, merely on suspicion of illegal activity.

    There’s more, but this is plenty for now. I’m thrilled to find your blog and will be following.

    Katharine Otto

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