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, 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
and hoping we don’t look too closely into Hamilton’s background in the matter.[UPDATE: Of course I don’t really know what R. is hoping] Not the most edifying use of our horrible history.
Really, how finely do we think we can cut this stuff? It’s revolting and awful, and that’s where we come from. “Jackson, slaveowner, ewww” 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. What about the panic and crash of 1792? It was 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 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 did lead a massive military occupation of western Pennsylvania, complete with door-kicking mass arrest, detentions without charge, and loyalty oaths extracted by dragoon.
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.