Who’s on the $10 bill? The most consequential Founding Father you may know nothing about. Were it not for the recent kerfuffle about it many of us might not know it’s Alexander Hamilton. Why should we care about him? The man:
- Was a driving force in the creation of our the Constitution, including being a key author of the Federalist Papers, the persuasive series of essays that helped assure the Constitution’s ratification by the states, and which are still cited in our court system today.
- Played a massive and leading role as George Washington’s right-hand, first as a military aide, then in the establishment of our federal government…from scratch.
- Nearly single-handedly created the monetary and financial system upon which our economy rests today…including serving as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary (at 34 years old!) and establishing our first National Bank (today’s Federal Reserve).
Put more simply: no individual played a greater role in the creation and early implementation of our durable and successful government and economy than Hamilton. And we don’t know who the hell he is. Some of that is the weakness of our civic knowledge as a country, some is the vagaries of the writing of history. We know George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, et. al.
Hamilton is left as a bastard of history; the Jon Snow of our Founding Fathers (..and yes, Game of Thrones fans loved that reference).
Ironic, because Hamilton was born a bastard in the British West Indies, and later orphaned. He is the epitome of a self-made man, and also the epitome of a flawed man. He was so very American.
He never achieved high elected office himself, in part because of the negative side effects of his fierce ego. His lengthy public response to charges of corruption and infidelity (the former false, the latter true) cleared his name yet finished him as a plausible national candidate. Hamilton was all too human.
All too human…and phenomenally consequential.
The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, considered himself but a candle compared to the noonday sun that was Hamilton. My brief description of Hamilton does little more than scratch the surface of his accomplishments (other examples: he was also at one point senior commander of the United States Army and an abolitionist before being an abolitionist was cool).
Hamilton’s separate careers as a lawyer and Constitutional advocate, Cabinet member and financial system architect, as well as a military and diplomatic adviser and leader would be highly consequential each by themselves. Combine them together and you have an unrivaled, diverse record of accomplishment in American history.
My former boss, Slade Gorton, has said ” we build monuments to Thomas Jefferson, but we live in Alexander Hamilton’s world.”
And on this July 4th, in the wake of the Department of the Treasury saying they plan to slight the man who created them, Alexander Hamilton deserves to be honored as we remember what this day means for our country. Because he did so very much to create what still thrives to this day.
Postscript on the $10 bill debate: I’m 100% in agreement on adding important woman from history to our currency…and doing so first at the expense of Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, veritable committer of genocide, President of little consequence, and man who opposed the use of the very paper money on which he sits. Good, short articles on the merits of Hamilton and demerits of Jackson include:
- A defense of Hamilton from his pre-eminent biographer, Ron Chernow
- A full takedown of Jackson by a Washington Post White House reporter
- Support of Hamilton’s economic and monetary chops from former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke
- A pro-Hamilton, anti-Jackson take from the Washington Post’s political science blog
- A pro-woman on the currency, pro-Hamilton view from the New York Times