Quinn Hillyer at National Review is calling the anticipated change in the U.S. $10 note “outrageous and ignorant.” The change entails removal of Alexander Hamilton’s portrait for that of an as yet unnamed woman. It’s not the woman that arouses Hillyer’s unhappiness, but the removal of his beloved Hamilton. I’m not a Hamiltonian myself, but that’s another argument.
In any case, it is neither outrageous nor ignorant. All U.S. currency needs to get spiffed up and if that means Hamilton goes, okay. (Our coinage, for that matter needs a makeover; get Kennedy off the half dollar and maybe we’d see some in circulation.)
Drop back to the nineteenth century. The National Bank Notes then in use were exotic, artistic, attractive, allegorical in many cases, always colorful, and some nearly unique.
Yet look them over. Even a casual look at the variety of national bank note designs shows that Hamilton was featured but rarely. He simply didn’t figure that much in national note designs.
When national bank notes were discarded in 1913, under the lash of the Federal Reserve System and the U.S. Treasury went into the engraving business, well of course they chose a portrait of the first treasury secretary. Hamilton on the tenspot was little a mere act of bureaucratic chauvinism.
But he was a wonderful Founding Father, right? Listen, if he had his way, Congress would have had a veto over state legislative acts. (Or was that Madison; doesn’t matter.) Hamilton’s nationalism would have eradicated the states.
But, as Hillyer goes on, Hamilton “pretty much created our monetary system out of thin air.” Uh huh. That’s a recommendation? Thanks to thin air monetary policy the United States debased its silver coinage to copper-nickel in 1964. Now our monetized national debt is keeping interest rates artificially low and the markets quiver when the Fed talks about easing things. The logic of debased money is roughly the same as selling shares in the national debt, all Hamilton’s idea. The fix we’re in is Hamilton’s, is what it is.
National bank notes were characterized by eclectic, chaotic, charming, and wonderful designs. They were miniature works of art. Dump Hamilton and we might revive those iconic designs. Keep George on the $1; that's a given. But we could introduce an entire array of annual $10 notes devoted to authors, artists, civic figures, state vignettes, Native Americans, pioneers, national historic events, African Americans, and, sure, women. And if it’s a history of the Founders Hillyer wants, we could even include a series on the signers of the Constitution.
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church, is book review editor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his previous First Things contributions are here.