An Urban's Rural View

Post-Father's Day Thoughts on a Founding Father

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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We take a brief time out from food and agriculture commentary to weigh in on a critical national question: Whose face should grace the $10 bill?

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has just announced the demotion of Alexander Hamilton from the ten's center circle. Hamilton, our first treasury secretary, will still appear on the bill, but the place of prominence will go to a woman. Which woman is yet to be determined. The lead candidates appear to be Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the movement to give women the vote, and Harriet Tubman, an African-American who not only escaped from slavery but helped 70 other slaves escape.

Hamilton devotees are outraged. They don't object to recognizing another woman (Lewis and Clark guide Sacagawea is on the dollar coin) but they do deplore the recognition coming at their man's expense. Hamilton, they say, was not only the first treasury secretary but the best, the architect of America's financial system and early economic development. Why not put a woman on some other bill? Lew's explanation that the ten was simply the next bill in line for redesign strikes Hamiltonians as lame.

"That reason isn't good enough," argues Harvard law professor Stephen Carter, who notes that Hamilton was also a self-made and self-educated man, a successful Revolutionary War general and an early opponent of slavery (…). "In our era of turmoil and division, Hamilton is exactly the sort of hero we should be exalting. Here's hoping it's not too late to demote someone else instead."

The "someone else" some Hamilton fans (though not necessarily Carter, who is silent on this) would slight is Andrew Jackson. The nation's seventh president has pride of place on the $20 bill. Jackson, the indictment goes, was a racist who owned slaves and persecuted native Americans, NOT "the sort of hero we should be exalting."

Moreover, Hamilton backers like investment banker Steven Rattner point out, Jackson "hated paper money" and "did more than most presidents to damage our financial system and our economy" by terminating the Second Bank of the United States (…). Why should the twenty bear the likeness of a man who didn't think it should exist?

I count myself among Hamilton's fans. He not only laid the foundation for America's prosperity, but, with fellow Federalist Papers author James Madison, he designed our system of government. Although, unlike Madison, he never became president, he was one of the greatest of the founding fathers, richly deserving of being recognized on our currency.

But that's no reason to jettison Jackson. For all his flaws, he was, as historian David Greenberg points out, a major figure in American history (…). The first low-born president, he symbolized the country's transition from a republic in which only property holders could vote to a more egalitarian democracy. His agrarian populism (see, this post is relevant to agriculture after all) was as important to our nation's greatness as Hamilton's nation building. Hamilton and Jackson were on opposite sides of the burning issues of the pre-Civil War era but both shaped who we are in important ways. We don't need to choose between them, certainly not between their faces on our bank notes.

There are other places to put a woman besides the ten and the twenty. Greenberg plumps for the $1 bill, arguing George Washington would still have the quarter. To me, this seems terribly wrong. Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of the Father of our Country belongs on our most commonly used bill. The one is 45% of all currency produced (…).

Leave Washington on the buck. Leave Thomas Jefferson on the five. Leave Hamilton on the ten and Jackson on the twenty and, for that matter, Benjamin Franklin on the hundred. If we have to give up a man to get a woman, give up the least consequential man now in residence--Ulysses S. Grant. Put Susan or Harriet in his place on the $50 bill.

Urban C. Lehner



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Bonnie Dukowitz
6/23/2015 | 12:38 PM CDT
I agree, Urban. Leave Susan B. on her coin.