National Commentary

Tubman & Hamilton Make the Cut

nfbenton-mugOne of the happier things in these days was the decision by the U.S. Treasury last week to switch up images on the $20 bill and the $10 bill. Harriet Tubman, African-American Civil War hero, is going on the front of the $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson, who will be relegated to its backside.

The well-publicized plan to make such a change was originally to substitute an African-American hero for the image of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, on the $10 bill.

There were some protests to that idea, including from me, not about the idea of an African-American on the nation’s currency – and Harriet Tubman is an excellent choice – but about the decision to substitute one for Hamilton.

After all, Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the U.S., was a much better candidate for getting the heave-ho off of our currency, because he was such a questionable character and it is well known to historians how he and his administration ravaged Native American populations, among other things ordering the removal of all Native American tribes east of the Mississippi to lands to the west. Thousands died.

Thankfully the prism of history has turned a little recently to cast Hamilton and his role in our nation’s history, and Jackson and his role, in an significantly different light.

Yes, no doubt this has been to a big degree due to the remarkable success of the Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” with its energy and breathtaking verve.

Hamilton, the man not the musical, is now a rock star in these days because of it, with the popularity of the musical so enormous that the latest fad among his new-found fans and tourists in Manhattan is to visit his long-ignored grave on the grounds of the Trinity Church in the area of Wall Street, to meditate there, and of course, to photograph “selfies” by his tombstone.

The musical tells bits and pieces of his extraordinary story. He grew up as an orphan in the Caribbean, and when a patron brought him to New York, he took a meteoric rise through the ranks of American revolutionaries as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, had an indispensable and central role in the founding of the republic through his authorship of most of the so-called Federalist Papers arguing for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, his appointment by Washington, our first president, as the Secretary of the Treasury, his critically-important authorship of his “Report on Manufactures” that made the case for a national central bank, which became the First Bank of the United States.

He founded a newspaper in New York and played a central role in blocking the ascendancy to the U.S. presidency of Aaron Burr, a treasonous British agent, even if it cost Hamilton his life, where he was felled by Burr in a duel in 1804. But his story is not completed with his death.

The Bank of the United States secured the means for the young nation to build infrastructure – canals, roads and later rails – that were the fuel of its industry and growth, strengthening its capacity for independence in a hostile world.

Ironically, it was the man who killed the National Bank when he became president whose image has been competing with Hamilton’s in the new currency musical chairs.

Jackson, considered by many in his time a British tool himself, vetoed the re-charter of the National Bank with the effect that it left the U.S. having to go begging to British-controlled banks for credit.

The man who arose in that period, the 1830s, to take up the Hamilton cause was none other than Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln became president in 1861, not only did he prosecute the secession of the southern states with a war that he won, but he revived the germ of the national bank idea in the form of a “greenback currency,” augmenting it with a railroad act, a land grant college act, and a homestead act that taken all together assisted millions to own their own homes, receive an education and help to develop the nation.

Amazingly, Lincoln suffered the same death as Hamilton, from the gunshot of a sworn enemy. He’d completed Hamilton’s work.