When Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced last June that the $10 bill, as part of a planned redesign, would be stripped of Alexander Hamilton’s image and replaced with that of a famous American woman, he probably didn’t expect the reaction that followed: a wave of fervent outrage from legions of admirers of the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury, without whom the newborn United States would arguably never have developed a sound currency or been able to form a creditworthy government.
Even less foreseeable, however, was the explosive success of “Hamilton,” the blockbuster Broadway musical that has generated a huge new 21st-century fan base for the West Indies-born 18th-century economic policy maker. The Treasury Department might have withstood criticism from the likes of former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, who said he was “appalled” by the plan to displace Hamilton from the $10 bill, or historian Richard Brookhiser, who defended Hamilton in a column acidly headlined: “First Aaron Burr, now Jack Lew.”
But Treasury was no match for the cultural, dramatic, and financial juggernaut of “Hamilton,” which on Monday added the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama to its long train of awards and record-breaking statistics. And when Lin-Manuel Miranda — who created the musical and plays the title character — lobbied Lew to retain the brilliant founding father with the rags-to-riches immigrant story on the front of the $10 note, the secretary listened. Lew has stopped suggesting that a woman is going to be the new star of the $10 bill, affirming instead his intention “to put a woman on the face of our currency.” Miranda says he has Lew’s assurance that fans of Hamilton (and of “Hamilton”) are going to be “very happy” with the final decision on the $10 bill.
The expectation now is that is that Andrew Jackson will be deposed from the front of the $20 bill, and that the portrait of a great American woman will take his place. For a host of reasons, Jackson’s demotion isn’t likely to awaken the same level of resistance. The seventh president was a slave owner; he waged bloody wars of dispossession against the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Indian tribes; and he was staunchly opposed to a national bank and — savor the irony — paper currency.
Our national pantheon has always included eminent American women. There is no reason why one (or more) of them shouldn’t appear on US currency notes. It was a mistake to cast the redesign of the $10 bill as a zero-sum contest to replace a man with a woman. Of course many great figures in American history have been women — and it is for their greatness that they should be celebrated, not for their gender. Obviously only a tiny number of people can be depicted on America’s money. Why diminish such an honor by reducing it to tokenism? Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Rosa Parks, Harriet Beecher Stowe — there is no end to the number of excellent American leaders who happened to be female.
The faces on US currency should call to mind the achievements and virtues of our nation’s historical heroes, regardless of whether those heroes were men or women. Americans are said to care little for history. Tell that to the throngs who have flocked to see “Hamilton.” And tell it to all those whose passionate defense of the nation’s first Treasury secretary has given the current occupant of that office second thoughts about demoting his great predecessor.