Save Alexander Hamilton

My favorite television show of all time was The Wire, a gritty HBO series about the hard life of the people and institutions in Baltimore, from cops and drug dealers to longshoremen, politicians, lawyers and middle school kids.

When the US Treasury announced last week that they intend to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill in 2020 with an important woman in American History, my first thought was about a scene from The Wire.

In the scene, a mid-level dealer discovers that two of his street-level dealer kids accepted some counterfeit $10 bills from some heroin junkies, is furious and is shouting that they have to look for the dead Presidents on the bills.

One of the street kids replies that Hamilton isn’t a President and is excoriated by his superior who tells him that you can only get on legal tender by being President.  It’s sad because the low level kid is right, but his ill-informed boss is so overpowering that the kid ends up believing that he’s wrong.  I found the clip, but it’s too coarse for this family letter.

Of course, the kid is right: Hamilton and Ben Franklin are both on current bills but were never the President.  I think it would be great to include one of the essential women from our history like Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks on our legal tender.

I wish, though, that they would keep Hamilton on the $10 and get rid of Andrew Jackson on the $20 or Ulysses S Grant on the $50.

I am not exactly an American history buff, so please excuse my lack of knowledge here, but if the main idea behind having Grant is that he was critical to winning the Civil War, then it seems to me that we’ve already got Abraham Lincoln on the $5 and he’s obviously untouchable, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (don’t forget about the $2 bill!).

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Jackson, but after reading today’s blog post from former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke, he seems like a good candidate for a demotion relative to Hamilton.

I know a little bit more about Hamilton because I read a biography by Ron Chernow about 10 years ago and he was fascinating (my favorite piece of trivia is that he was born in Nevis, an island in the BVI).  But it’s been a while, so I’ll simply sum up Bernanke’s points.

In favor of Hamilton: he was the first Treasury Secretary, helped the US government get on solid footing after the Revolutionary War and helped to organize the states from a fiscal and monetary standpoint (which, as Bernanke points out, is critical when we think about the problems that Europe faces from being very uncoordinated).

Hamilton also helped establish the first major bank, the Bank of New York, and oversaw the charter of the First Bank of the United States, which was our first central bank and the precursor to the Federal Reserve.  In short, he was the nation’s first ‘money-man.’

Jackson, on the other hand, was opposed to creating a central bank, which, according to Bernanke, was primarily responsible for dealing with bank panics in those days.  Bernanke, an economic history scholar, says that Jackson’s opposition to the central bank in 1836 probably worsened the Panic of 1837 which also brought on a prolonged depression.

I’m not alone in these views – I’ve seen at least a half dozen op-ed pieces saying that we should include an important woman on one of our bills, but not at the expense of Alexander Hamilton.