I am writing from Lexington, Massachusetts, having driven 1,025 miles since leaving Wheaton yesterday morning. I am en route to a teaching conference at Yale, and my incredibly supportive wife encouraged me to lengthen the trip a bit in order to do a little historical sight-seeing. I am going to try to cram as much of Lexington, Concord, and Boston in over the next 36 hours as I possibly can.
After spending last night near Rochester, New York, I took a couple of historical detours this morning before settling in to the monotonous miles of I-90. First, I visited Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, the burial place of both Frederick Douglass, the famous black abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, the prominent advocate for women’s rights. From there I headed to Seneca Falls, New York (maybe fifty miles to the southeast), where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.
In addition to being the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the location of the women’s rights’ convention, Seneca Falls insists on at least one other claim to fame: the town contends that it was the inspiration for the fictional town of Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s immortal Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. I can neither confirm nor deny the historical accuracy of this claim, but I will say that I enjoyed the “George Bailey” roast beef, mushroom, and onion sandwich that I had for lunch at the Downtown Deli just down the street from Women’s Rights National Historical Park. (Other sandwich options included the “Ma Bailey,” the “Uncle Billy Cuban,” the “Pottersville,” and “ZuZus.”)
But I am not writing to talk about what I had for lunch, or even primarily to brag about my vacation. Instead, I want to weigh in on one of the weightier news items of the past forty-eight hours: the awful decision of the U. S. Treasury Department to take Alexander Hamilton off of the ten-dollar bill.
As you may have heard, the Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it would soon be re-designing the ten, trading in the picture of Hamilton for an image of a historically significant American woman to be named later.
I do not object to honoring a woman on our currency, but I want to add my voice to those who are arguing that it would be far better to boot Andrew Jackson from the twenty than to give poor Alexander the heave-ho. Critics have already pointed out Jackson’s ignominious role in the removal of the Cherokee Indian Nation from Georgia to Oklahoma, his ownership of approximately 150 other human beings during his presidency, and even the more than ironic fact that he was suspicious of paper money to his dying day.
Any one of these might be sufficient to make the case that Jackson is a less than ideal choice. I would add to the list that Jackson was a loose cannon as a military leader after the War of 1812 (he very nearly embroiled the U. S. in a war with Spain). Finally, even though he was a fellow Tennessean, and I feel disloyal saying it, he just wasn’t a very nice guy. He had a legendary temper, he killed a man for insulting his wife, and he very nearly brought his administration to a grinding halt because the wife of his vice-president refused to socialize with the wife of his Secretary of War. There are more twenty-dollar bills in circulation than there are people on planet Earth. Is Jackson the best we can do?
Don’t get me wrong–Hamilton had his own issues. Thomas Jefferson–though not the most reliable of witnesses in this case–thought that Hamilton was a monarchist who would be happy to serve as the monarch himself. John Adams thought he was an unparalleled schemer. And I won’t even mention what Aaron Burr thought of him.
And yet, and here I am being dead serious, Hamilton had, for his day, unusually advanced views concerning the relation of the races. Part of the rationale for putting a woman on the $10 or $20 is to make a symbolic statement about the importance of diversity in our national heritrage. If that is one underlying goal, then jettisoning Hamilton while retaining Old Hickory makes no sense at all. I would argue that, when measured against the dominant values of his generation, Hamilton was more progressive than any of the other men on our money, including Lincoln.
Here’s why I think so: in 1779, both Hamilton and a young South Carolina aristocrat named John Laurens were serving as aides to General George Washington. Close as they were to the general’s inner circle, they were fully apprised of the critical manpower shortages plaguing the Continental Army and had more than an inkling of how desperate the patriot cause had become since the heady days in the immediate aftermath of the American victory at Saratoga. The son of one of the wealthiest slaveowners in the South, Laurens came to the conclusion that if the colonies wanted to achieve their independence, they would have to meet their desperate need for more soldiers by raising black regiments. Laurens, who had gradually developed deep misgivings about the morality of slavery, wrote to his father that the enlistment of slaves as soldiers would both alleviate their “wretched state” and serve the public good.
In March 1779 the precocious 22-year-old Hamilton wrote to John Jay, the future chief justice of the United States who was then serving as president of the Continental Congress. Hamilton urged Jay to support Laurens’ intiative. “I have not the least doubt,” he assured Jay, “that negroes will make good soldiers.” That this was true was because “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.” Indeed, Hamilton elaborated, “the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.” They stemmed, instead, from “prejudice and self-interest.”
In the end, “prejudice and self-interest” won the day, and Laurens’ proposal went nowhere. Hamilton’s support of the controversial proposal is inspiring nonetheless. It was an extraordinary letter, full of extraordinary sentiments for its time.