Saturday, June 20, 2015

Defending Alexander Hamilton

The Treasury Secretary's ham-handed decision to put a woman on the $10 bill in place of alongside of Alexander Hamilton has irritated just about everyone. No one approves and just about everyone thinks that it would be much better to replace Andrew Jackson instead of Alexander Hamilton. No one really defends Jackson.

The reason the Treasury gives for choosing Hamilton is because the $10 was set to be redesigned anyway and is the next bill in line for the redesign so it takes priority.
"We have to do them sequentially, and it has to be based on security first," Lew said. The bills will include new anti-counterfeiting properties, as well as new tactile features to aid the blind.

Lew emphasized that changing currency is a lengthy process.

"If you think of it as an R&D project, you'd be closer to right than just thinking of it as just like running a printing press," Lew said, noting that there are complicated design and production steps in creating the new bill.

"It doesn't sound like you need to move now to have a bill in five years," he later added, "but my people are rushing me to decisions because they need the time."

Jackson was singled out for replacement in part because of his mixed legacy. Jackson's presence on the note has received scrutiny for his mistreatment of Native Americans and ownership of slaves.

Nevertheless, it's the $10 being redesigned to feature a woman, merely because it was next in line for an overhaul.
Lew also likes the symbolism that the $10 bill is scheduled for its redesign in 2020 which would be the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment. So its just poor timing that has doomed Hamilton.

As Scott Timberg notes, people from both the left and right are rushing to laud Alexander Hamilton. Those on the left have discovered his abolitionist background. Of the Founding Fathers, he and John Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, were the ones most outspoken against slavery. And Andrew Jackson was not only a major slaveowner, he was also the president who implemented the Indian Removal Act and who rose to prominence fighting Native Americans. Huffington Post complains that "Anti-Slavery Hamilton Gets Pushed Off The $10 Bill, While Genocidal Slavery jackson Stays On The $20."
The tragedy, though, is which bill. Instead of pushing aside pro-slavery, genocidal President Andrew Jackson, the Treasury Department has decided to sideline the first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, to make way for a yet-to-be named woman.

Hamilton, one of America's founding fathers, was a strong opponent of slavery, and was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group that organized boycotts against merchants connected to the slave trade and lobbied for legislation abolishing the institution.

Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, a War of 1812 hero, was a slave owner. Even more perniciously, Jackson carried out an "Indian removal" policy as president. Much of his popularity before the presidency came from his many wars against Native Americans -- some of them, including an invasion of Florida, done illegally.

While it can be tempting to look back on the American Indian genocides as inevitable, decades of policy in the United States and the preceding British colonies had sought coexistence and reconciliation with various native peoples. Jackson's policies reversed these efforts, bringing with it the Cherokee Trail of Tears and other horrors in which men, women and children were slaughtered to allow for a land-grab by white, male landowners.

Jackson's Indian Removal Act was no historical inevitability. It passed the House by just six votes, after a heated national debate. Even after the Supreme Court ruled his policy illegal, Jackson ignored the order, carrying out his mission with lawless brutality.
Even the women who have led the effort to get a woman on the currency are not happy with Jack Lew's decision. Lew has said that, in some yet-to-be-defined way, the woman who is chosen will share the $10 bill with Hamilton.
On the Facebook page for the Women on 20s campaign, some of the most-liked comments criticized the Treasury Department’s decision. “Women ask to be on the $20, so we get offered the $10,” one person wrote. “Never, never give a woman what she asks for.” Another commented, “Placing a woman on a bill with Alexander Hamilton makes the same sexist statement that our currency has made all along—that a woman cannot be independent or important without a man.” And, “A man gets ‘final say’ over which woman. This feels like a slap in the face.”
As Ashley Vandelaare writes on Facebook,
It bothers me that they think putting a women along side Hamilton is gonna make us happy. This is not at all what i wanted i want to see a women on a $20 bill. And for the Secretary of treasure to be like oh this is my idea. So wrong. I will remember this campaign and the struggle to be heard, and i hope the history books will too. I hope one day in my time i see a women, just a women on a bill without needing a man alongside her to make it ok. To make it sound as if we are equal to them in all ways of life.
The complaints echo complaints of African Americans that movies about singular moments in African American History such as Glory and Mississippi Burning seem to have to feature a white actor in the starring role rather than just black stars.

Meanwhile, two biographers of Hamilton have weighed in. I've read both their biographies because I've long been a huge Hamilton fan and recommend both of them.

Ron Chernow, author of a magisterial biography of Hamilton, writes in defense of Hamilton in Politico.
Hamilton was undeniably the most influential person in our history who never attained the presidency. That he started out as an illegitimate, effectively orphaned, and penniless immigrant from the Caribbean, who didn’t know a soul when he arrived in North America at the start of the American Revolution, makes his story worth celebrating in a nation of immigrants. His contributions to forging our country were gigantic and pervasive, starting with his starring role in the Revolutionary War, when he served as aide-de-camp and chief of staff to George Washington, and as a battlefield hero at Yorktown.

After the war, he personally issued the appeal for a Constitutional Convention, attended it, and was the sole New York delegate to sign the resulting document. To help ratify the new constitution, he spearheaded the writing of The Federalist Papers, publishing fifty-one of those eighty-five luminous essays. They remain the classic gloss on our Constitution and the documents most frequently cited by the Supreme Court. At the New York State Ratifying Convention, Hamilton spoke twenty-six times during a grueling six-week marathon and got the constitution ratified by a narrow margin in a key state
And that doesn't even get to how Hamilton created the foundation of our financial survival.
In 1789, George Washington tapped the thirty-four-year-old Hamilton as the first Treasury secretary. With its tax collectors and customs inspectors, Hamilton’s Treasury Department eclipsed in size the rest of the federal government combined, making him something akin to a prime minister. Drawing on a blank slate, Hamilton arose as the visionary architect of the executive branch, forming from scratch the first fiscal, monetary, tax, and accounting systems. In quick succession, he assembled the Coast Guard, the customs service, and the Bank of the United States—the first central bank and the forerunner of the Federal Reserve System. Most significantly, he took a country bankrupted by revolutionary war debt and restored American credit. All the while, he articulated an expansive vision of the Constitution, converting it into an elastic document that could grow with a dynamic young country.

One reason Hamilton was vilified by his enemies is that they feared him as an agent of modernity at a time when his Jeffersonian opponents espoused an American future that stressed traditional agriculture and small towns. In a stupendous leap, Hamilton argued for a thriving nation populated by cities, banks, corporations, and stock exchanges as well as traditional agriculture. In his famous Report on Manufactures, he enumerated how government could foster manufacturing and provide employment for immigrants. He shaped, in a virtuoso performance, America’s financial infrastructure in its entirety. On the Wall Street of the early 1790s, only five securities were traded: three issues of Treasury securities, the stock of the Bank of the United States, and the stock of the private Bank of New York—all created by Alexander Hamilton.

Especially pertinent in the controversy over the ten-dollar bill is that Hamilton was the figure in our history most identified with paper money. In 1791, he published his Report on the Mint, acting to establish the rudiments of our currency. He endorsed the dollar as our basic currency unit with smaller coins used on a decimal basis and first proposed putting presidential faces on coins. The banknotes of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States counted as the first paper money issued by the new government. Arguably no one ever put a greater stamp on the currency we all use today, and which has become the world’s premier currency as well.
Richard Brookhiser is a master of the short biography that can crystallize what is fascinating and important to know about a famous Founding Father in fewer than 250 pages. I have read most of his biographies and found them all worthwhile. His short biography of Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, American, was the first one that I read and I've even had my AP US History students read it and they all became big Hamilton fans. Brookhiser writes in the WSJ complaining about the decision of the Treasury Secretary, "First Aaron Burr, Now Jack Lew."
Hamilton, who died in 1804 before he was 50, packed a lot into a relatively short life. He was a journalist all his mature life, beginning with youthful pieces written in his native Caribbean, continuing until he founded the New-York Evening Post (still publishing, minus the hyphen and the Evening) three years before he died. His greatest journalistic project was a series of 85 opinion pieces, written in 1787-88, under the pseudonym Publius to support the ratification of the Constitution. Hamilton conceived the series, tapped John Jay and James Madison as collaborators, and wrote three-fifths of the essays himself. College students and justices of the Supreme Court still read and cite the Federalist Papers.

As a practicing lawyer he anticipated the principle of judicial review, both in his Federalist essays and in arguments in court. In 1785 one of his clients, James Waddington, was accused of violating a New York law that criminalized obeying the British when they occupied New York City during the Revolution. Hamilton argued that the law violated the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which Congress had ratified; therefore the court was obliged to overrule it (he won a split decision on that case). Chief Justice John Marshall, who echoed Hamilton’s language in some of his decisions, said that, beside Hamilton, he felt like a candle by the sun at noon.

George Washington met Hamilton early in the Revolution, promoting him from an artillery captain to a colonel on his staff, drafting orders and correspondence. When Washington was president, he turned to his ex-aide for advice on a range of issues, from etiquette (hold a reception every week, and a few dinners every year; be sure to invite everyone in Congress) to foreign policy (interest is the governing principle with nations: just because France had helped us during the Revolution didn’t mean she always would). When Washington decided to go home after two terms, Hamilton ghosted his farewell address.

One of Hamilton’s achievements should win him honor in multicultural America. In 1785 he helped found the New York Manumission Society, to work for black liberty in a Northern slave state. Emancipation was not accomplished until 1827, long after Hamilton died. But his efforts spurred a persistent rumor in New York’s black community that he had black blood. He didn’t; he only had principles.

But Hamilton’s greatest achievement was what he did as the nation’s first Treasury secretary from 1789-94. He saved the new country from its first debt crisis, laid the foundations of its future prosperity—and earned the hostility of several of his great peers, hostility that dogs him to this day.
At least, this stupid decision by Jack Lew has created a teachable moment for people to learn about the many and varied contributions of Alexander Hamilton to our country's founding.

And another benefit is that the arguments why Jackson should be the one to lose his position on the currency have led people to learn more about his presidency. In addition to his racist past, he was also a terrible steward of the American economy, all the more reason why he shouldn't be honored by appearing on the $20.
Jackson didn’t even like paper money and he pursued wrong-headed and disastrous economic policies. Yet the Tennessee frontiersman, land speculator, lawyer, slave-owner, war hero and seventh president – will continue to gaze out from the $20 bill.

What did Jackson do wrong when it came to the economy? Lots. Among other things, Jackson dismantled the second Bank of the United States (which he called a “monster institution”) and -- ironically given his spot on the $20 bill – restricted the use of paper money. This lay down the conditions for the Panic of 1837, one of the most severe depressions in U.S. history.

A self-made man, Jackson long harbored a deep mistrust of banks. At the time, there was no Federal Reserve, nor federal bank notes like those we have today. Most Americans at the time paid for goods and services with gold or silver coins or paper notes issued by private firms or state-chartered banks. The value of those paper notes fluctuated wildly.

The Bank of the United States at the time imposed an element of stability. The authoritative history textbook “The Great Republic” says that “the BUS performed many of the functions of a truly national bank,” even though it was largely privately owned. It issued its own notes, but in limited amounts so that their value remained stable. Thus its notes, unlike those issued by hundreds of state-chartered banks, were accepted by the federal government as legal payment for any money owed.

The BUS also served as a regulatory agency, “refusing to accept notes [from smaller banks] that were not backed by sufficient reserves of specie,” the book says.

Finally, the bank’s widely accepted and circulated notes eased the challenge of conducting business over long distances.

But when he ran for president in 1832, Jackson waged war on the private Bank of the United States, calling it monopoly and saying it made “the rich richer and the potent more powerful.” It was a message that appealed to widely different interest groups – such as indebted farmers and land speculators pushing the young country westward and eastern banks jealous of the power of the Bank of the United States.

Once elected, Jackson took the federal government’s surplus revenues (yes, the federal government was actually running a surplus!) away from the national bank. Instead he spread them around several dozen state-chartered banks, dubbed “pet” banks, which issued new paper notes and loans, feeding a speculative boom and inflation.

But later in his presidency, Jackson slammed on the brakes by insisting on the use of hard money, or coins, rather than paper notes. In 1836, he issued a Specie Circular, requiring payment in coins by purchasers of public lands, sharply curtailing inflation. In 1836, when the bank’s charter needed to be renewed, Jackson also vetoed the bill approved by Congress, saying he was taking a stand “against any prostitution of our Government to the advancement of the few at the expense of the many.” The head of the bank called Jackson’s veto message “a manifesto of anarchy.”

Jackson’s new contractionary policies coincided with a drop in investment and a sale of American securities by hard-pressed British firms.

The result? Catastrophe. It would be known as the Panic of 1837 by which time Martin van Buren had become president, but investment and employment began to plunge in 1836. A mob of nearly a thousand people sacked warehouses in New York City. Businessmen in Boston protested against requirements to make payments in hard currency. And banks started refusing to redeem paper notes for hard currency.

The downturn lasted about four years, throwing people out of work, ruining many farmers, and forcing the closure of many banks.
So we're going to replace the first Treasury Secretary who did so much for our nation's financial survival and allow the guy who almost single-handedly plunged the country into a deep depression. It makes no sense and no weaseling about how it's the timing alone that mandates that such a great American should be replaced by a woman. None of the proposed women, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida Tarbell, or Eleanor Roosevelt did a fraction for the country that Hamilton did. All they have going for them is their chromosomal make-up. Notice that the argument is that we have to replace Hamilton with a woman to be named later, not that any one of these women are so important that she deserves to be on the currency.

Noemie Emery notes how ridiculous this development has made the women look who have been pushing for such a change.
Everything is wrong with this ill-advised project, among them the fact that Hamilton eclipses in impact all but a very small handful of presidents, much less the well-meaning but much more obscure list of social workers etc. the feminists want to see in his stead. Why can’t they see that this makes them ludicrous? Why can’t they go for the two-dollar bill---Jefferson still has the nickel---or one of the less-used denominations, filled by less worthy men? Why should women get on a bill before African Americans do, who have suffered much more (sorry, ladies), and have people, like Frederick Douglass, with much greater claims upon consequence? And why not wait for a woman to come along who really deserves it? The bullpens are filling up with some serious talents, and it won’t be long now.

There are several possible solutions. The best would be to wait until the redesign of the $20 and replace the $20. Or have two $10 bills alternating Hamilton and the unnamed woman. Or put the woman on the $10 and put Hamilton on the $20. But preserve Hamilton's presence somewhere on the currency.