On Saturday, CNN reported that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was planning to announce that rather than replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, the department might consider supplanting Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. The Huffington Post in June argued why Jackson was a better candidate for getting the boot:
Pollitt’s Law, formulated by The Nation’s longtime columnist Katha Pollitt, says outsiders gain access to a field only when it loses prestige. Now that incomes for doctors are falling and the professional class is littered with unemployed lawyers, medical schools and law schools find themselves dominated by women.
And now that nobody uses cash, a woman will finally get a spot on a dollar bill.
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.
Jackson’s ideological forefather was none other than Hamilton’s chief political adversary of the revolutionary-era: Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was a slave-trading landed elite whose esteem for farmers is often confused under contemporary politics with a “small is beautiful” rural utopianism. As sociologist Christian Parenti has written:
In reality, Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites who exported primary commodities and imported finished manufactured goods from Europe. He was a fabulously wealthy planter who lived in luxury paid for by slave labor. Worse yet, he raised slaves specifically for sale.
“I consider the labor of a breeding woman,” Jefferson wrote, “as no object, and that a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.”
But as Hamilton is forced to share his place on the $10 bill, Jefferson remains safely ensconced on the $2 bill — an all-but-useless denomination granted the hipster cache of a deleted Smiths single due to its relative scarcity. He’s also on the nickel, which makes nickels kind of suck.
Like his contemporary Adam Smith, Hamilton is one of a few hard-line capitalists, who radicals looked upon admiringly both in his own time and in posterity. Hamilton, born in the Caribbean and orphaned by 13, made his own way in the world. Parenti again:
Hamilton was alone among the “founding fathers” in understanding that the world was witnessing two revolutions simultaneously. One was the political transformation, embodied in the rise of republican government. The other was the economic rise of modern capitalism, with its globalizing networks of production, trade, and finance. Hamilton grasped the epochal importance of applied science and machinery as forces of production.
In the face of these changes, Hamilton created (and largely executed) a plan for government-led economic development along lines that would be followed in more recent times by many countries (particularly in East Asia) that have undergone rapid industrialization. His political mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change — a policy also known as dirigisme, although the expression never entered the American political lexicon the way its antonym, laissez-faire, did.
Hamilton is sometimes criticized by progressives in hindsight as a stooge of financial titans, too in love with creditors preying on debtors. And indeed, as Jefferson furthered the interests of plantation elites, so Hamilton advanced those of the banking class. But his advocacy for a strong national bank and central financial sector was also in the service of a unified nation, a strong federal government and an urban, industrial society — all things Democrats embrace today.
Indeed, after Shays’ Rebellion, which threatened to undo the nation before it really got going, Hamilton argued in a Federalist Paper that it was the oppressive debt under which he lived that drove him to rise up — surely a controversial, if not treasonous, position among the moneyed elite that made up the rest of the founding fathers. “If Shays had not been a desperate debtor it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war,” he wrote.
By the time President Abraham Lincoln endeavored on the Second Founding of the American Republic amid the Civil War, his truest predecessor was Hamilton — an anti-slavery pioneer who believed in dispatching the power of the state to crush the cruelties of landed elites.
This post originally appeared on the site on June 18, 2015.