The decision by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (above) to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill has many critics, including former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The Obama administration has a money problem.
More specifically, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is under attack for announcing that the U.S. Treasury will change the $10 bill in order to add a woman’s portrait to the currency.
The scathing critiques, from former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to the USA Today editorial board and leading historians, have come after Lew’s decision to demote Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury secretary, from his prominent position on the face of the $10 bill.
“I was appalled,” Bernanke said upon hearing the news.
Lew’s decision is “sad and shockingly misguided,” wrote Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow.
The Wall Street Journal even compared Lew to Aaron Burr, the vice president to Thomas Jefferson who killed Hamilton in a duel.
Former Treasury officials are expressing their “disappointment” to the current administration directly as well.
“I expressed myself to Treasury and publicly. I suspect others are doing the same,” said Tony Fratto, a former assistant secretary in the George W. Bush administration.
Not even a grassroots advocacy group that collected 600,000 names on a petition in favor of putting a woman on the $20 bill and removing former President Andrew Jackson from that note is happy with Lew’s decision. It is still pushing on its website for Lew to put a woman on the $20 bill rather than the $10 bill.
Inside the Treasury Department, there is some handwringing over the decision and the subsequent backlash, according to one source who has spoken to officials in the administration.
All of Lew’s critics have applauded the decision to put a woman on U.S. currency for the first time in over 100 years, but the chorus of voices is also virtually unanimous that Lew should change the $20 bill instead and remove Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, from that bill.
“A better solution is available: Replace Andrew Jackson, a man of many unattractive qualities and a poor president, on the twenty dollar bill,” Bernanke wrote Monday.
USA Today’s editorial board called Lew’s choice “the right idea but the wrong bill.”
“A plausible case can be made that [Hamilton] is the most important Founding Father, based on the incredible range of his accomplishments,” the editors wrote.
The Treasury Department is now pointing to statements that Lew has made indicating that Hamilton’s face will remain on the $10 bill in some form.
“We are definitely going to be continuing to include the image of Alexander Hamilton on $10 bills,” Lew said last week in a conference call with reporters announcing his decision.
One option Lew is considering, he said, would be to print “multiple, different bills” with Hamilton on one and a woman from U.S. history — who has not yet been chosen — on another. Another possibility is “two different images on a new bill.”
“It personally [is] very important to me to make sure that as we make this decision we continue to honor Alexander Hamilton, who played such a formative role in the creation of our country, the establishment of democracy as we know it, and the principle of the soundness of our currency,” Lew said.
But Lew’s nods to Hamilton’s importance haven’t placated his critics. Having Hamilton share the $10 bill with someone else is “not nearly enough for one of the greatest of our founding fathers,” wrote Steven Rattner, Obama’s former auto bailout czar and a Wall Street banker.
“The strong likelihood is that the female personage will be emblazoned on the front with Hamilton banished to the murky back side,” Chernow wrote.
Bernanke said that the idea of having two different $10 bills is a “less attractive possibility” than putting a woman on the $20 bill.
The group leading the charge to put a woman on the currency is not thrilled with Lew’s compromise proposal.
“We certainly would be very happy to be on the $10, but I’m very sensitive to the sentiments out there that it’s not Alexander Hamilton that we want to remove,” said Susan Ades Stone, executive director of Women on 20s, the advocacy group that collected 600,000 names over several months this year.
She added: “It doesn’t seem appropriate to us to have to share a bill when it’s been so long that women have been excluded from that fraternity. We’re going to continue to ask why they can’t fast-track the redesign on the $20. It’s not just because it’s Andrew Jackson. It is a more prestigious piece of real estate.”
Women have appeared on currency in the past, but never for long or on a widely used note. “Martha Washington was on the dollar silver certificate in 1896. Prior to that was Pocahontas in a group photo, also in the mid-19th century,” said U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony’s image was put on the $1 coin in 1978, but less than 800 million were produced, according to Women on 20s. Similarly, in 2000, Sacagawea, the female Indian guide who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was placed on the dollar coin, but only 3 million coins were produced.
Hamilton’s accomplishments and significance in U.S. history are many, but he was an overlooked historical figure until the last decade. Chernow’s book did much to reintroduce him to modern culture, and next month, a play based on Chernow’s book and set to hip-hop music will open on Broadway after receiving over-the-moon reviews off-Broadway.
Hamilton was an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean who came to the U.S. as a teenager and became a trusted aide during the Revolutionary War to General George Washington, who — after he became the nation’s first president — appointed Hamilton as the first Treasury Secretary when Hamilton was just 34 years old.
He played a pivotal role in nearly every major decision that the infant U.S. government made in designing its three branches of government, and he wrote about two-thirds of the Federalist Papers. He was a bitter foe of Jefferson in the fight over whether to create a central bank. Hamilton championed the idea, while Jefferson opposed it.
“He successfully imagined our country as the federal, industrial democracy we have today and served as an invaluable counterweight to Thomas Jefferson’s utopian visions of a yeoman farmers’ paradise,” wrote the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri.
Chernow wrote in Politico last week that Hamilton was “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,” Chernow said. He “argued for a thriving nation populated by cities, banks, corporations, and stock exchanges as well as traditional agriculture.”
“He shaped, in a virtuoso performance, America’s financial infrastructure in its entirety.”
Lew and the Treasury Department have said that their decision about which bill to redesign next is driven by necessity, not political or cultural considerations. The redesign schedule is based on which piece of currency is in most need of anti-counterfeit measures, and that’s the $10 note.
But Women on 20s wrote that “keeping an Andrew Jackson bill in wide circulation means we celebrate and elevate historic figures who used and condoned violence against personal enemies and populations of marginalized people.”
“Perhaps if it was urgent enough, resources could be marshaled to accelerate the research and testing and even tackle two bills at once. If not, why doesn’t the Treasury Secretary announce immediately intentions for removing Jackson from the $20 and a deadline for doing so?” they argued.
Fratto said Lew’s move smacked of one that lacked planning and forethought.
“Maybe they went out and talked to people, but I don’t think they did,” Fratto said. “It seems to me if they had gone out and talked to other former Treasury officials and the Treasury historical society and others, they all would have told them pretty much the same thing, which is, don’t do this to Hamilton.”
The Women on 20s group did not speak to anyone in the Obama administration until the day before Lew’s announcement last week, Ades Stone said.
Lew has planned since 2013 to put a woman on the $10 note, a Treasury official said. It was then, the Treasury official said, that Lew endorsed U.S Treasurer Rosie Rios’ “recommendation” to do so.
“Folks at Treasury felt very strongly that we weren’t going to let this opportunity pass us by to put a woman on the note,” the Treasury official said.
A Treasury official said that there will be a town hall meeting on the issue in Washington, D.C., in the near future. Rios held a similar event at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday.
In his call with reporters, Lew said he and Rios and others are “going to spend a lot of time this summer listening to people in different ways.”
If that’s the case, they will get to test the opinion held by some Treasury officials, according to the Atlantic’s Russell Berman, “that the Hamilton fixation is not shared by the public at large.”