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Hamilton's Place in Our Hearts and Minds (and Wallets)

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I'm all for finally getting a female face back on U.S. currency, but why demote Alexander Hamilton? Hamilton, whose image currently adorns the $10 bill, is among the most admirable of the founding generation. But because he lacks a constituency, he's an easy target. And that's too bad

Unlike most of the founders, Hamilton rose from humble beginnings. He was born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis and raised, mostly in poverty, on St. Croix. He had little if any formal education. Yet he became one of the most influential members of the Constitutional Convention as well as the first and some think still the greatest secretary of the Treasury.

Hamilton was a genuine war hero. Whether or not one believes the tale that his cannon shot the head off a portrait of King George II inside Nassau Hall at what is now Princeton University, there is no question that his bravery and skill brought the young captain of artillery to the attention of General George Washington, who would become his mentor.

Related: Will the $10 Founding Father Be Homeless Too?

Hamilton was perspicacious. He argued, famously and correctly, for unleashing the forces that would turn the young nation into an industrial powerhouse. It’s unlikely that a nation built upon Jefferson’s vision of agrarian democracy would have survived the 19th century.

Then there’s Hamilton’s Federalist No. 70, which might have been written about present-day politics: “Men often oppose a thing merely because ... it may have been planned by those they dislike. ... They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments.” Sound familiar?

Perhaps most important is the matter of his abolitionism, shaped by the horrors he witnessed in his Caribbean boyhood. Hamilton was a co-founder of one of the first non-Quaker anti-slavery societies. Ron Chernow, in the excellent biography that has inspired a Broadway musical, writes: “Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton.” Adds his admiring biographer Forrest McDonald: “In one crucial respect ... his attitude never changed: he always championed liberty and abhorred slavery.”

This consistency was contrary to the views of other founders. John Adams never owned a slave, but, as Chernow reminds us, never spoke out on the issue. Benjamin Franklin (who is on the $100 bill) did not become an abolitionist until quite late in life. Of George Washington (the $1 bill) and Thomas Jefferson (the still-extant but rarely seen $2 bill), little need be said.

Hamilton, early on, urged the recruitment of black soldiers into the Continental Army, arguing that “their natural faculties are probably as good as ours.” (Adams and Washington were initially opposed.) Hamilton was quite clear about what military service should mean for those who were enslaved: “An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets.”

It was Hamilton who (echoing the British abolitionist Thomas Day) wrote in a pseudonymous open letter to Jefferson and James Madison in 1791: “Who talk most about liberty and equality? ... Is it not those who hold the bill of rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?”

Then there is Haiti, which late in the 18th century rebelled against its French overlords. During the presidency of John Adams, the U.S. tried to help shape the new government – a process in which Hamilton was deeply involved. Adams’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, reversed the friendly policy toward Haiti, refusing to establish diplomatic relations, and quietly supporting the efforts of Napoleon Bonaparte to retake Saint-Domingue. According to the historian Daniel G. Lang, a furious Hamilton called for military action to seize French possessions in the New World. Jefferson demurred, but when the U.S. subsequently purchased Louisiana, Hamilton said that was possible only because of the defeat of the French army in Haiti. He credited that accomplishment to the “courage and obstinate resistance of the black inhabitants.”

To be sure, Hamilton’s opposition to slavery may have been imperfect. Chernow tells us of “three oblique hints in Hamilton’s papers” that he and his wife might have owned slaves. But, as Chernow admits, the hints are ambiguous, and McDonald forcefully rebuts the evidence. Hamilton’s ardent and lifelong abolitionism would seem to make his participation in the institution unlikely.

Then there are those juicy rumors that Hamilton himself might have been a quadroon or octoroon – that is, that his mother might have been part black. (W.E.B. DuBois certainly believed it.) Most historians dismiss the rumors. Chernow details his extraordinary efforts to work out whether the tales might be true, and concludes cautiously that they have “no basis in verifiable fact.” But he doesn’t claim that the stories are false, and they most certainly persist.

The widespread belief that Hamilton was black might lead to one of those unintended ironies that arise from the complexities of identity politics: the black man is shunted off the currency to make room for a woman. That hardly seems a battle that the Treasury should want to fight.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew cited what amounts to administrative convenience for the decision to rid the $10 bill of the portrait of the man who founded the department. Lew said the $10 bill was next in line for a redesign, meaning it's just Hamilton's bad luck to be bumped. That reason isn’t good enough. In our era of turmoil and division, Hamilton is exactly the sort of hero we should be exalting. Here's hoping it's not too late to demote someone else instead.

  1. One must concede that the constitution drawn up in part based on Hamilton’s advice bore no resemblance to the U.S. version Hamilton helped author. For example, the document provided that the president of Haiti would serve for life, and that the legislature would consist principally of military officers.

  2. Those interested in the rebuttal should read McDonald’s lengthy Footnote 12 on Page 373 of his book.

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