Wayne O'Leary

Currency Culture Wars

We often hear about “American exceptionalism,” and these days there is nothing more exceptionally American than the way we’ve decided to design and print our money. Most countries use their currency to honor or celebrate historically prominent national figures, commemorate significant past national events, or present depictions of the nation’s unique geographical or topographical features. Until the last stages of the Obama administration, the US, too, followed the usual pattern, but now that has changed.

In a sudden spasm of identity politics apparently aimed at historical restitution, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, the administration’s point man on all things financial, announced in April that he was, in effect, bowing to political pressure and revising America’s medium of exchange.

Some of the revisions were fitting and overdue, but the specific choices made (and some not made) were puzzling, and the reasons for them leave a lingering bad taste. Moreover, a few were artistically or historically questionable.

The specifics: Both the $5 bill featuring Abraham Lincoln and the $10 bill depicting Alexander Hamilton will retain each of their likenesses, but the reverse sides will be changed to incorporate respective themes of racial justice and women’s suffrage — contextually appropriate in the case of the Lincoln bill, inappropriate in the case of Hamilton, whose image will be curiously paired with a 1913 voting rights march and a bevy of suffragette portraits.

The $20 bill now visually dominated by the lately controversial President Andrew Jackson will be altered to banish Jackson to the back side in a reduced format, his present position of honor given over to abolitionist and former slave Harriet Tubman, making her the first woman on our paper currency. Unfortunately, she’s a historical figure virtually no Americans have ever heard of nor can recognize, prompting comparisons to the late, unlamented Susan B. Anthony $1 coin.

No matter. A group of cultural commentators at the New York Times waxed eloquent about Secretary Lew’s obscurantist selections, calling them “wonderfully jolting and radical” and “a powerful and necessary realignment of our symbols and our professed values.” The observation was made that the white men adorning our present currency were all dead by 1885, making our bills “stale” — ahistorical present-mindedness at its worst. Evidently, nothing disturbs today’s currency police like dead white males. (Tubman, incidentally, died in 1913.)

The pictorial choices made by money czar Lew are distinguished by their bizarre nature. Passing over obvious diversity options like Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. — Roosevelt was not black; King was not female — Lew settled on Tubman, who was both and therefore that most prized of commodities, a twofer.

Naturally, he sealed the deal the way we do such things now, by means of a popularity contest on the Internet, won by Tubman with the assistance of the feminist advocacy group Women on 20s, whose demands instigated the money controversy in the first place. In effect, the new personage on our $20 bill was chosen the way major-league baseball picks its all-star teams, replete with ballot-stuffing by the home fans. It’s hard to imagine how the process could have been more trivialized.

In one area, though, Secretary Lew did not permit a monetary plebiscite, and it’s here that America’s strange currency wars have reached full expression. Lew, the latest Citigroup alumnus to breathe the rarified air of the Treasury secretary’s office, was not about to dump Wall Street icon Alexander Hamilton, the very first head of the Treasury and a founding director of the Bank of New York, the Citigroup of its day.

Hamilton has benefited from a largely undeserved historical renaissance. The least admired of the Founding Fathers for generations, he is suddenly considered “cool” — if not by professional historians, then by the arbiters of American popular culture and a public unfamiliar with its own past. The hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, is immediately responsible, but the play itself rests on the prior popularity of the bestselling Ron Chernow biography Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004), whose author also advised on the theater production.

The book, with its pro-market bias and capitalist triumphalism, had the good fortune to appear prior to the damning financial crash and the Great Recession; the play has had fortuitous timing as well, arriving just in time for the flowering of identity politics and the awakening of nonwhite cultural aspirations. (The stage version of Hamilton’s life features hip-hop music, rap dialogue, and a multi-ethnic cast, including Miranda, a Hispanic-American, in the title role.)

In the era of inclusiveness and diversity, “Hamilton” was almost guaranteed of success, and its subject primed for a historical revival. The real Hamilton was, after all, an immigrant himself (born of Scottish and French-Huguenot parentage on the Caribbean island of Nevis), a fact in favor of his retention on the $10 bill, given the times.

Notwithstanding their celebration of new Americans, the play and the book on which it’s based exaggerate Hamilton’s progressive contributions and ignore his crippling character flaws. Not least, they deliberately function as a grotesque put-down of his more admirable political rival Thomas Jefferson.

While the idealist Jefferson, the philosopher of American democracy, was writing the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and founding the more liberal of America’s first two political parties (the Democratic-Republicans), the cynic Hamilton was devising a class-based financial structure that protected rich investors and property owners, and creating a fiscally conservative party (the Federalists) to oppose Jefferson’s debtor coalition of small farmers, artisans, and laborers on behalf of wealthy bankers, creditors, merchants, manufacturers, and land speculators.

When it came to the less privileged, high Tory Hamilton had what we would call a bad attitude. A social climber and careerist, he married into New York’s monied aristocracy and became their spokesman. He advocated child labor, deplored the “moral depravity” of the poor, and favored permanent government by the rich and well-born, society’s rightful rulers. On the advisability of democracy, he had this to say: “Your people, sir, — your people is a great beast!”

The obvious question is, why should Hamilton be on our currency at all? Honoring people in this way should not be based on ideology, fashions of the moment, or interest-group pandering, but on a broad consensual agreement regarding their greatness. Here’s a suggestion: Jefferson on 10s.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2016


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