There is something sad and shockingly misguided in the spectacle of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew acting to belittle the significance of the foremost Treasury secretary in American history, Alexander Hamilton, by demoting him on the ten-dollar bill. In announcing the move Lew implied that Hamilton wouldn’t disappear altogether from the bill, but would somehow share the space with an illustrious woman. Since the two would obviously look awkward side-by-side, the strong likelihood is that the female personage will be emblazoned on the front with Hamilton banished to the murky back side.
The desire to elevate a woman into the select pantheon of Americans on our currency is altogether laudable and I, for one, would be thrilled to see Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Susan B. Anthony grace the twenty-dollar bill. But to pounce on Hamilton as the victim of this long-overdue change is to correct one historic injustice by committing another.
And talk about bad timing! What makes Lew’s decision so woefully ironic is that Hamilton’s standing has risen sharply in recent years, assisted by a slew of favorable biographies, my own included. And now, with its vibrant young, multiracial cast, the magnificent new musical “Hamilton,” created by the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda, is introducing a new generation to his manifold accomplishments. Miranda has done something miraculous, making early American history hip, cool, and erudite. Oddly enough, I received the news about Lew’s decision as I headed out for the first rehearsal of “Hamilton,” which is inspired by my book and is now en route to Broadway in July. Lew’s action threatens to undo the show’s splendid work in rescuing Alexander Hamilton from the historical shadows and restoring his luster.