Monday, June 22, 2015 at 8:42 AM

U.S. Putting Woman on Wrong Dollar Bill

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

Truth be told, paper currency is falling into such desuetude, the media hype surrounding this belated and patently misguided honor seems contrived. It’s rather like hailing the appointment of a Native American as Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service; that is, now that e-mails and instant messaging are all the rage.

TubmanAll the same, I feel I owe you my two cents’ worth.

With U.S. Treasury officials committing to a putting a woman on a redesigned $10 bill, a front-runner for that numismatic honor appears to be Maryland’s own Harriet Tubman.

The woman who was born into slavery on an Eastern Shore plantation and became the most renowned of the Underground Railroad leaders has already won an online ‘election’ for the female face that voters wanted to see on a bill.

(The Baltimore Sun, June 18, 2015)

140203085850-jack-lew-620xaMind you, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is hinting that the chosen woman will join, not replace, Alexander Hamilton when this historic change takes place in 2020.

But this idea reeks of sexism on so many levels, it will sink like a ton of bricks long before then. Especially given that it’s already being derided mercilessly like this:

This is basically the perfect embodiment of the women’s rights movement: women asks for what they’ve earned, a bunch of men get together and talk about it; then they give the women half and ask [them] to share it.

(Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, January 21, 2015)

In any event, it’s unfair for the Treasury to honor Tubman (or any other woman) by dishonoring Hamilton. And it hardly matters if she joins or replaces him.

US10dollarbill-Series_2004AHere are just three of many reasons why:

  1. Hamilton never owned slaves.
  2. He was the first Treasury secretary of the United States.
  3. Most relevant, he did more than any other American to create the U.S. central banking system – complete with founding the Bank of New York in 1784, which provided a cash-strapped U.S. government its first loan just five years later.

After the Revolutionary War ended, the nation had substantial debt [and] there was no common currency, as many states printed their own money.

These were two of the chief financial problems facing the nation’s founders around the time the Constitution was written. Alexander Hamilton thought having the federal government take over the states’ war debts would be a good way to fix these problems while establishing federal power preeminent over that of the states, another of his goals.

(“History of Central Banking in the United States,” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.org)

Instead, as the “Women on 20s” campaign proposes, it’s fairer to honor Tubman by dishonoring Andrew Jackson, whose face now graces the $20 bill.

14_20usd_obverse_1996Here are just three of many reasons why:

  1. Jackson owned slaves. He also nearly wiped out Native Americans in the Southeastern United States, highlighted by forcing thousands of Cherokees on the “Trail of Tears” – which makes the Bataan Death March look like a Sunday stroll – as the White man’s solution to their “Indian problem”.
  2. He pioneered the patronage system that seeded corruption in U.S. politics.
  3. Most relevant, he tried more than any other American to destroy the U.S. central banking system – complete with attempts to discard paper currency in favor of coins as the only legal tender.

Jackson had been financially damaged by speculation and a tightening of bank credit early in his business career. He retained a distrust of financial institutions throughout his life…

Jackson’s opposition to the Bank became almost an obsession.

(“The War Against the Bank,” U.S. History.org) 

Clearly, as between these two founding fathers, Jackson is more deserving to be dishonored in this fashion. Not to mention the sexist slight inherent in putting a woman on Hamilton’s $10 bill; after all, it has only half the circulation (or common use) of Jackson’s $20 bill.

What’s more, if the Treasury were to replace Jackson, his advocates could derive some consolation from the fact that he would remain the face of the one-dollar coin; whereas, if it were to replace Hamilton, his advocates would see his face relegated to the dustbin of history, where U.S. currency is concerned.

All of which raises the question: why is the Treasury defying logic and offending all notions of fairness by dishonoring Hamilton?

I fear the only explanation stems, ironically enough, from the abiding scourge of America’s “original” sin. For, as no less a person than President Obama was quoted saying this weekend:

The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives … that’s still part of our DNA…

Racism, we are not cured of it; and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.

(NBC News, June 22, 2015)

This is why it’s probably no coincidence that the Treasury targeted Hamilton. After all, his is the only face on any dollar bill that has (or is thought to have) “Negro blood.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 8.48.11 AMHamilton, you see, was born out of wedlock to a French Huguenot of “mixed-race” named Rachel Fawcett Lavine on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. And, after he moved to America at age 16, nothing “consigned” him to a life of négritude, much to his chagrin, quite like the:

… incontestable truth that many, if not most, illegitimate children in the West Indies bore mixed blood. At the time of Rachel’s birth, the four thousand slaves on Nevis outnumbered whites by a ratio of four to one, making inequitable carnal relations between black slaves and white masters a dreadful commonplace.

(Chernow, Ron. ‘Alexander Hamilton.’ Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. p. 9)

To be fair, many (White) historians, not least Chernow himself, insist that claims about Hamilton being part Black derive from nothing but rank speculation or outright slander.

But this is not the forum, nor indeed the commentary, to argue the matter. Still, it might add some authority to my race-based explanation to cite the rather colorful congressional testimony of one Mr. Adams, which he presented during a congressional hearing.

For, as cited in the record at Interstate-Commerce Law, 1902, p. 40,  Mr. Adams testified that he possessed data showing Hamilton’s mother to be of “mixed blood;” that he himself is a Negro, even though he looks as “light” as any White man; and that, if Hamilton were still alive, both of them would be subjected to Jim Crow laws … if people found out they were Negroes. Indeed, accounts abound about Hamilton’s biological brother James looking far more like a Negro, so much so that he was refused a seat on a Broadway coach.

download (27)Apropos of Broadway, it’s an uncanny coincidence that the historical truth of Hamilton’s race is playing out these days in the hit musical Hamilton. After all, it’s not only being performed in hip-hop style, but has an actor of mixed-race playing Hamilton. But I digress….

The point is that, by dishonoring Hamilton, the Treasury is honoring race (even if unwittingly) as the determining feature in practically every aspect of life in America … still.

You might think this makes no sense. But I submit that my explanation makes far more sense than the Treasury deciding in this context that a woman is worthy only of partial billing on the $10 bill.

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