By Ron Chernow, for Politico Magazine
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.
For a long time, Hamilton was a misunderstood and overlooked figure, consigned to a curious limbo. Among the major founders, he was, aside from Ben Franklin, the one who never made it to the White House and therefore lacked the reverent attention we bestow on presidents. He was also reviled by a succession of political enemies—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—who made it to the top and conspired to slant our long-term view of him. As a result, Hamilton’s face was never chiseled on Mount Rushmore, nor did he receive a fancy memorial in Washington. The statue of him outside the Treasury Department is risibly small. The one distinction he could claim was an honored niche on the ten-dollar bill, lifting him into the rarefied company of political immortals.
Hamilton was undeniably the most influential person in our history who never attained the presidency. That he started out as an illegitimate, effectively orphaned, and penniless immigrant from the Caribbean, who didn’t know a soul when he arrived in North America at the start of the American Revolution, makes his story worth celebrating in a nation of immigrants. His contributions to forging our country were gigantic and pervasive, starting with his starring role in the Revolutionary War, when he served as aide-de-camp and chief of staff to George Washington, and as a battlefield hero at Yorktown...