One of the most popular names in America today was overlooked for decades until an unlikely pop culture sensation revived his legacy: Alexander Hamilton. In fact, our first Secretary of the Treasury was due to be removed from the $10 bill until his resurgence in popularity following the 2015 debut of the eponymous Broadway hit. The faces on United States bills have remained the same since 1929 (see a bill from that year here), when it was decided that faces of “permanent familiarity” should be the ones depicted. But that is about to change.
On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the Treasury announced their intention to keep Hamilton on the $10, and replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 instead. How did a Secretary of the Treasury become so popular, and how has Hamilton’s life shaped America’s money?
As anyone familiar with the hit musical and Grammy-winning cast album can tell you, Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock “in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” only to leave his humble beginnings behind to pursue education on the mainland. Finding himself caught up in the revolutionary whirl of 1770’s New York, Hamilton soon distinguished himself through military strategy and oratory, eventually becoming Washington’s trusted aide-de-camp. During the war, Hamilton also devoted himself to the study of finance, developing a wealth of knowledge that quickly made him the forerunner for the new office of Secretary of the Treasury in the up-and-coming United States. Hamilton’s daring plan to have the new Federal government assume the states’ war debts put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several other Founding Fathers, though his ideas won out in the end. Hamilton did not live to see the long-term effects of his financial plan; on July 12, 1804, the 49-year-old Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. While strongly opinionated and prone to argument, Hamilton was nonetheless beloved by many Americans; his death was widely mourned.
Not mentioned in the musical is the fact that Hamilton also founded the U.S. Mint, and oversaw the first coins made for the new country after the acceptance of the Constitution. He is one of only two non-Presidents on American currency (the other being Franklin, on the $100 bill), and the only person depicted on American currency who was not born in the United States. He has been depicted on 8 types of US currency, in 7 different denominations: the 1862 $2 Note; the 1861 $5 Demand Note and $5 1862 United States Note; the $10 Federal Reserve Note, Gold Certificate, and Silver Certificate since 1928; the $20 US Note beginning in 1869; the $50 denomination of 1862-69 US Notes, 1862-64 Interest-Bearing Notes, 1907 Certificates of Indebtedness, and 1863-63 Compound Interest Treasury Notes; the 1864 $500 Interest Bearing Note, and the 1918 Series $1000 Federal Reserve Note.
Hamilton has been a part of American finance and currency from the very beginning; he has been a constant presence in our wallets, even if not in our minds. It’s fitting that the bombastic first Secretary of the Treasury should retain his place due to an uproarious musical that speaks to the heart of his beloved America.
Did you know? Women, including Martha Washington, Pocahontas, and Lady Liberty, have been on American currency before. You can read all about that history here. This isn’t the first time a woman on currency has sparked intense debate, either! Do you know the story of the 1891 Silver Certificate scandal?