"WE THINK it's premature at this point to discuss any changes to
currency," Anne Womack Kolton told the New York Times
on Tuesday. Like most Americans, she was reacting to the death of
Ronald Reagan, albeit in her own particular way. Kolton is a
spokeswoman for the Treasury Department. The currency changes to which
she refers are several outstanding proposals that would memorialize
Reagan's visage by grafting it to cash money. For Reagan to inhabit the
dime, which currently houses Franklin Delano Roosevelt's profile, is
one possibility; the $20 bill (now home to Andrew Jackson) is another,
as is the $100 (Franklin), the 50-cent piece (Kennedy), and the $10.
The $10 bill now features a
portrait of Alexander Hamilton, who,
unlike Reagan, was never president. He was instead many other things.
He was aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the
Revolutionary War, for one. He was a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, for another. Also, he was one of the three writers who made
up the pseudonymous Publius, the author(s) of the Federalist Papers,
one of the United States' most important founding documents (the other
two were James Madison, the fourth president, and John Jay, the first
chief justice of the Supreme Court). And Hamilton was the first
secretary of the U.S. Treasury, the man who nationalized the colonies'
debt, financed and encouraged the newborn nation's industrial
expansion, and created the financial and credit markets that fueled two
centuries' worth of prosperity. He was a Founding Father. The man, it's
safe to say, was no small fry.
But now he is treated as
such. According to the Hill
newspaper, the assistant majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Republican
Mitch McConnell, says he wants to "take the lead" to replace Hamilton
with Reagan on the $10 bill. McConnell is in agreement with
conservative activist Grover Norquist, who is president of the Ronald
Reagan Legacy Project, which seeks to name a "significant" landmark
after President Reagan not only in each of the 50 states, but each of
the nation's 3,142 counties, and which has long maintained that
Hamilton should be banished from the nation's currency.
Why Hamilton? "Hamilton has
less of a built-in constituency of
people who would be opposed to him being removed," the directory of the
Legacy Project, Chris Butler, told the New York Times. His boss
agrees. "Hamilton is an easier target, said Norquist, because he was
never president," the Hill
reported. Hamilton was neither a Republican nor Democrat, of course,
but a Federalist, though it should be said he was killed by a Democrat,
Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson's vice president. No one will raise a
fuss, in other words, if old Alexander were shunted aside. The same
would probably not be true if the Legacy Project and congressional
Republicans set their sights on FDR or Jack Kennedy.
It's worth asking what Reagan
would think of all this, however. And
it's worth asking, too, how Reagan felt about Alexander Hamilton.
Reading over Reagan's speeches, an answer suggests itself: Reagan liked
Hamilton quite a bit.
This, for instance, is an
excerpt from Reagan's speech to the 1964 Republican convention:
Hamilton said, "A nation which can
prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one!"
Let's set the record straight. There is no argument over the choice
between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can
have peace . . . and you can have it in the next second: Surrender!
This is from a speech Reagan
delivered to the National Black Republican Council in September 1982:
Hamilton, one of our greatest Founding
Fathers, once said that "a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a
power over his will." What we've seen in too many cases in the inner
city is the broken will of people who desire to be as proud and
independent as any other American. And perhaps unintentionally, many
government programs have been designed not to create social mobility
and help the needy along their way, but instead to foster a state of
dependency. Whatever their intentions, no matter their compassion, our
opponents created a new kind of bondage for millions of American
"It was men of enormous
intellectual capacity and courage--John
Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John
Stuart Mill--whose powerful ideas fed our notions of individual freedom
and the dignity of all people," Reagan said in a toast to Margaret
Thatcher on February 26, 1981. "Let us rededicate ourselves to the
advancement of human rights throughout the world, recalling the words
of Alexander Hamilton that 'natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent
creator to the whole human race . . . and cannot be wrested from any
people without the most manifest violation of justice,'" Reagan said,
when he declared a Human Rights Day and Week in December 1985.
This is just a cursory
sample. But it is easy to see that Reagan's
patriotism, his worshipful attitude toward the power of the American
idea, flowed in part from the reverence he felt toward the Founding
Fathers--Hamilton among them.
Still, the sad fact is that
Norquist is right. The Founders don't
have much of a political constituency these days. With Ronald Reagan's
death, that constituency lost yet another member.