The Weekly Standard

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Reagan and Hamilton
Would President Reagan have wanted Alexander Hamilton taken off the $10 bill?
by Matthew Continetti        06/10/2004

"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:

Alexander 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:

Alexander 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 citizens.

"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.