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Dollar Swap: Hamilton v. Jackson

Ok, first a quick disclaimer. Andrew Jackson was a genocidal war criminal who owned slaves, and oversaw the Trail of Tears. Replacing him with Harriet Tubman, a woman of color who saved countless lives would be a wonderful symbol of progress, and I am thrilled that we finally have a woman of color on our currency.

But this isn’t about about replacing Jackson with Tubman, it’s about replacing Jackson with Hamilton. And doing that says that the current Treasury Department is picking-choosing the anti-Democratic strain of American history over the idea of popular involvement in government.

As has been widely reported before this, the 10 dollar bill that featured Alexander Hamilton was due to be replaced by Tubman last year. Then HAMILTON the Musical happened, and he became popular enough that the Treasury Department decided to back off from him, and instead replace Jackson. So, to be clear: Tubman was going to happen no matter what, and instead in a real way Hamilton replaces Jackson.

And that turns this whole swapping out of historical figures into something that actually says something kind of important symbolically, that’s different from replacing a racist old white guy with a woman of color. Instead we’re picking and choosing our old racist white guys, which means looking at what they said and did. And Hamilton and Jackson come from very different traditions in American history that continue today.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the only figures on currency who wasn’t a president (there’s also Ben Franklin on the $100, and Lincoln’s Treasurer Salmon P Chase on the $10,000 bill). He was instead a major founding father, co-wrote the Federalist Papers with James Madison, and was the first Secretary of the Treasury. He advocated for strong national government, friendly relationships with Great Britain against revolutionary France (shortly after the American Revolution, so this was fairly controversial), and pro-business policies. He was in conflict with Thomas Jefferson and the nascent Democratic party, was skeptical of popular will, and proposed having a dictator-for-life to ensure that the government was handled correctly.

Andrew Jackson came of political age in a time of increased populism. Voting rights, that had been restricted due in large part to Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, were starting to loosen as Jackson gained political power. As leader of the Democratic party (which Hamilton had been opposed to), and 2-term president, Jackson significantly opened up the gates of political power to the average citizens and the poor. He opposed the centralization of power in the Federal government, and fought against the centralized banking system that Hamilton had established.

In short, despite half a century splitting them, they represented 2 directly opposing views of American democracy. Hamilton advocated for a government run by experts, friendly to the needs of business owners, while Jackson the demagogue pushed for a government run by the people, responsive to the whims of mass movements.

To pit them against each other like this is to ask what kind of country America wants to see itself as. As a country, we choose how to tell our story, and our chosen heroes say something about us. Choosing Hamilton says that we value centralizing authority more than we value increased democracy. Ironically, in wanting to better represent the country as it is, we’re preserving a figure who fought his whole life against representation.

If the news story had been simply Tubman replacing Jackson, this would have been a small but important step towards inclusiveness. Instead, this feels like picking the autocratic side in an ideological battle from the birth of the Republic. Better to instead replace Hamilton at the same time as Jackson, and move our ideological battle into the 21st century.