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Treasury Feels The Hamilton Heat

extreme detail of the $10 bill portrait of Alexander Hamilton
photo by Eli Christman

If you are lucky enough to win the “Ham4Ham” lottery, you can see the Broadway hit “Hamilton” for just $10 – the note that bears the titular founding father’s portrait.

For the rest of us, buying tickets directly through the box office is currently impossible, and scalped tickets will run you 65 Hamiltons a pop if you’re lucky. This pricing was observed even before the Broadway play and its author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on Monday.

Nor is it likely to get any easier to score a seat after the Tony Awards on June 12; to say the show is the favorite to win many of the major awards is a massive understatement, even before the nominations have been announced. Ron Chernow’s biography, which inspired the musical, is the number-two best-seller on The New York Times’ paperback nonfiction list. A new book offering a behind-the-scenes look at the show is likely to turn up on the hardcover list eventually. The cast recording topped Billboard’s rap charts last fall and has appeared in the Top 200 for the past 29 weeks; it won a Grammy in February.

In other words, Alexander Hamilton is having a moment, after years of relative obscurity and disrespect.

This is great news for those involved with the Broadway musical. It is great news for historians with an interest in Hamilton, the National Park Service employees who run tours of his estate in Harlem and high school history teachers hoping to get students interested in the 18th century. But it is terrible news for Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.

Lew announced nearly a year ago that, as part of a scheduled redesign effort, the Treasury planned to put a woman on the $10 bill. That bill was chosen as the first to be redesigned for security reasons; making it the one to get a woman on the front was a matter of expediency.

Unfortunately for Lew, his timing was abysmal. Hamilton’s profile had not been so high since his death in 1804, nor were his achievements – including his part in shaping the national treasury now entrusted to Lew’s care – so fresh in the public’s mind. Meanwhile, most advocates of putting women on U.S. currency had long favored putting a woman on the $20 bill, which is more widely circulated than the tenner. This would be a demotion for Andrew Jackson, whose racist legacy and well-publicized hatred of paper money and a central bank make him a dubious subject for such a prominent numismatic honor. (Not to mention that a lot fewer people saw his musical.)

The Treasury Department responded to the outcry, at first saying that Hamilton might share the $10 bill with the woman who was selected. Then rumors began to circulate that the woman might be pushed to the back of the note, leaving Hamilton in place. In recent interviews, Lew hinted at new redesign plans to keep Hamilton.

Yesterday, the suspense ended. Lew announced that not only will Hamilton stay put, but that Jackson will go when the $20 bill is redesigned. Harriet Tubman, the winner of the popular Women on 20s campaign, will take Jackson’s place. In addition, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement will appear on the back of the 10.

Keeping Hamilton is all to the good, as I wrote last year. But it is important not to let the victory of preserving Hamilton’s image obscure the fact that we are long overdue for women on our currency too. While putting a woman on the front of the $20 bill is an excellent idea, some advocates were initially concerned about how long women would have to “wait for it” after the redesign of the 10. However, in his announcement, Lew said the Treasury would work on both bills as quickly as possible, with the goal that both (along with a redesigned $5 note) would be unveiled in 2020.

The irony is that a Broadway megahit, currently available to only the richest and luckiest among us, almost certainly contributed to keeping the image of one of the founding fathers on the currency while deposing the portrait of a president who was the Donald Trump of his day in many respects. This in an election year when those arguing that the time to put a woman on the currency is right now seem to echo, at least to me, one of Hillary Clinton’s main arguments for why she belongs in the White House.

That said, if Andrew Jackson were in office today, I would happily replace him with Hillary Clinton – or Harriet Tubman or Susan B. Anthony, for that matter.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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