The debate over Alexander Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill is turning into a saga that may be worthy of its own stage production.
The hit musical “Hamilton” provoked a wave of interest in the man who established the U.S. financial system and whose face has long decorated the note. That’s propelled a concerted effort the keep him there. Now Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew is facing a backlash from women’s rights activists over his remarks that suggested a possible change to his widely-touted plan to put a woman in the portrait on the front of the bill.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” said Lisa Maatz, American Association of University Women’s vice president of government relations. “A promise was made and it should be fulfilled. I don’t know any particular reason why they would back away from it.”
While the Treasury announced last year its intention to feature a woman on the $10 bill, possibly as one of two images or in rotation with Hamilton, Lew’s recent words have cast some doubt over whether that plan is still operative or new options are being considered.
“Alexander Hamilton is one of my heroes,” Lew said in an interview with Charlie Rose on March 30. “He’s not leaving our money. We’re going to put a woman on the face of our currency. And this is not just about the $10 bill. This is about a whole series of bills. We’re going to be working on the 5, the 10, and the 20.”
A U.S. official familiar with the process declined to say on Wednesday whether the Treasury Department remains committed to putting a woman in the portraiture of the $10 note. That official and others, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the process publicly, said Lew’s thinking on the issue has evolved since the initial announcement of a $10 redesign in June 2015 but declined to outline what he’s planning.
President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, declined Wednesday to say whether the White House had a position and said it would be up to the Treasury Department. Obama in 2014 called putting a woman on a bill “a pretty good idea.”
If the Treasury decided to keep Hamilton as the sole face of the $10, one option that has already been considered is to put a woman on the face of the $20, replacing former President Andrew Jackson. The politics of a Jackson swap might be easier; Jackson had been a slave owner and is not enjoying a renaissance like Hamilton. Another possibility is to make simultaneous changes to multiple denominations that would put women’s images on the fronts or backs of various bills.
“It would be a mistake to back off,” Maatz said of Lew. “Even if he’s hemming and hawing now, I think the feedback is going to show him quickly that he needs to get back on track.”
Women on 20s, the group that has led the charge to feature a woman on U.S. currency, sent a letter to Lew and U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios on Monday asking that they fulfill the promise to put a woman on the $10 bill, Susan Ades Stone, the group’s executive director, said.
“Unless they’re saying, ‘We’re going to keep Hamilton on the $10 and we’re going to put a woman on the $20 and we’ll issue them both at the same time,’ that’s not good enough,” Ades Stone said. “It’s anybody’s guess how long they’d take to issue the $20.”
Along with women’s rights activists, the debate has drawn in a cast of marquee characters, including “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Obama and Hillary Clinton, who’s campaigning to become the first female U.S. president.
Since the initial announcement about redesigning the $10 bill was made by Lew in June 2015, “Hamilton” has become one of the hottest shows on Broadway. Miranda, the show’s creator and star, performed for Obama and his guests last month in an intimate East Room performance.
Miranda also met with Lew during his March visit, and said on Twitter on March 16 that he had discussed the issue of Hamilton on the $10 and that Lew told him “Ham fans’ll be ’very happy’ about the new $10.”
A group of 64 Democratic lawmakers
wrote Lew last year urging him to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill and replace Jackson on the $20 note. They said Hamilton was “one of the most influential interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, a passionate advocate for abolition of slavery, and the founder of the nation’s financial system.”
Clinton, before last year’s announcement by Lew, had indicated on Twitter that she would favor replacing Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20. As she left a meeting late last week with the New York Daily News editorial board, Clinton said that it was her preference that Hamilton remain the face of the $10 and that she’d like to see a woman replace Jackson on the $20, the newspaper reported. Clinton also told the Daily News that she had discussed the issue with Lew.
Lew floated the possibility of incorporating women on to back of the $10 bill, as part of a process of “bringing to life” the buildings on the reverse of the nation’s currency.
“One of the major demonstrations for women’s right to vote was in front of the Treasury Department building,” Lew said in the interview with Rose.
In their letter to Lew, Women on 20s wrote that “relegating women to the back of the bill is akin to sending them to the back of the bus. The Rosa Parks analogies are inevitable.”
Switching the plan for the $10 note could force years of delays in putting a woman on the face of U.S. paper currency. Replacing Jackson on the $20 was considered earlier and rejected in favor of Hamilton for that reason.
Lew last June announced that he would decide which woman should go on the $10 after a period of public input. The $10 already was due for a makeover to incorporate security and technological upgrades, a five-year process.
The new bill was set to be unveiled in 2020, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment extending voting rights to women.
While there have been Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea dollar coins in limited runs, the last time women were pictured on U.S. currency was in the 1800s — Martha Washington on a $1 certificate and Pocahontas in a group engraving on some currency.