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Hamilton Reminds Us Why His Face Is on Our Money

The hoopla about putting a female likeness on the $10 bill continues, with a refreshing twist. Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the tremendously popular Broadway show Hamilton, has tweeted that Alexander Hamilton’s face should remain on the currency. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, himself a huge fan of the show, has been hinting that he agrees.

A recent Slate headline, “Thanks, Hamilton Fans: You Might Have Just Cost Us a Woman on the $10 Bill,” again raises the question: Would that be so bad? Hamilton, a Founding Father, Federalist author, and original proponent of a strong, centrally controlled Treasury, is arguably as deserving of the honor as a person can be. But there’s a broader point here: When a great story such as Hamilton is received by a general audience, people who were reared on public-school revisionist history may come to understand why many still believe this Dead White Man is worthy of veneration. Tara Helfman captured this point well in her Commentary article “Why Hamilton Matters.”

The richness of history — real history, with morally complex humans and evolving social mores, free of a reductive narrative — is partly why Hamilton audience members pay a minimum of $374 (that’s a very discounted rear-mezzanine price). Stories replete with vivid detail, true to the experience of historical individuals, make us walk a mile in the shoes of those who lacked the hindsight we now enjoy. With their humanizing power, good biographies are better than government-approved textbooks at engendering deep respect for figures such as Hamilton. And through their stories, these figures both justify to us the respect we bestow on them and topple our idolatry.

To her credit, the author of the Slate piece, Christina Cauterucci, helpfully suggests replacing Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill and promoting Hamilton to the $20 bill when it’s due for an anti-counterfeiting makeover in 2030. (Andrew Jackson is much less deserving than Hamilton.) Meanwhile, we can thank Miranda’s play for reminding people, intentionally or not, that history is more than power dynamics and that even Dead White Men were human.

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