Mosher Center Reflections on Historical Leaders

Today marks the beginning of our online posts for the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership. Throughout the coming months, Dr. Rick Pointer, professor of history and Fletcher Jones Foundation professor in the social sciences at Westmont, will offer a brief reflection on great leaders in American history. I hope these posts will stimulate an ongoing conversation throughout the year connecting the Lead Where You Stand conferences. This past year, we presented a lecture series on Moral and Ethical Leadership in the American Presidency. Although he never served as president, Alexander Hamilton played a significant role in the founding of our country. I hope you enjoy this new feature of the Mosher Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership.

- Dr. Gayle D. Beebe, September 2015

Reflections on Historical Leaders

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Last month the United States celebrated two hundred and forty years of independence. Declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776 was a bold and courageous act, but it was of course only one step in the longer, more painful process of achieving political sovereignty. A War of Independence had to be fought to secure the home rule that some colonists-turned-American citizens believed was necessary for them to flourish. Ever since American ideals and the American pattern of employing violent revolt to gain political freedom has inspired revolutionary movements around the globe. Surprise and even shock have accompanied those moments in world history when fundamental political change has occurred without prolonged warfare or the shedding of considerable blood; hence, the drama of 1989 with the sudden fall of Eastern European Communism and the hopefulness of the Arab Spring in 2011. Peoples seeking some measure of autonomy and greater say over their political futures have simply found it hard to imagine or realize a way forward that did not involve armed struggle. 

That was certainly the sense of most American Indians in the era of the American Revolution. In the mid-eighteenth century, natives faced unprecedented pressures upon their lands and sovereignty as white settlers pushed westward, imperial rivalries intensified, and the racial divide widened. Under those conditions, the vast majority of Indians across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Great Lakes region chose to engage in a series of “wars of independence” from British and then United States rule between the 1750s and the 1790s. However, just as there were some colonists who on principle believed that the way of war was no way at all (e.g. Quakers, Moravians, Mennonites), there were some native persons convinced that only peaceful means should be used to gain the security and autonomy their communities desperately wanted. 

One of them was Papunhank. He was a Munsee Indian religious reformer in Pennsylvania. Following a personal spiritual awakening, he began preaching a message that emphasized a strict adherence to ancient native customs, an aversion to white ways, engagement in sacred dance, the use of morning and evening prayer, calls to moral uprightness, prohibitions on liquor, warnings of divine judgment, and an adamant opposition to war. Like other Indian prophets of his day, he believed that religious renewal could be an avenue towards community revitalization and survival. But as the French and Indian War broke out and bloody violence beset the American frontier for the next decade, Papunhank saw the need for a host of other strategies to keep his people alive. Geographic mobility, political neutrality, strategic alliances, diplomatic service, and an eventual embrace of Moravian Christianity all proved critical pieces in his quest to secure a measure of self-rule and peace for his people, and by extension, for other natives and whites. Throughout the middle decades of the eighteenth century, his labors repeatedly swam against a strong tide of opposition from most Euro-Americans and many other Indians, and in the end, could not prevent his people’s geographical removal and after his death, wholesale massacre. Yet he still managed partial success, no mean accomplishment given the long odds he faced. Alongside other leaders of independence movements, his leadership model may be worth a look, especially in a world so much in need of being reminded that as Papunhank himself put it “when God made Men he never intend[ed] they should kill or destroy one another.”

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Summer affords an opportunity for many of us to travel. Sometimes that includes venturing outside the borders of the United States to explore new lands, peoples, and cultures. That usually proves to be an enriching experience, if also a bit disorienting at first. We may initially find things to be a little too different for us to feel comfortable or “at home.” But pretty soon we begin to get a handle on how things work there and before long we are ready to make definitive judgments about the character of this new place to our family and friends. Our naïve evaluations are typically of no great help or harm to others; they usually reflect the length of our stay and the breadth of our experience. 

The same holds true for foreign visitors to our own country. They reach conclusions about us that may seem hasty or incomplete, or on the other hand, overly generous. Yet throughout the course of American history a number of them have been keen observers of who we are as a people and a nation. Their writings offer some of the most telling and even brilliant insights about our values, institutions, and aspirations. An outside perspective is sometimes just what is needed to reveal something crucially important about ourselves. 

One thinks, for example, of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s classic work on American race relations, An American Dilemma, published during World War Two that helped fuel a renewed civil rights movement in the postwar era. Or of Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782) which helped to define a collective American identity and highlighted the new nation’s commitments to equal opportunity, individual freedom, and religious pluralism. In the nineteenth century, prominent English visitors Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens wrote accounts (Society in America and American Notes for General Circulation, respectively) that condemned American slavery. 

Most famously, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) captured the genius of our representative democracy as well as anyone ever has. His intent in part was to explain why republican government and society was a success in America while failing to that point across Europe. No brief summary can do justice to the breadth and depth of de Tocqueville’s analysis but here are a few quotes that give a small sampling of his wisdom: “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.” “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” 

De Tocqueville and these other foreign observers have helped us to see some of both the best and the worst in ourselves. That is a gift worth receiving and a type of leadership and teaching worth learning from.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Leaders in America today come from a variety of arenas – politics, business, science, technology, entertainment, media, academia. Occasionally, someone excels in more than one sphere, say when a sports superstar becomes a successful politician or an inventor is also an effective entrepreneur. We admire their capacity for doing many things well, knowing that the skill sets required for outstanding service may vary considerably from one domain to another. This explains why we remain rightly astounded by eighteenth-century predecessors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson whose lists of substantial accomplishments ranged across government, science, business, education, philosophy, philanthropy, architecture, technology, and more. They were not simply “jacks-of-all trades”; they were proverbial “Renaissance Men,” gifted to the point of genius. Few persons then or now could match their brilliance or versatility.

One who did was colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards. Living at a time in the first half of the eighteenth century when ministers were not only the spiritual but also the intellectual leaders of their communities, Edwards’s fertile mind produced an immense corpus of writings that made him the greatest theologian of his day, and arguably the greatest theologian in American history. As strange as it sounds to modern ears, in early America theology was considered the “queen of the sciences,” a foundational discipline for all other human inquiry. From that base, Edwards wrote works on history, psychology, biology, and philosophy. He engaged rigorously with the latest thinking of his day, most of it coming from the intellectual ferment in Europe collectively known as the Enlightenment, and modeled for colonial Christians a vibrant life of the mind.

But he also entered deeply into the nitty-gritty of colonial life as pastor, preacher, missionary to Indians, social critic, publicist for and defender of the widespread religious revivals called the Great Awakening, promoter of advancements in medicine (e.g. smallpox inoculations), and president of the College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton University). Along with two other remarkable ministers of his day, Englishmen George Whitefield and John Wesley, Edwards helped foster evangelical Protestantism, with its cross-denominational emphasis on the Christian’s need for true conversion and a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Like Franklin and Jefferson, his influence lasted far beyond his own passing, carried forward by generations of pastors, missionaries, and theologians. Much of American literature and philosophy also bears the mark of Edwards’s impact. Employing the language of Westmont’s mission, few historical figures provide a better example of someone who was a thoughtful scholar, grateful servant, and faithful leader.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

One of the gifts of being a college professor is having your students teach you new things. And this year has been no exception. Each fall our senior history majors take a capstone seminar in which they produce a substantial research paper. Students explore topics across many places and times, opening up new worlds for themselves and their faculty. By December, after much arduous labor, they complete their projects, present their findings to their peers and teachers, and celebrate having cleared one of the higher hurdles of their academic life. And then in the spring, one of them, thanks to the generosity of former Westmont history professor, Paul Wilt and his wife Doris, is awarded a substantial prize for having written the finest paper.

This year’s winning essay is a study of Abigail Scott Duniway and her longstanding efforts in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Oregon to gain passage of an equal suffrage amendment to the state constitution. A tireless advocate not only for women’s voting rights but for broader measures of equality between the sexes, Duniway’s life and work offers a number of noteworthy lessons in leadership. Most obviously, they show that persistence pays off.

After seeing Oregon almost become the first state in the Union to give women unrestricted suffrage in 1872, Duniway had to endure many more legislative defeats before finally accomplishing her aim in 1912. Her perseverance in the cause is surely admirable. But Duniway’s story turns out to be a bit more complicated than that, for ironically much of the delay in Oregon’s granting women the right to vote may be attributed to Duniway herself. Her personality, strategies, and wider goals as often handicapped as aided the state suffrage movement. More than once, her uncompromising stances and advocacy of more sweeping reforms put off enough would-be supporters to doom her legislative efforts.

If politics is the art of the possible, sometimes leadership means putting yourself and your own agendas aside. Yet leadership also requires vision and Duniway was nothing if not a visionary. Her radical ideas proved too progressive for her own day – what historians call the Progressive era – but a century later they have become part and parcel of what it means to give women in America a full measure of equality: legal rights to hold property, equal pay for equal work, unlimited educational and employment opportunities, taxation with representation, and much more.

In a year when we are likely to see one of our nation’s major political parties put forward for the first time a female nominee for president, overlooked and all-but-forgotten leaders for women’s rights like Abigail Scott Duniway are worth noting. It’s good we have students around to teach us what we should know.

Dr. Alister Chapman
Professor of History, Westmont 

Hoover the Hero? 

Sometimes you are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Herbert Hoover must have felt that way. Less than eight months after his inauguration as President of the United States, the Wall Street Crash pushed the country into the worst economic crisis in its history. Hoover’s inability to lead a convincing recovery has ensured that the thirty-first president ranks among the most disappointing.

Most people, however, know little about Hoover’s extraordinary career before he moved into the White House. On the basis of that record, he should be considered one of the most impressive and admirable American leaders of the twentieth century.

A Stanford graduate, by his thirties Hoover had built a global mining business. He was at his London office when the First World War broke out in 1914, and took on the responsibility of getting more than 100,000 American citizens out of Europe.

Hoover then turned his talents to alleviating the suffering caused by the war. He began in occupied Belgium, negotiating with the Germans to allow food relief through. After the war, he headed up the American Relief Administration, which used government and private money to feed millions in Central and Eastern Europe. When Russia’s Communist Revolution led to civil war and famine, Hoover’s organization fed up to ten million Russians a day. This was the world’s first major international humanitarian relief effort.

In the U.S., too, Hoover built a reputation as an administrative mastermind. When the Mississippi burst its banks in 1927, residents of the affected states asked the federal government for Hoover to oversee the response.

Hoover was therefore just the right man, it seemed, when downturn turned to Depression in 1929. But this was a challenge of an entirely new magnitude. Often portrayed as sitting on his hands, Hoover fought the slump actively and innovatively. He provided federal loans to stimulate investment in industry, he stabilized the rural economy, and he put more government money into public works than anyone before him (the Hoover Dam is just one example). Roosevelt built on these initiatives, with mixed success. In the end, it was only when the Second World War led to increased demand for American manufactured goods that America climbed out of the Depression. Hoover may have done too little, but he arguably did more to fight want than any president before him had done or would have done.

History may not have been kind to Hoover, but some Europeans still remember his kindness. There are squares named after him in Belgian and Polish towns. Thousands of children wrote thank-you notes, many of which survive in the archives of the Hoover Institute at Stanford. “We are among the thousands of children,” wrote one, “in a Europe soaked with blood, children who were miserable orphans during a war in which all of Europe became a killing field, when everyone waited for death. Only with your help were we saved from death.”

Herbert Hoover reminds us that one’s reputation and one’s legacy can often be very different.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Each February our nation celebrates Black History Month. Since its official inception in 1976, this annual observance has helped to bring much greater attention to the African American historical experience. Though critics have questioned whether such a focus divorces black history too much from American history in general, there is no doubt that the month has played a part in schoolchildren and adults today knowing far more than earlier generations about the collective African American experience and the particular achievements of Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Richard Allen, Malcolm X, Jesse Owens, Benjamin Banneker, W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ida B. Wells and dozens of others. In highlighting such individuals and their contributions, however, it is important to go beyond a superficial “greatest hits” approach to black history and wrestle more fully with the complexities of what it has meant to be black in America over the past four centuries. For that reason, it is often more instructive to explore the lives of “ordinary” African Americans, who upon further examination usually turn out to be anything but ordinary.

Take, for example, Jourdon Anderson. What historians know of him consists primarily of a single letter he wrote to his former master in August 1865. In the wake of the end of the Civil War, Col. P. H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee had apparently contacted his ex-slave about returning from Ohio to work for him as a wage laborer. Remarkably, Jourdon responded, perhaps because it allowed him to articulate much of what he had never been able to express during his thirty-two years of slave service. After noting his surprise that Col. Anderson was still alive – “I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house” – he asked his master “what the good chance is you propose to give me” since in Ohio he was making twenty-five dollars a month plus food and clothing, living in a comfortable home, having his children attend school regularly, participating in church, and being accorded a respect and dignity (“the folks call her [my wife] Mrs. Anderson”) wholly absent while a slave. Anderson then indicated that he and his wife would need some proof of the white landowner’s good intent: “we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.” The freedman calculated that at something over eleven thousand dollars and then pointedly wrote, “If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”

Anderson’s eloquent testimony to the injustices of slavery and the aspirations of millions of freed people – “The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits” – reminds us of the importance, whether during February or any other month, of understanding the lives of African Americans, famous and not-so-famous, and seeing them at the core of who and what we have been as a people and a nation.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. again this week, it is hard not to ask the what if question – what if Dr. King had survived the tumult of the late 1960s and lent his prophetic leadership to the nation and the world for many more decades? Even now, almost a half century after his assassination, he would only be 87, an age more and more Americans are not only reaching but at which they continue to make real contributions to their communities, churches, and polities. What issues, problems, and crises might King have helped us address and perhaps even resolve more effectively? How might the nation and the church be different today had we had the benefit of his presence rather than merely his memory? Such questions are not meant to denigrate the efforts of many to build upon King’s legacy; they are intended only to lament the loss of a great leader whose life was far too short and whose death brings sorrow yet.

Longevity in leadership is of course no guarantee or marker of continued effectiveness. Examples abound from every sphere of society – business, religion, politics, law, education – in which persons have managed to maintain power even while their leadership has brought diminishing returns. Fortunately, plenty of counterexamples may also be cited of long, distinguished careers in which the quality of service remained remarkably high or even grew with age. One thinks, for instance, of Congressional greats such as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. From before the War of 1812 to their deaths within four months of one another in 1852, they lent their extraordinary talents to the early American republic’s survival and growth. In fact, in retrospect, their accomplishments seem nothing short of staggering. Webster may be said to have left a major imprint on all three branches of the federal government, having served in both the House and Senate, been Secretary of State under three presidents, and argued more than 220 cases before the Supreme Court, many of them among the most important in U.S. constitutional history. Clay also served as Secretary of State, had four separate stints in the Senate, arguably made the Speaker of the House the second most powerful position in American government while filling that role in his thirties, and largely crafted the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850, key efforts to keep the Union intact. Both men suffered bitter disappointments throughout their long careers including three lost bids for the presidency apiece. And each man had significant character flaws. But those discouragements and limitations did not keep them from believing – and in their cases, accurately so – that they still had something valuable to offer the nation. That truth makes us wonder all the more what might have been if Martin Luther King was still with us.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Civil wars always wreak utter havoc. Current conflicts in Syria and the Central African Republic are just two in a long line of horrific affairs that have divided communities, devastated economies, destroyed infrastructures, and displaced millions. If that weren’t enough, such catastrophes then leave the survivors with massively complex reconstruction projects. Our own civil war was no different. During the past four years, hundreds of commemorations at battlefields, memorial sites, and town squares have marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of events connected to that bloodiest of all American wars. Surely those moments from Sumter to Gettysburg to Appomatox are worth remembering. But so too are the key events of Reconstruction, the period of rebuilding and national reinvention that followed the war from 1865 to 1877.

December 1865 was a particularly pivotal moment. By that point, President Andrew Johnson was saying that Reconstruction was complete. Former Confederate states had now complied with the lenient rules his administration had established for readmission. From his perspective, that was the only issue a federal program of Reconstruction needed to address. But many Moderate and Radical Republicans in Congress thought otherwise. They refused to seat representatives and senators elected from the restored states, appalled by the prospect of having many of the same men who had led the South out of the Union in 1860-61 back in Congress. Moreover, they were persuaded that Reconstruction needed to address many other issues, most especially the future of the almost four million African American slaves recently emancipated. Southern state governments had already begun to impose so-called “black codes,” laws constraining the freed people’s freedom. Something had to be done lest those who had fought so hard to win the war now lost the peace.

So Congressional Republicans went to work and over the next three-plus years passed a set of monumental bills, among them the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments which re-defined citizenship and voting rights in America. Those Republicans may have concurred with Lincoln’s earlier plea that northerners and southerners alike “bind up the nation’s wounds,” but they also believed that ensuring greater measures of freedom and equality for African Americans couldn’t be sacrificed in the process. Some Radicals such as Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens wanted to go even further and have the federal government confiscate land from large plantations and redistribute it to the freedmen. Such an economic head start might have allowed some of them to escape the appalling poverty that would plague their families for generations to come. But alas that proposal was too radical. So, too, in the minds of most white southerners was everything else connected to Congressional Reconstruction; they fought it with whatever legal and illegal means they could devise and before long, won the day.

The nation retreated from Reconstruction in the 1870s and with it, its commitment to giving African Americans their fair due. In the decades that followed, white Americans, North and South, healed their wounds but at the price of justice. It would take almost another century for a new generation of leaders to muster enough moral and political courage to push the nation towards making good on the constitutional promises of Congressional Reconstruction. Such is a sobering testament to the destructive effects of civil war and the enormous challenges of reconstruction.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Few episodes in American history are more iconic than the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and their gathering the following fall to share the bounty of their first harvest. As we once again celebrate Thanksgiving this November, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the experience of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, their Indian neighbors. Most of what we associate with the origins of that holiday is more fancy than fact, the product of the romantic imaginations of our nineteenth-century ancestors.

In truth, the only contemporary evidence we have of the first Thanksgiving is a 115-word description from Edward Winslow, assistant to Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford. Fortunately, we know much more about the wider story of Plymouth, thanks largely to Bradford’s Of Plimmouth Plantation, a history he penned over many decades but never sought to publish. Perhaps the latter was a mark of his humility, a trait which no doubt contributed to his remaining governor of the colony almost continuously to his death in 1657. Across those many years, he navigated Plymouth through numerous steep challenges, none greater than maintaining productive relations with the Wampanoag. Both communities were vulnerable. Coastal New England Indians had suffered devastating population losses between 1616 and 1618 from epidemic disease contracted from European fishermen.

Meanwhile, the colonists would never have kept their fledgling settlement going in the 1620s without the assistance of local natives. Bradford and his Wampanoag counterpart, Massasoit, recognized the benefits of using diplomacy rather than warfare to advance the interests of their own peoples. They employed a range of strategies to minimize conflict. Nevertheless, as the English presence grew in New England in the seventeenth-century, tensions mounted and the two leaders had to fight even harder to preserve their longstanding alliance. Their perseverance in the way of peace succeeded throughout their two lifetimes, a span of more than forty years extending into the early 1660s.

Tragically, less than fifteen years later, a horrific war broke out (King Philip’s War) that decimated Indians and colonists alike and stands as the most violent conflict in American history in terms of deaths per capita. It bred mutual hatred, severely damaged missionary efforts among native peoples, and led to the enslavement of hundreds of Indians. Massasoit and Bradford would surely have been brokenhearted to see such a turn of events. Still, their labors should not be seen as having been all in vain. Instead, their effective leadership gave their communities two generations of comparative peace and prosperity, a legacy worth learning from and being grateful for this Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Too often these days it can seem as though moral and ethical leadership have little place within the public square, the corporate boardroom, the academic classroom, or even the church sanctuary. Voices for doing the right thing or efforts to stand up for some just principle get overwhelmed by forces seemingly beyond anyone’s control. It is easy to get discouraged about the fortunes of moral character in contemporary society.

But two events in late September gave me hope that perhaps things are not as bad as they sometimes seem. The first was the American visit of Pope Francis. Whatever one thinks of his take on any particular issue or crisis, it is hard not to be impressed and moved by the moral vision he conveys and the moral power he is exercising. When Pope Francis speaks, people listen, and to an extent not experienced for a long time by any representative of worldwide Christianity. In a short time, he has crafted a space for himself and the church to be heard, often sympathetically, on essential questions of our day. Surely that is a mark of effective moral and ethical leadership.

The recent scandal at Volkswagen, my second event, would seem to point in the opposite direction. However high up the intentional deception went in its corporate decision-making, the whole company will bear the stain, and the financial burden, of this legal and moral transgression for a good long while. That is cause for lament. Yet might there be cause for encouragement in the almost universal outcry against VW’s actions? It is of course easy to point the finger at others’ failures. But it is noteworthy that most of the condemnations of VW have gone beyond criticisms of bad business practices and spoken in explicitly ethical terms. Perhaps society’s moral compass is not so broken or absent after all.

Within the American political realm, our history is replete with examples of moral leadership taking a backseat – or being dumped out of the car altogether – to quests for power. The Nixon administration comes readily to mind with its paranoid fear of political opposition and toxic willingness to do most anything to keep the reins of government. Its moral failures did not preclude policy achievements during the Nixon years, but they also left us with long legacies of government distrust and citizen cynicism.

One wonders whether the course of that administration might have been altered had Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon been chosen as Nixon’s running mate rather than Spiro Agnew. Hatfield was a serious candidate for the position but was passed over in part because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His thirty-year career in the U.S. Senate and prior service as a two-term governor were marked by a willingness to think for himself and to demonstrate the courage of his convictions, both political and moral. Toeing the party line was less important for him than working out policies he considered just and fair, whether the issue was military spending, logging on federal lands, or capital punishment. Such an approach won him many critics; it also won him eleven major elections. Though a Baptist, I suspect Hatfield, who passed away in 2011, would have found much to admire in Pope Francis’ moral leadership.

Dr. Rick Pointer
Professor of History, Westmont 

Which American, besides presidents, has had the greatest influence on our nation? That’s the survey question being asked in the current issue of The American Historian. It’s a fun matter to ponder and maybe even debate. Lots of possibilities come to mind depending on what criteria we use. When I came upon the survey last week, I had just read a news article about Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s plan to replace the nation’s original Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, on the ten dollar bill with a yet-to-be-determined distinguished woman from American history. No doubt there are good candidates and the move is perhaps long overdue to give women more equitable representation within the national historical consciousness. Apparently the British have something similar in mind; novelist Jane Austen will start appearing on one side of the £10 note in 2017, replacing Charles Darwin.

Hamilton won’t go away until 2020, just about exactly a century after he first appeared on the bill in 1929, and even then, it will be a long time before all of the current tens go out of circulation. There’s even some chance that his image will share “billing” on some of the new tens with whichever woman is chosen. However all of that turns out, here’s hoping that no further erosion occurs of our national memory of Hamilton’s enormous impact. Unlike other founders who came from privileged backgrounds, Hamilton had humble beginnings and gained a college education only through the benevolence of friends. He then served impressively in the Continental Army, became a lawyer, and was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Although he had little influence there, he soon emerged as one of the new republic’s keenest political theorists through his contributions to The Federalist.

Ten dollars


Alexander Hamilton on the Series 1928 $10 Gold Certificate

Once in George Washington’s administration, he arguably left the greatest mark of any of his peers upon the future course and well-being of the United States through his program to stabilize the nation’s tangled finances, strong commitment to enhancing the power of the central government, broad interpretation of the Constitution’s meaning, plans for government aid to bolster American commerce and manufacturing, and composition of much of Washington’s Farewell Address that set out a foreign policy the nation followed until the late 1940s.

Today Republicans and Democrats alike find elements of Hamilton’s legacy worth championing, while also concurring with his opponents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that Hamilton didn’t get everything right. For my money, he was a bit too pessimistic about what motivates people to act – not everything is a matter of economic self-interest – and placed too little weight on the need in a republic for self-sacrifice for the common good. Still, I can imagine plenty of worse answers to that survey question than Alexander Hamilton.


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