Who Is On The $10 Bill? Examining the Life of Alexander Hamilton and the History of the $10 Note

The $10 bill is one of the most commonly used denominations of U.S. currency, but many people don‘t stop to examine it closely or consider the historical figure gracing its front. The man on the $10 bill is Alexander Hamilton, one of America‘s Founding Fathers and the first Secretary of the Treasury. His portrait has been featured on the ten spot since 1928, although the bill itself predates Hamilton‘s visage by over 150 years.

In this article, we‘ll take an in-depth look at why Alexander Hamilton was chosen for the honor of appearing on the $10 bill, his immense contributions in shaping America‘s financial system, and some fascinating stories from his life and career. We‘ll also explore the history and evolution of ten dollar bills, changes in the design and security features over the years, and the criteria and process for selecting the portraits appearing on U.S. currency.

Who Was Alexander Hamilton?

Born in 1755 or 1757 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton had a difficult childhood. His father abandoned the family at a young age and his mother passed away when Hamilton was just 13, leaving him an orphan. But he was taken under the wing of a successful merchant and received a solid education. As a teenager, he penned an eloquent letter describing a devastating hurricane that impressed the locals, who took up a collection to send the bright young Hamilton to college in New York.

Hamilton enrolled at King‘s College (now Columbia University) in 1773 and quickly became involved in the growing colonial resistance against British rule. He gained attention for his powerful written arguments in favor of independence and served as an artillery officer in the early battles of the Revolutionary War. His bravery and tactical skills caught the attention of General George Washington, who took Hamilton on as a close advisor and aide-de-camp.

After the war, as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton was a leading advocate for a strong federal government. He, along with James Madison and John Jay, wrote the highly influential Federalist Papers, which argued for ratification of the Constitution. When George Washington was elected as the first President in 1789, he appointed Hamilton as the nation‘s first Secretary of the Treasury.

Hamilton‘s Role in Establishing the U.S. Financial System

As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton set out to solve the economic crisis facing the young nation. The states had amassed huge war debts, the economy was struggling, and the new federal government had no means to generate revenue. Acting quickly and decisively, Hamilton devised a multi-pronged approach:

  1. He proposed that the federal government assume and pay off all state debts from the war, which passed after a famous dinner-table bargain with Madison and Jefferson.

  2. He pushed for the federal government to mint an official coinage and create a national bank to handle the country‘s finances. The First Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791.

  3. He introduced tariffs on imported goods to raise revenue for the federal government and encourage the growth of domestic manufacturing.

  4. He established new financial markets by issuing government bonds that were sold to investors.

Together, these four key pillars formed the basis of the early U.S. financial system and established the dollar as a stable and trusted currency, paving the way for economic growth. Hamilton‘s strategies laid the groundwork for the nation‘s financial infrastructure that still endures to this day. This is why he is often hailed as the father of American banking and finance.

"A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing."
– Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton‘s Later Years and Untimely Death

Hamilton served as Treasury Secretary until 1795 when he resigned to return to his law practice and spend more time with his family. But he remained a key political figure and a close confidant to George Washington and John Adams.

Like many politicians, Hamilton was not without controversy and scandal. In 1791, he began an extramarital affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds, whose husband blackmailed Hamilton to keep the indiscretion quiet. When political opponents James Monroe and Frederick Muhlenberg confronted Hamilton about payments to Reynolds, he was forced to admit to the affair and apologize publicly.

Hamilton had a longstanding enmity with Vice President Aaron Burr, his political rival. The feud came to a head during the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton harshly criticized Burr, calling him unprincipled and labeling him "the most unfit man in the U.S. for the office of president." Burr ended up serving as Jefferson‘s VP after losing the contentious election.

In 1804, Burr, incensed over Hamilton‘s attacks, challenged his nemesis to a duel – a common way to resolve disputes at the time. Hamilton accepted and on the morning of July 11, the two met on the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr fatally shot Hamilton, who died from his wounds the next day at the age of 49 or 51 (his exact birth year is uncertain). Burr was charged with murder but acquitted and completed his term as Vice President.

Hamilton‘s death sent shockwaves through the nation. He was given a hero‘s funeral and laid to rest in the graveyard at Trinity Church in Manhattan, where his tomb still resides today. Though his life was cut tragically short, Hamilton‘s impact and legacy has endured through the centuries.

History of the $10 Bill

The $10 bill as we know it was first issued in 1861, featuring a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, who was the current president at the time. But the denomination has a much longer history, dating back to 1792 when the first $10 notes were issued by the First Bank of the United States.

Those initial $10 bills were printed by individual banks in different sizes and designs. In 1860, in an attempt to standardize currency, the U.S. Treasury released notes called "demand notes" to help finance the Civil War. These featured black and white portraits of historical figures like Lincoln and military leaders.

After the Civil War, the government started printing "United States Notes" or "Legal Tender Notes." The first $10 U.S. Note was issued in 1869 and featured a portrait of Daniel Webster, the renowned lawyer and senator.

In 1914, a new $10 Federal Reserve Note was introduced, featuring Andrew Jackson on the front and the U.S. Treasury building on the back. Jackson‘s controversial legacy, including the forced relocation of Native American tribes, has prompted calls to remove him from the $20 bill in recent years.

Alexander Hamilton‘s portrait first appeared on the $10 bill in 1928, as part of a major redesign of all U.S. paper money. This 1928 series was the first to feature standardized designs by denomination and was considerably smaller than older notes. The expansion of the Federal Reserve system necessitated this wholesale redesign.

"The ten dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder,
by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter."
– "Alexander Hamilton," Hamilton: An American Musical

Design Changes and Security Features of the $10 Bill

The modern $10 bill featuring Hamilton has undergone some slight modifications and updates over the years. The most recent version was released in 2006 as part of the ongoing effort to thwart counterfeiting.

The 2006 series $10 note incorporates enhanced security features while retaining the traditional look of U.S. currency. The bill utilizes subtle background colors of orange, yellow, and red. It includes an embedded plastic security thread that glows orange when illuminated by UV light. Tiny 3D images of the Liberty Bell and number 10 can be seen when examining the thread closely.

When held up to light, a watermark portrait of Hamilton is visible on the right side of the bill. The 2006 $10 note was also the first to feature a large gold "10" on the back to help the visually impaired distinguish denominations.

Some other key design elements of the current $10 bill:

  • Hamilton‘s portrait in the center of the front, with the U.S. Treasury Department building on the back
  • The coat of arms of the United States to the left of Hamilton
  • The phrase "We the People" from the Constitution in the background
  • Red "TEN" lettering on the front and back as an anti-counterfeiting feature
  • Federalist quotes along the border that are attributed to Hamilton but adapted from his writings

Even with these advanced security measures, the U.S. Secret Service estimates that there is approximately $70 million in counterfeit currency in circulation. So they advise people to carefully check their cash, especially larger bills like $10s, $20s, and $100s.

Push to Feature a Woman on the $10 Bill

In 2015, the Treasury Department made a surprise announcement that it planned to redesign the $10 bill to feature a portrait of a woman by 2020, in honor of the 100th anniversary of women‘s suffrage in the U.S. A public poll was launched to solicit suggestions for which notable woman should be selected.

Many applauded this decision to put a woman on paper currency for the first time in over a century. Candidates proposed included:

  • Harriet Tubman, the heroic Underground Railroad conductor
  • Rosa Parks, the iconic civil rights pioneer
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, the influential First Lady and human rights advocate
  • Susan B. Anthony, the famous women‘s suffrage leader
  • Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation

However, some argued against replacing Hamilton on the $10 bill, citing his immense contributions to the nation. Bolstered by the hit Broadway musical bearing his name, Hamilton‘s supporters petitioned the White House to keep him on the ten spot.

Ultimately, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced a compromise – Alexander Hamilton would remain on the front of the redesigned $10 bill, while images of women‘s suffrage leaders would be incorporated into the back. Additionally, Harriet Tubman was chosen to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.

"Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing, and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even."
– Will Rogers

Who Selects the Portraits on U.S. Currency?

The Secretary of the Treasury is ultimately responsible for selecting the designs that appear on Federal Reserve notes. But this is done with input from the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee, which includes representatives from the Federal Reserve, U.S. Secret Service, and Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The committee provides recommendations on design changes and coordinates the implementation of anti-counterfeiting measures. Traditionally, U.S. currency has featured portraits of presidents, statesmen, or Founding Fathers, with the same figures appearing on specific denominations for decades. By law, no living person can appear on currency.

Fun Facts About the $10 Bill and Alexander Hamilton

  • If you have a $10 bill, look closely at the clock tower on the back. The hands of the clock are set at approximately 4:10.
  • Alexander Hamilton helped found the New York Post newspaper in 1801, which is still published today, making it the nation‘s oldest continuously run paper.
  • Martha Washington, wife of George, is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on U.S. paper currency, gracing the $1 silver certificate in 1886 and 1891.
  • Hamilton‘s duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 was not his first. He was involved in 10 duels during his life, although the Burr duel was the only time he was shot.
  • During the redesign process, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing creates up to 10 different design options before presenting them to the committee and Treasury Secretary for final approval.

Frequently Asked Questions About the $10 Bill

Q: Can I still use an old-style $10 bill?
A: Yes, all U.S. currency, no matter how old, remains legal tender and can still be used to make purchases. However, very worn or damaged bills may be rejected by vending machines.

Q: Is the $10 bill slated for a redesign soon?
A: While preliminary designs featuring Harriet Tubman were developed for the $20 bill, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans. The $10 note will likely continue to feature Alexander Hamilton for the foreseeable future, according to Treasury officials.

Q: How much is a $10 bill from 1928 worth?
A: 1928 $10 bills typically sell for between $40-$400 depending on their condition and issuing district. Bills from the New York Federal Reserve are common and less valuable, while notes from Dallas or Cleveland can command higher prices due to their relative scarcity.

Q: What should I do if I suspect I have a counterfeit $10 bill?
A: Do not try to spend it. Contact your local police department or a U.S. Secret Service field office. Write your initials and date on the border of the suspected bill, place it in a protective cover, and only handle it minimally.

Alexander Hamilton‘s enduring presence on the $10 bill is a testament to his indelible impact on American history and the financial system he helped create. The next time you‘re handed a ten, take a moment to examine and appreciate the design details – and the man who made it all possible.

As Hamilton himself said: "I never expect to see a perfect work from an imperfect man." The United States and its currency may not be flawless, but thanks in large part to Alexander Hamilton, both have withstood the test of time admirably.

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