How ‘Hamilton’ reignited $20 bill fight

Updated

It must be nice … it must be nice … to have Lin-Manuel Miranda on your side.

That was the tune in many “Hamilton” fans’ minds on Wednesday amid reports that the Broadway star may have persuaded Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to keep the founding father – and inspiration for his hit musical – on the $10 bill. Miranda’s tweet about a one-on-one with Lew provoked a flurry of speculation about the political influence of his acclaimed show, but early on Thursday, the Treasury Department made it clear that no final decisions on the future of U.S. currency have been made yet. 

But even if their meeting was little more than a cordial photo op, Miranda’s increased activity on Capitol Hill has been headline grabbing. In addition to a viral freestyle rap performance alongside President Obama, his advocacy on behalf of his native Puerto Rico, which is struggling with a mountain of debt, have demonstrated the celebrated performer’s growing clout. However, for activists involved in Women on 20s, an organization which has called for the replacement of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a female icon, the conversation surrounding Hamilton could serve as a distraction from their cause. 

RELATED: ‘Hamilton’ cast performs hit musical at White House

“What Lin-Manuel Miranda said doesn’t make us any more optimistic,” Susan Ades Stone, the Executive Director of Women on 20s told MSNBC on Thursday. She has become increasingly frustrated with delays on the currency decision and the concept of “displacing an exemplary figure in our history” while “leaving someone who’s legacy is quite tarnished.”

The founder of Women on 20s, Barbara Ortiz Howard, was even less sanguine. “Despite great pressure from our supporters and Ham fans for Women On 20s, and to #DitchJackson, the Treasury continues to act in a vacuum with superficial support for women on currency. Lin noted on Twitter that the secretary did not speak about the $20, ignoring so many people, members in Congress and the press,” she told MSNBC via email on Thursday.

Former President Andrew Jackson’s controversial legacy – particularly with regards to displacing thousands of Native Americans during his tenure in office – has made him a much more attractive candidate for replacement for activists. Additionally, according to Ades Stone, the $20 bill makes up a much larger portion of our currency, in part because — unlike the $10 bill — it’s circulated internationally and it’s more commonly produced by ATMs. From her perspective, if it’s the only option she’ll take it, but the appearance of a woman on the $10 instead of the $20 would be a disappointment.

The Women on 20s campaign has already solicited hundreds of thousands of signatures in support of a revised $20 bill, with civil rights icon Harriet Tubman emerging as the most popular choice of petitioners to supplant Jackson. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department has launched their own page – The New 10 – to solicit suggestions from the public about how U.S. currency could or should be redesigned. And our neighbors in the north, Canada, have already set the wheels of change in motion. Their first bank notes featuring a woman other than Queen Elizabeth II will debut in 2018.

“Although I feel that any effort to diversify the representation of Americans on our American currency is a worthy endeavor, I believe strongly that Andrew Jackson should be removed and replaced before all others. No doubt the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show has saved Hamilton’s place on the $10 dollar bill,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright, attorney and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, said in a statement to MSNBC on Thursday. “If anything, the relationship between Miranda’s show and Hamilton’s place on our currency only demonstrates the power of contemporary storytelling in continuing to shape our collective American identity. We still believe we are who we say we are.” 

“Until we agree that we no longer nationally identify with a president that openly defied the constitutional authority of the Supreme Court in the name of power, greed, and genocide, we will remain locked in a nineteenth century colonial framework that no longer represents the America I know and love today,” Nagle added.

Ades Stone says that the $10 dollar bill’s vulnerability to counterfeiters was part of why it was prioritized for consideration for changes. “Our feeling is we can’t intervene and say you shouldn’t make security a top priority,” she said. “But why shouldn’t there be an equally urgent motivation to correct a historic wrong?” Another reason for the resistance to removing Jackson she’s heard is that he is the only Democrat currently on American paper currency, although the party he fronted in no way resembles the modern one.

RELATED: The case against Harriet Tubman on the $20

Ades Stone feels that the Treasury Department’s willingness to consider the back of the bill as a possible place where women could be represented and the preoccupation with maintaining more real estate for Hamilton’s image may amount to women being paid “lip service” when all is said and done. Although she is hopeful that Lew’s assurances mean that Treasury has a plan for the $20. 

The reality she and other change advocates face is that any new bill wouldn’t go into circulation for a least a decade, and their goal has always been to put a woman on the $20 bill by 2020, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. Her hope is that when Lew eventually reveals his plans for new bills that the public will simultaneously see updated $10s and $20s, with women getting the representation that a bipartisan consensus thinks they deserve.

“If Secretary Lew believes our money represents our values and who we respect in our society, then they should be doing the $20 at the same time,” Ades Stone said. “We just feel that this is about honoring women in the most meaningful way.”

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department maintains that Lew has been consistent on the Hamilton question.

“On Monday, Secretary Lew welcomed Lin-Manuel Miranda to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Secretary and Miranda talked about the enduring mark Alexander Hamilton left on our nation’s history and the Secretary provided a brief tour of Hamilton’s possessions and portraits on display at the Treasury Department,” a spokesperson for the Treasury department told MSNBC. “The Secretary thanked Miranda for the ingenious way in which he has been able to tell Hamilton’s story and ignite a renewed interest in one of our nation’s founding fathers. Sec. Lew also reiterated his commitment to continue to honor Alexander Hamilton on the 10 dollar bill.”

A source in the Treasury Department also reminded MSNBC that since Lew first proposed potential reforms to currency in June of last year he promised that Hamilton’s place on the $10 was secure, and he made a similar pledge to the cast of “Hamilton” when he visited them backstage after a performance he attended in August last year.

“I’ve said from the start that Alexander Hamilton is one of my heroes, he’s certainly a hero in this building, and that we are going to honor Alexander Hamilton as we go forward, but we’re going to have an exciting announcement to make,” Lew told CNN last November. 

Jack Lew and Pop Culture

How 'Hamilton' reignited $20 bill fight

Updated