Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.
The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.
I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.
But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.
I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.
Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.
Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.
In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”
Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.
I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.
Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”
My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:
“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”
“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”
I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.