Alexander Hamilton, the $10 founding father, and our unlisted rights

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A monochrome copy of a painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull. (New York Public Library)

I was an Alexander Hamilton man well before hip hop discovered the founding father and turned him into a pop cultural, Broadway phenomenon and, as of this week, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. So count me among those who were relieved by the news that Hamilton’s staying on the $10 bill.

Though he’ll eventually have company. The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it would add Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth to the $10 bill’s flip side as part of a redesign due in 2020. The same approach would apply to a redesigned $5 bill: Abraham Lincoln stays on the front, with Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. added to the back.

The big news, of course, was the decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 note with Harriet Tubman. Not so many decades ago, Jackson was seen as the champion of the common man and democracy. Today, Jackson is rightly reviled for his Indian removal policy — a policy that was put into force by Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, under whom the “Trail of Tears” was marched. (A Texas side note: David Crockett, then a member of Congress from Tennessee, was a harsh critic of the Indian Removal Bill signed by Jackson. His split with Jackson over the issue would play a role in his eventual presence at the Alamo.)

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Harriet Tubman, in a photo taken between 1860 and 1875. (H.B. Lindsley / Library of Congress via AP)

As has been widely noted, adding Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill helps expand our view of who we are as a nation. Tubman is famous for leading hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but among the many other things I’m guessing most of us didn’t know about Tubman until this week: She also served with the U.S. Army during the Civil War as a scout and a spy and was buried with military honors in Auburn, N.Y., when she died in 1913.

Back to Hamilton:

Yes, yes, I know he was a philandering jerk and a friend of the 1 percent of his time — and, yes, his idiotic decision to fight a duel with Aaron Burr left him, well, a dead idiot. But Hamilton’s “immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” story is as classic a biography of a self-made American as Benjamin Franklin’s and his role in creating the Constitution and the formation of the early federal government and American economy was profound. And unlike many other founders — looking at you, Thomas Jefferson — Hamilton actually fought in the Revolutionary War.

Where I find Hamilton most interesting and challenging is in the Federalist Papers, that series of 85 essays he, James Madison and John Jay wrote in 1787-88 to explain the Constitution and argue for its ratification. (Hamilton contributed about two-thirds of the essays; most of the rest were written by Madison.) Part of the ratification debate was a debate about a bill of rights, which the Constitution lacked, and which its opponents insisted it must have. Hamilton, in the 84th of the Federalist Papers, argues against a bill of rights. Because the Constitution is “founded upon the power of the people,” he writes, there aren’t any rights for the people to reserve for themselves that they don’t already possess. Hamilton thought a bill of rights not only unnecessary but also potentially dangerous because listing what the government could not do gave it a reasonable pretext to claim any power not listed for itself. Similarly, specifying certain individual rights diminished or negated other individual rights not specified.

Which is why we have the Ninth Amendment, added by Madison as a concession to Hamilton’s argument. The Ninth Amendment tells us the Bill of Rights is an incomplete list of rights — that many other rights also exist — and the rights enumerated in the Constitution are not meant “to deny or disparage” the other rights we possess.

What are those other rights? Well, that’s the question. Unfortunately, the courts historically have left the Ninth Amendment to lie “inertly in the Constitution, a joker that has never been played,” as Stanford University historian Jack Rakove once wrote. To begin to change that, and in honor of Hamilton’s newly secure presence on the $10 bill, and in honor of the other Americans who fought to expand our rights who are now destined to appear on our redesigned paper currency, I hereby announce the informal formation of the Ninth Amendment Promotion Society, or NAPS.

OK, we’ll work on the name. Meantime, there’s a whole mess of rights out there waiting to be discovered. Let’s go find ’em.