Sunday, April 24, 2016

Whose Faces Should Grace Our Currency?

It's the same now as it was when I was born. On our dollar bills, George Washington is on the $1, Abraham Lincoln is on the $5, Alexander Hamilton is on the $10, Andrew Jackson is on the $20, Ulysses Grant is on the $50, and Benjamin Franklin is on the $100. Thomas Jefferson is on the $2, but that bill doesn't circulate much at all (and, if I am not mistaken, they don't even print it anymore). On our coins, Lincoln is on the penny, Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime, Washington on the quarter and John F. Kennedy on the rarely used fifty cent piece. Although Jefferson's face design on the nickel a little different than it was, there have been no changes in the people themselves for as long as I can remember.

Yet change is now in the air. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced that the design of the $10 bill would be changed so that a woman's face would be featured. Confusingly, however, he also said that Hamilton's face would remain. Exactly how this will happen is not clear (I think I'm on safe ground when I predict that the woman in question won't be Maria Reynolds). On April 16, however, Secretary Lew reversed himself a bit, saying that Hamilton would stay on the $10 and that Andrew Jackson would be replaced by a woman on the $20. Some suggest that the extraordinary success of the Broadway musical about Hamilton's life may have played a role in this decision. A couple of days ago, it was announced that Andrew Jackson would be replaced by a portrait of Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, participant in the Underground Railroad, and scout for the Union army during the Civil War.

But if we're talking about making changes to one bill, why not consider a full shake-up of the faces on our currency? In my capacity as a well-informed, politically active citizen, allow me to take this opportunity to put forward some suggestions.

If you put our commonly used bills and coins together, we have eleven slots on which we can place the faces of important historical figures. Several efforts to introduce a $1 coin have been unsuccessful, which is to be much lamented (during my time in the United Kingdom, I found the £1 coin extremely convenient). So let's assume that a $1 coin eventually gets off the ground, therefore giving us twelve slots with which to work.

A few of the people already on our currency surely deserve their places. Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin must remain, for their contributions to the history of the United States have never really been questioned. Washington led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War and served as the first President; he is rightfully called the Father of the Country. Lincoln is America's Christ figure, seeming to bear the terrible burden of the Civil War and being struck down after having saved the Union and destroyed slavery. Franklin is America's patron saint, manifesting in himself the virtues of common sense, self-reliance, innovation, hard work, voluntary cooperation, and entrepreneurship that have built our nation, to say nothing of his actual contributions in science, diplomacy, and statesmanship. Keeping Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin on the currency is a no-brainer.

Jefferson and Hamilton present rather more difficulty. Both made enormous contributions to the country, yet both are tainted by serious flaws. Jefferson was the country's most articulate spokesman for our shared values of freedom and democracy, was the driving force behind the separation of church and state, public education, and was one of the most successful Presidents. He also was the owner of hundreds of slaves. Hamilton played an important role in securing the ratification of the Constitution and, as our country's first Secretary of the Treasury, essentially created the fiscal and financial structure that has benefited our country ever since. He also despised the notion of equality, believed that the country should be run by a wealthy elite, and dreamed of leading an army of conquest across the continent and using military force to silence his political opponents.

Taken on the whole, Jefferson and Hamilton not only deserve but need a place on our currency. Their contributions greatly outweigh their flaws, severe as they are. Moreover, both left a legacy of political thought that has infused our nation ever since. There is a reason that the words "Jeffersonian" and "Hamiltonian" exist, but no comparable words for any of the other Founding Fathers.

Two other members of the august group we call the Founding Fathers do not appear on our currency, but probably should. One was John Adams. Adams was arguably the individual most responsible for pushing the Continental Congress to declare independence in 1776, his efforts both in Congress and as a diplomat in Europe were vital to winning the Revolutionary War. As President, after overcoming his initial stumbles, he had the courage to stand up against the High Federalists and keep America out of an unnecessary war with France, knowing that his actions cost him his chance at a second term.

The other Founding Father should face should be on our currency is James Madison. He was too young to play a major role in the Revolution and his tenure as President was mostly characterized by a ineptly managed war with Britain. Yet his role in the Constitutional Convention was so profound that he earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" and he was the individual most responsible for the passage of the Bill of Rights through Congress. More than any other Founder, the republic in which we live today is of Madison's making.

Ulysses S. Grant presents a complicated problem. Is he on the $50 bill due to his military role in the American Civil War or because he was the 18th President of the United States? If the former, perhaps his place is deserved. Grant was not a perfect general, but he was the North's greatest commander and the individual most responsible for the defeat of the Confederacy. As a President, he was well-meaning but generally inept, with devious subordinates who pulled the wool over his eyes and ran one of the most corrupt administrations in American history.

Grant surely doesn't deserve a spot if he's on the $50 on account of his presidency, so we can assume that it is in recognition of his military role during the Civil War. But if we are going to place military heroes on our currency, why not consider Winfield Scott, or John Pershing, or Dwight Eisenhower, or Douglas McArthur, or Norman Schwarzkopf? It's a question worth asking.

Andrew Jackson is even more problematical. I'll admit up front that I've never been particularly fond of Old Hickory, who has always struck me as uncouth and not especially smart. His presidency is known primarily for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (the so-called "Trail of Tears"), economic turmoil, and the first stirrings of the conflict between North and South that would eventually culminate in the Civil War. The Jacksonian Age did see the expansion of the franchise to all white males, marking a great step forward in the march of democratic rights in America, but that was merely another step in the walk begun when Jefferson set pen to paper in the summer of 1776. I just don't feel that Jackson should be there.

What about Franklin Roosevelt, who graces all of our dimes? Old FDR was President longer than anyone else and led the country through the darkness of the Great Depression and through the fires of the Second World War. Historians still go back and forth as to the benefits and costs of FDR's New Deal programs, with some now challenging the long-prevailing view that they helped get the country through the Depression and a few even claiming that they might have made the problem worse. Moreover, as a war leader, he made many misjudgments which later allowed Soviet communism to entrench itself in Eastern Europe. Yet whatever hiccups might have occurred along the way, the fact is that Franklin Roosevelt gave the country hope when it appeared that all hope was fading away and maintained a sense of purpose through the long war when it might easily have faltered. I'm not as enamored with FDR as are many others, yet were it up to me, I would grant him a place on our currency.

The we have John F. Kennedy, whom I have always considered perhaps the most overrated President in American history. Strangely enough, most of the achievements for which the American people give him credit - particularly civil rights and the landing on the Moon - were actually achieved by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. His role in the Cuban Missile Crisis is largely misunderstood, for it was Kennedy's own decision to install American nuclear weapons in Turkey in the spring of 1962 that prompted the Soviets to place their nuclear weapons in Cuba in the first place. I've always considered Kennedy the first of the modern Presidents, who place style above substance and focus more on their media image than actually achieving anything significant in terms of the good of the nation. I just don't think that Kennedy deserves a spot on our list of twelve.

The changes that are currently being proposed stem largely from concerns that the currency is not representative of America. Many voices strongly urge that a woman, an African-American, or a Hispanic-American should depicted on American currency, Some might see this as just another example of political correctness trying to twist history to serve a modern political agenda, but I think there is a valid point here. For better or worse, the course of American history has been such that the most influential people have been white men. There's nothing wrong with admitting this, since it's simply reality. We have to ask ourselves whether we are wanting people depicted on our currency because of their actual contribution to the nation or for purely symbolic reasons.

I personally feel it's a bad idea to try to raise up female or minority historical figures to a level of importance they don't actually deserve. Harriet Tubman, the person now being named as the replacement for Jackson on the $20 bill, was certainly an amazing and admirable person. But if we're being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that she was not remotely as important to the abolition of slavery as were Secretary of State William Seward, or General George Thomas, or hundreds of other people utterly unknown to most people. I greatly admire Abigail Adams and fully acknowledge her role as a wife and mother of presidents, but to place her on the same level as her husband or the other Founding Fathers in terms of importance to the history of the nation is simply silly.

That being said, there have been women and people of color who have had enormous positive impact on American history. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton personified the effort to obtain voting rights for half the people in the country; to recognize them is not to engage in some politically correct revision of history, but simply to acknowledge a historical truth. The same could easily apply to Frederick Douglass, who truly played a seminal role in the abolition of slavery, or Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a similar role in the civil rights struggle.

You also have the issue of doubles. Lincoln is on both the penny and the $5 bill; Washington is on both the quarter and the $1 bill. Should we keep them on just one and give their other spot to someone else? I say no. Washington and Lincoln are arguably the two greatest and most influential people in American history and I think it's entirely appropriate that they are recognized on our currency twice.

All of these people we've discussed have to do with the American political and social struggle for freedom and equality in one form or another. Why only them? We've already asked about military heroes. It may also be fairly asked whether we might include images of the great American scientists like Edwin Hubble, writers like Mark Twain, poets like Emily Dickinson, or inventors like the Wright Brothers. But there are only so many pieces of currency and, for logistical reasons relating to the thwarting a counterfeiters, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to design them. That being the case, let's leave things be.

Having considered all this, here is what I would recommend if anyone asked me:

The Penny: Keep Abraham Lincoln
The Nickel: Keep Thomas Jefferson
The Dime: Keep Franklin Roosevelt
The Quarter: Keep George Washington
The Fifty Cent Piece: Replace John F. Kennedy with John Adams (he'd complain that not many people use the fifty cent piece, but he'd complain no matter where he ended up)
Dollar Coin: Put on Frederick Douglass
$1 bill: Keep George Washington
$5 bill: Keep Abraham Lincoln
$10 bill: Keep Alexander Hamilton
$20 bill: Replace Andrew Jackson with a double portrait of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton
$50 bill: Replace Ulysses S. Grant with James Madison
$100 bill: Keep Benjamin Franklin

Now, if only anyone in a position to decide these things would bother listening to me...

1 comment:

  1. I like Madison too, don't get me wrong, but Grant should stay on the 50. He was arguably the greatest general the U.S. Army ever had and a prime reason the U.S. won the ACW.

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