24 April 2010

Ronald Reagan and the Changing Face of Currency

President Ronald Reagan
Recently, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) introduced H.R. 4705, which would replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill with Ronald Reagan.  Some of the opposition is based on a favorable view of Grant, especially in his native Ohio where he is still revered.  It's an odd schism, because both are certainly ranking members of the Republican Hall of Fame.  Were I Rep. McHenry, I would have tried to get the $10 changed; only economists care about Alexander Hamilton's contributions to our capitalist society; alas, he didn't consult my opinion before submitting his resolution.

For the moment, let's leave aside the legacies of these two presidents.  The first question that has to be asked is, what is the protocol for assigning portraits to our currency?  The U.S. Treasury website has an FAQ page, and here is the official answer to the question, "Why were certain individuals chosen to be pictures on our paper currency?"


Answer As with our nation's coinage, the Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval. This is done with the advice ofBureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) officials. In addition, the Commission on Fine Arts reviews all of the designs.


The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities. Therefore, the portraits on our currency notes are of deceased persons whose places in history the American people know well.


The basic face and back designs of all denominations of our paper currency in circulation today were selected in 1928, although they were modified to improve security against counterfeiting starting in 1996. A committee appointed to study such matters made those choices. The only exception is the reverse design of the one-dollar bill. Unfortunately, however, our records do not suggest why certain Presidents and statesmen were chosen for specific denominations.
Does this inspire you?
That last sentence is the most significant, to me.  How can we debate the merits of leaving portraits on our currency, when we don't even know the criteria by which they were initially selected?  Rep. McHenry insists that "every generation needs its own heroes," and I think he's right about that.  Before we debate whether or not Mr. Reagan is this generation's hero, I think it's fair to ask: Is Grant?  More importantly, should our currency celebrate our heroes at all?

Historically, only popular leaders have been engraved on currency (with the notable exception of leaders who insisted their own image be on money, their being in power trumping any debate of their actual popularity).  Are there any Grant aficionados who brim with pleasure when they come into possession of a $50 bill?  I, for one, am usually just grateful I've got fifty bucks--Grant doesn't really factor into my personal satisfaction at that moment.

The pro-Grant camp seems to be of the mind that he's been on the bill for ages anyway, he made his name fighting for the right side of the Civil War and that should be that.  This might sound strange coming from a guy who earned his bachelor's degree in history, but I'm unconvinced that's sufficient reason not to tinker with our currency.  Let's review who's on what money as of right now:

  • $1 - George Washington (February 22, 1732*-December 14, 1799)
  • $2 - Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743-July 4, 1826)
  • $5 - Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865)
  • $10 - Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755*-July 12, 1804)
  • $20 - Andrew Jackson (March 15, 1767-June 8, 1845)
  • $50 - Ulysses S. Grant (April 27, 1822– July 23, 1885)
  • $100 - Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790)


    Note that Grant is the most recently deceased of the lot, having died almost 125 years ago.  Are we to believe that no one in the republic's second century is deserving of being on our currency?  Because that's the ultimate position taken by those who resist changing our currency.  Does it have to be exchanging Grant for Reagan?  Of course not; but I think Rep. McHenry has hit on a worthwhile discussion here.  Who are our heroes?  Are we to believe that these seven men are the be-all, end-all of Americans worthy of being immortalized on legal tender?

    It wasn't always the case.  There are some denominations that haven't been in circulation in quite a while, and it's interesting to acknowledge them:
    • $500 - William McKinley (January 29, 1843-September 14, 1901)
    • $1000 - Grover Cleveland (March 18, 1837-June 24, 1908)
    • $5000 - James Madison (March 16, 1751-June 28, 1836)
    • $10,000 - Salmon P. Chase (January 13, 1808-May 7, 1873)
    • $100,000 - Woodrow Wilson (December 28, 1856-February 3, 1924)
    That makes Wilson the most recent American placed on paper currency.  I think we can all agree that list is absurd, not for who's on it, but the denominations.  Even rich people would be like, "Really?  Where am I gonna get change for a Chase?"  I can't even get McDonald's to break a Franklin, and they're one of the most successful businesses in the world!

    Let's bring coins into the discussion, though.  Again, the Treasury can't explain what went into deciding how portraits were assigned.  The roster is currently:
    • $0.01 - Abraham Lincoln  (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865)
    • $0.05 - Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743-July 4, 1826)
    • $0.10 - Franklin D. Roosevelt (January 30, 1882-April 12, 1945)
    • $0.25 - George Washington (February 22, 1732*-December 14, 1799)
    • $0.50 - John F. Kennedy (May 29, 1917-November 22, 1963)
    • $1.00 - Sacagawea (c.1788-December 20, 1812) [Sacagawea, you may recall, isn't even depicted on her own coin--the artist used a living model in lieu of any existing image of Lewis & Clark's famed guide.]
    Previous occupants include:
    • $0.50 - Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706-April 17, 1790) [coin: 1948-1963]
    • $1.00 - Susan B. Anthony (February 15, 1820-March 13, 1906) [coin: 1979-1999]
    • $1.00 - Dwight D. Eisenhower (October 14, 1890-March 28, 1969) [coin: 1971-1978]
    This is entirely exclusive of the numerous depictions of Lady Liberty that graced various coins in various poses over the years, or the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel [1913-1938].  But then, Treasury has been more willing to tinker with coins over the years.  We've already seen their series of quarter dollars dedicated to all fifty states, and this is scheduled to be succeeded by a series dedicated to our presidents.  It might be fair to ask, isn't a Ronald Reagan quarter dollar sufficient recognition of our 4oth president?

    I don't know that I have an answer to that, or any other question raised by Rep. McHenry's House resolution.  What I do know is, there are legitimate questions being asked and I think it's a worthwhile conversation to have.  What are we saying by our choices of whose images go on our money?  Are we just resistant to change?  Are we expressing some kind of value judgment on the men and women in question?  Does it somehow add to Washington's legacy that he's on the one dollar bill and the quarter, the two denominations of money most likely to be handled and noticed?  Does it detract from Jefferson's, that he's on the $2.00, regarded more as a novelty than "real" money?

    Currency-worthy? I think so.
    Personally, I think there's plenty of room for changing our currency to reflect the legacies of our past leaders, as well as the changing interests and values of today's society.  I've already called out Alexander Hamilton as someone I'd replace (no offense to Hamilton, of course; but space is awfully limited and he's had a good run).  My first pick to replace him on the $10 bill would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose famed dream represents the great hope of America, and whose tireless efforts literally helped change the world for the better.  Lincoln and Grant may have liberated the slaves, but it was King who helped see their heirs to true freedom.  But before we can talk about the Hamilton-for-King trade, we need to discuss the Grant-for-Reagan deal that's on the table.

    Whom do you think is deserving of being on our currency?

    6 comments:

    1. This is a very valid argument for something that we so easily overlook. Why not update currency, especially if the criteria for choosing iconic figures and corresponding denominations is so admittedly loose. Ronald Reagan on the $50? Only if it's a distance shot of him with his hand tucked in jacket a la Napoleon and one leg up in the Captain Morgan stance, boot on the back of an urban black youth whose after-school program just lost funding leaving him more open to the temptation of drugs and drug-selling, while Nancy Reagan hangs a DARE banner up in the background. Up Reagan's ass with a rubber hose.
      But the debate is valid, I really like the idea of Dr. King memorialized on currency. I agree that Hamilton should be the first cut from ther draft order, followed by Grant, Jackson, and even Franklin. As you said, I've nothing against these men but I think in the name of progress there are different figures that are deserving of the recognition. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are definite keepers but I think the denominations could be switched around although this may cause confusion.
      *$100 - Washington. A prestigious move for the man who led the Continental Army to victory, birthing America.
      *$50 - Jefferson. Principal author of the Declaration. "All men are created equal." You're in.
      *$20 - A prestigious and very visible place for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
      *$10 - Sitting Bull. Sacagawea has been axed from the $1 coin lately in favor of Lady Liberty and though the appointment of Sitting Bull to the $10 note may be controversial, we must regard a more holistic view of American history, and Sitting Bull is a testament to the courage of the native population of the United States as another general leading his forces against oppression.
      *$5 - Lincoln ducks and weaves and POW! delivers a right to his opponents jaw! What a hit! His opponent has hit the floor and there are no signs of recovery! Winner and still champion, Abraham Lincoln retains his hold on the $5 belt!
      And Finally the $1 bill - (Washington as placeholder, replacing Franklin on the $100 only after the passing of) William Jefferson Clinton! The President who presided over the longest peaceful economic expansion in US History, should be properly commemorated after his passing...and on a Saturday Night at Trixie's, after I've stuffed several one dollar bills into a 20-something girls' g-string, it's Bubba's face that should be looking back at me.

      ReplyDelete
    2. Sitting Bull is a great choice, and I love your use of the term "holistic" to describe how we should consider our history. Bill Clinton is ineligible for consideration as long as he's alive, but he's someone I'd support for inclusion later. In the interim, how would you feel about Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? They led the charge for women's rights, and played a minor role in the abolitionist movement.

      Plus, I love the irony of using a $1.00 bill with their image to tip the stripper.

      ReplyDelete
    3. You must not drop Alexander Hamilton from currency. If you do that, that means Aaron Burr wins! And he's a traitor! Do you want traitors to win? Well, do you? Do you? Shame on you, Mr. McClain.

      Many political science nerds lay awake at night thinking about how awesome Alexander Hamilton was (maybe it was just me, but I don't think so). We need to substitute MLK for Grant, if anything, but hands off my $10 bills.

      ReplyDelete
    4. I KNEW someone would rally around Hamilton! Personally, I'd rank Alexander as the third most noteworthy Hamilton, behind Neil (actor who played Commissioner Gordon) and George IV (of inhuman suntan lore), but none of that is relevant here.

      ReplyDelete
    5. This is a very valid argument for something that we so easily overlook. Why not update currency, especially if the criteria for choosing iconic figures and corresponding denominations is so admittedly loose. Ronald Reagan on the $50? Only if it's a distance shot of him with his hand tucked in jacket a la Napoleon and one leg up in the Captain Morgan stance, boot on the back of an urban black youth whose after-school program just lost funding leaving him more open to the temptation of drugs and drug-selling, while Nancy Reagan hangs a DARE banner up in the background. Up Reagan's ass with a rubber hose.
      But the debate is valid, I really like the idea of Dr. King memorialized on currency. I agree that Hamilton should be the first cut from ther draft order, followed by Grant, Jackson, and even Franklin. As you said, I've nothing against these men but I think in the name of progress there are different figures that are deserving of the recognition. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are definite keepers but I think the denominations could be switched around although this may cause confusion.
      *$100 - Washington. A prestigious move for the man who led the Continental Army to victory, birthing America.
      *$50 - Jefferson. Principal author of the Declaration. "All men are created equal." You're in.
      *$20 - A prestigious and very visible place for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
      *$10 - Sitting Bull. Sacagawea has been axed from the $1 coin lately in favor of Lady Liberty and though the appointment of Sitting Bull to the $10 note may be controversial, we must regard a more holistic view of American history, and Sitting Bull is a testament to the courage of the native population of the United States as another general leading his forces against oppression.
      *$5 - Lincoln ducks and weaves and POW! delivers a right to his opponents jaw! What a hit! His opponent has hit the floor and there are no signs of recovery! Winner and still champion, Abraham Lincoln retains his hold on the $5 belt!
      And Finally the $1 bill - (Washington as placeholder, replacing Franklin on the $100 only after the passing of) William Jefferson Clinton! The President who presided over the longest peaceful economic expansion in US History, should be properly commemorated after his passing...and on a Saturday Night at Trixie's, after I've stuffed several one dollar bills into a 20-something girls' g-string, it's Bubba's face that should be looking back at me.

      ReplyDelete
    6. You must not drop Alexander Hamilton from currency. If you do that, that means Aaron Burr wins! And he's a traitor! Do you want traitors to win? Well, do you? Do you? Shame on you, Mr. McClain.

      Many political science nerds lay awake at night thinking about how awesome Alexander Hamilton was (maybe it was just me, but I don't think so). We need to substitute MLK for Grant, if anything, but hands off my $10 bills.

      ReplyDelete