The Ten-Dollar Bill Controversy Ignores History

By Timothy Troutner

The recent pair of Collegian editorials on the ten-dollar bill controversy [Oct. 22], while interesting, failed to consider the history of United States currency. History suggests that the history of our currency, particularly in relation to women, is far more complicated than seniors Micah Meadowcroft and Josiah Lippincott’s arguments suggest. Depictions of the feminine used to be commonplace, while the cult of the statesman on currency is relatively more recent.

The following is an extremely brief history of portraits on United States currency. In 1792, the United States coined its first currency, the half dime. Prominently featured on the coin was the profile of a woman—the female personification of liberty. Fascinatingly, the Federalists had proposed that George Washington’s face should be on the nation’s currency, but their proposals failed, in part because of concerns that this and other Federalist proposals would represented a capitulation to the model of European monarchies. No standard United States coin had a portrait of a historical figure on it until the Lincoln penny, issued in 1909.

Although the Continental Congress would briefly issue paper money (which did not feature portraits of political figures), the true beginning of paper money was in 1861 under Abraham Lincoln. This paper currency, which was not backed by gold or silver, did feature portraits of Lincoln, members of his administration, and historical figures like Alexander Hamilton. It’s notable that in 1864, in response to abuses of the prerogative by Treasury officials, a law was passed against featuring living people on United States currency. Although United States Federal Reserve Notes did not begin to circulate until 1914, there were a variety of notes issued by the United States government from 1861 onward, featuring a variety of largely political figures.

The United States currency has not been universally dominated by men. As mentioned earlier, the female personification of Liberty was the very first portrait on United States currency, and actually almost completely dominated coinage in the 19th century. In addition, Martha Washington appeared on the one dollar silver certificate in the 1880s, and Sacagawea, Helen Keller, and Susan B. Anthony have each appeared on coins at some point in the last 40 years.

This brief history suggests a number of points. First, adding female figures to United States currency is not necessarily an act of identity politics, supposedly a consequence of our feminist age. In fact, it would be a return, in one way, to the female imagery which is a rich part of our nation’s numismatic history going back to 1792. America associated its currency with the principles of the goddess liberty, thus enshrining at least a form of femininity into the American identity. The United States has found at least one woman in its history, Martha Washington, “worthy” of putting on its paper money, and this happened in 1886. This is not to say that America’s public recognition of women has always been sufficient, but it is important to note that adding a woman to the ten-dollar bill need not be considered a rejection of a supposedly universal American tradition of male statesmen, like Lippincott seems to suggest.

Second, the idea shared by both Meadowcroft and Lippincott that United States currency must include portrait of great statesmen or other figures who have achieved great deeds for the republic is not a truly traditional one. It was the dramatic break caused by the Civil War and the emergency printing of so called greenback dollars by Abraham Lincoln which first introduced the portrait of the statesman to United States currency. If anyone introduced “identity politics” to currency, it was Abraham Lincoln and his administration. Before this, United States currency focused more on the ideals of the republic, including Greco-Roman idealized images of Liberty. Portraits of statesmen were originally too closely associated with the monarchy. With the movement of the United States towards a more cohesive national identity under Lincoln and his successors, the cult of the great statesman began to rise to prominence. Even after Lincoln, agrarian imagery, the goddess Liberty, and Native Americans continued to be heavily featured on coins. The contemporary debate presumes what is actually a more recent and concerning development, focusing on individuals instead of the values supposedly embodied by the Founders’ republic.

Finally, one should step back and ask why Americans find it so important to assert their values by placing them on money. While earlier currency featured national symbols, this seems to have been more of an organic phenomenon than later efforts to consciously impose awareness of national identity on the people. The effort to include “In God We Trust” on currency is a prominent example of this. It was added to coins in 1864 in part as an invocation of God’s blessing for the North during the civil war. This effort to assert a civil religion was even more blatant when the Eisenhower administration added the motto to paper money in 1956–57, partially motivated by the opposition to godless communism. These efforts to honor God and modern efforts to honor women contain an implicit recognition that America’s true symbol is the almighty dollar. When we want to make something sacred, we put it on paper money. It seems that our increasingly commercial society cannot help but make statements through the medium of currency. Even God is somehow authenticated by being placed there. Returning to the contemporary situation, it would be truly ironic if Harriet Tubman, a woman who spent her life fighting against the commodification of human beings, was affirmed as “worthy” by being placed on a ten-dollar bill, or if feminists asserted the value of women through the medium of currency.

The supposed tradition of honoring great statesmen on currency is a more recent one, and the presence of the feminine goes back further still. More importantly, however, Americans should ask themselves why they must reinforce their ideals, whether the cult of the great statesmen or the value of women as a neglected class, by bestowing upon them the moral authority of the almighty dollar.

Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy. 

Image courtesy Elena Creed.

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