Bumping Old Hickory
And Jesus said as recorded in Mathew 22, “Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he said unto them, whose is this image and superscription? They said unto him, Caesar’s. Then said he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Imagine Tony Soprano pulling a fist-sized money roll from his pocket to pay off some corrupt politician . . . say, to influence a judicial election. As Tony peels off a few C-notes, he sees that Benjamin Franklin’s serene face has disappeared. He says to his capo, Paulie Walnuts, “Paulie! What did they do to Ben Franklin? They’ve replaced him with somebody I don’t know.” Of course, Paulie doesn’t know either. He’s not the brightest gangster on The Sopranos having once stolen a truck full of walnuts that he thought were televisions. Though an imaginary story, Tony reflects how most people will react when Harriet Tubman booty-bumps Old Hickory to the back of the $20 bill.
The impending Tubman ascendancy used to happen more frequently. The Treasury Department has featured a variety of historical figures on our currency since they began printing paper money in 1861. It was not until 1928 that they downsized the dimensions of the bills and standardized who was on the front of each.
Currently, the Treasury circulates twelve different denominations and only three feature portraits of non-Presidents. We are familiar with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant and Franklin getting us from $1 to $100. All were Presidents except Hamilton and Franklin. Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. Franklin was too old to run for President after fighting a revolution and founding our Republic.
We are less familiar with who fronts the $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 bills. These bills are not currently printed though some are still circulated. So, following after Franklin, we see William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, James Madison, Salmon Chase and Woodrow Wilson. With the exception of James Madison, the Treasury Department must have put the 1928 JV team on the larger denominations. McKinley, Cleveland and Wilson were notable in their day but certainly aren’t in the same class as Washington, etal.
Then we have Salmon Chase. He was the Treasury Secretary under Lincoln and oversaw the issuance of the first paper currency. Until 1861, the Treasury had only issued coins.
The original series of paper bills approved by Chase in 1861 had several distinctions with the most visual being their color. They were printed on green paper, earning them the name of “greenbacks.”
Greenbacks were excellent propaganda pieces. Lincoln fronted the $10 bill and Chase the $1, replacing Washington as first in the hearts of his countrymen or at least in the hearts of Northern speculators. Jefferson and Madison didn’t make the cut.
Since greenbacks were issued to increase the North’s money supply in response to the South seceding, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Virginia Founders were not honored. Hamilton fronted the $2 and $50. Robert Morris and Albert Gallatin made it along with the American Eagle and “Lady Liberty.” If you don’t know Morris and Gallatin, join the club. I don’t either.
Greenbacks were the United States first “fiat” currency meaning that they were secured by a promise to pay from the United States government rather than secured by gold reserves. Greenbacks were printed in massive amounts to stimulate the North’s wartime economy and their value fluctuated greatly depending upon the outcome of battles and elections.
The issuance of greenbacks after the Southern states seceded was not just a wartime response. It was a first-step policy victory for Northern politicians who had demanded a national banking system since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Prior to 1861, only state chartered banks could issue paper currency backed by gold or silver. With the Southern states no longer represented in Congress, the national banking system was created.
Greenbacks remain the soul of our modern banking system and monetary policy. We see the hand of Salmon Chase every time the Federal Reserve manipulates inflation by controlling our money supply, uses quantitative easing to buy bad debt or considers charging negative interest rates to depositors to encourage lending.
Instead of just replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman, President Obama should demand that our entire Federal Reserve Note series be replaced with a new non-denominated greenback featuring Tubman, Chase, Lincoln and Lady Equality. The new greenback would be secured by our $21 trillion national debt, have a fluctuating value and would require that you pay the bank a fee just to deposit it. No more $1 bills or $20 bills or $100 bills. All bills would be equal though that might take some explaining to Tony Soprano.
Anyway, who wants to see Washington, Jefferson and Madison on our modern currency? They were Founders of an Old Republic long dead and having them remain on our money doesn’t render proper tribute to the narcissistic America that we are becoming.
Come to think of it, does anyone under 30 really care about Harriet Tubman and the struggle for equality that she represents? We are in the Brave New World of individual emancipation. Maybe the Treasury will issue a currency that can upload a selfie.
(An earlier version of this article did not list Hamilton as a non-President.)