The times they are a-changin’
Great news, Buzzkillers. The United States Treasury announced on April 21st that Harriet Tubman, the historic fighter for the abolition of slavery and leader of the Underground Railroad, will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. This, of course, is a huge victory for those of us who want to see a more representative range of American heroes on our currency. We did a show on this very topic in the fall of 2015. I’m proud as I can be that the Buzzkill Institute can take complete credit for convincing the US government to make this change. You’re welcome, America.
Since our September episode, Buzzkill Institute researchers have been beavering away on the issue of currency reform. And I’m going to do something today that I normally don’t do, especially given my role as a dispassionate historical analyst — I’m going to make further suggestions about images on American currency and I fully expect the Treasury will take my wisdom into account. Along the way, I’m going to make political arguments alongside historical ones.
First let me remind you of some of the background to these “controversies” over who is depicted on American paper money. In doing so, I’ll address the over-reaction, and the misuse of history implicit in the argument that US currency (or any currency) is set in stone and should never be changed. It is, you guessed it, a myth!
The designs of US currency and the depictions on it have changed almost constantly in US history. The $20 bill has been around since 1862 and has undergone major changes, by my estimation, no fewer than 16 times since. Here are some highlights and different people who have been on the $20 since 1862 (in chronological order): Lady Liberty, an Eagle, a depiction of the Battle of Lexington, Pocahontas, Alexander Hamilton, Stephen Decatur (a famous naval commander), James Garfield, Daniel Manning (Secretary of the Treasury in the 1880s), John Marshall (Supreme Court Chief Justice), Hugh McCulloch (another Secretary of the Treasure in the 1880s), George Washington, Grover Cleveland, Andrew Jackson, and, next year, Harriet Tubman.
And that’s not the half of it, Buzzkillers. American currency is about as traditional and unchanging as a politician’s principles. Each denomination, especially paper bills, began life at different times, sometimes went totally out of circulation and then came back in, and has had its design changed dozens of times. The scientists at our Institute have calculated that, if you include coins, American currency has changed, on average, every 4.27 of the 237 years of our country’s existence. Pretty often, wouldn’t you say?
Of course the Harriet Tubman change is a very important one, and I, for one, can’t wait for more. Proposals to change the currency present a fantastic opportunity to discuss history, to garner more attention for our show, and for yours truly to cash in. Hence, I have some proposals to make before I pack my bags to appear before Congressional hearings on the subject.
First, let’s look at what some other countries do with their currency.
I admire Britain, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand for the ways they have designed their currency after World War II. The Euro banknotes are perhaps the most impressive because they depict ideals, although in very concrete forms. The European Central Bank describes them this way: “On the front of euro banknotes, windows and doorways are shown. They symbolize the European spirit of openness and cooperation. The bridges on the back symbolize communication between the people of Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world. The windows, doorways and bridges shown on the banknotes are stylized illustrations , not images of, or from, actual constructions.”
Ideals, not specific people. Not only does this, generally speaking, avoid controversy, it reminds people to keep their eyes on the prize — greater European openness, cooperation, and peace. All of these are the goals of the European Union.
Britain is not part of the Euro, so their pound sterling banknotes represent British history and culture. British currency has always featured the monarch either in a portrait or by a royal seal or crest. Queen Elizabeth II, therefore, appears on the front of all British banknotes. Sometimes she is the central image, sometimes she’s in profile on the left or right of the note. So the British have that consistency on all their currency.
Because they always have the Queen, and because sometimes she’s represented as a small profile on the side, the British have given themselves room to celebrate other notable Britons from history. These include JMW Turner (the artist), Elizabeth Fry, (an important 19th century prison reformer), and Charles Darwin (scientist and notable Buzzkiller).
Australians also use the Queen as their consistent image, because she is their head of state as well, but they’ve gone even further. They normally use a small-ish profile of the Queen off to one side on the front of their bills. When it comes to the main image, the Australians have placed lots of different illustrations on their dollar notes. These include Aboriginal peoples and art, Edith Cowan (the first woman elected to the Australian parliament), Nellie Melba (the popular opera singer), and AB “Banjo” Paterson (poet and author of “Waltzing Mathilda”), and many more. The Australians keep the consistency of a symbol of their head of state, but celebrate the diversity and accomplishments of all kinds of Australian people on the rest of the money.
New Zealanders do the same. New Zealand banknotes include depictions of Sir Apirana Ngata (prominent Maori statesman and cultural revivalist), Ernest Rutherford (the “father of the atom,” and nuclear physics), and Kate Sheppard (the 19th century women’s rights campaigner who helped drive New Zealand to become the first sovereign state to grant women the right to vote).
OK, Professor, enough of your nerdy, coin collector havering about foreign currency, I hear you saying. What are going to propose for further American currency reform?
It’s a mixture of depicting important Americans from all walks of life with what I think of as the overarching American ideal — liberty. Specifically, the image I would make consistent across all currency is that of Lady Liberty, who has been the most common “person” on our currency historically. Why chose a idealized person rather than a real person? Specifically because she’s an ideal, the best of ideals. Liberty is freedom. Americans value freedom in many different ways: freedom from oppressive government, and freedom from arbitrary laws and capricious implementation of existing laws. Right wingers and libertarians want liberty from excessive taxation and government interference. Left wingers and social democrats want freedom from poverty and freedom from the abuses of runaway capitalism. “Liberty” covers the whole political and social spectrum.
But, Professor, you say, that’s not consistent if liberty can mean anything. No, liberty means freedom. There’s the consistency. The application and implementation of liberty to specific political and social needs is what we debate. And that’s what I think is so important — it should be debatable, and more we openly acknowledge that our ideals can be applied in so many different ways, the better off we’ll be. Having Lady Liberty as a constant image on our currency will help keep the ideal of liberty (however we apply it) in mind.
We can put Lady Liberty as the central image on paper currency, or we can have her as a slightly smaller image to the left or right of center, like the British and Australians do with the monarch. That would free up space to include other images on the front. That brings me to the second part of my new proposal — lots of other images to use on the currency.
As we’ve already established, it’s a myth that only presidents have been on the money. Eagles, running antelopes, and idealized images of anonymous Americans have been common on the currency. Let’s keep that tradition going, and broaden it if we can. Buzzkill Institute researchers have determined that depictions of all sorts of different people and events would be popular and appropriate on the currency.
Native Americans should appear in great numbers. Chief Seattle is an obvious choice to add to the Native Americans who already grace our currency. Path-breaking sports icons like Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, and Billie Jean King are good choices, as well as traditional white male sports legends such as Babe Ruth. Musicians and composers such as Stephen Foster and the Gershwin brothers should be celebrated. Famous artists, astronauts, architects, educators, engineers, scientists, technological visionaries, and people from many different walks of life can and should be depicted.
And, of course, the images of politicians and social leaders such as Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the founding fathers, and many others should be used. I could go on and on, Buzzkillers. But my main point is that having one consistent image, Lady Liberty, in some place on the currency, frees us up to celebrate lots of different aspects of American life on that same currency. The goal here should be more images of more important people. More, more, more. Why limit ourselves to a narrow range of worthies?
I’ve got to run, Buzzkillers. I’m behind on my packing for my trip to DC to testify before Congressional committees on this subject. Do you think they’ll mind if I pass out Professor Buzzkill t-shirts?
In this episode, I’ve shown you how American it is for the currency to change. And I’ve proposed a great way to honor our ideals and our heroes. If we implement the Buzzkill proposals, our currency will truly reflect our enduring values, and celebrate all the people who represent them best. It won’t be a tearing down of “history and tradition,” it’ll be an exciting innovation in keeping with the best aspects of American dynamism. Help me get Lady Liberty and a wider range of people on our currency. Contact the Treasury Department and your Representatives in Congress.
I’m showing you the way, Buzzkillers. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.