The nation’s history of the TGIF deason column
Fast: whose face is on a $ 50 bill? Here is a clue. He is a president famous for being buried in his own grave.
As we move towards a cashless society, familiarity with portraits on our currencies recedes. The ones and the five are easy, but after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln it gets tricky. They are Thomas Jefferson ($ 2), Alexander Hamilton ($ 10), Andrew Jackson ($ 20), Ulysses S. Grant ($ 50) and Benjamin Franklin ($ 100).
My source of information is not the contents of my portfolio, but rather an online search – prompted by a languid proposal to add Harriet Tubman, slavery abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist, to the front of our $ 20 bills. Tubman is credited with completing 13 missions to save some 70 slaves after escaping slavery.
Although this 2016 proposal remains on the back burner, it is still under consideration. Such revisions do not happen quickly, even when there is broad support. As usual, change is difficult.
An online meme promoting the overhaul has linked Tubman to the life expectancies of Thomas Jefferson, our country’s third president, and Ronald Reagan, our country’s 40th president. When you follow American history by years, it seems long. However, when you count the lifespans, Tubman’s efforts seem rather recent. Jefferson was born in 1743 and died in 1826. Reagan was born in 1911 and died in 2004. Tubman was alive when Jefferson died and Reagan was born.
In addition, the lives of Tubman and John Adams, our second president, overlapped. Adams was born in 1735, eight years before Jefferson, and both presidents died on the same date, July 4, 1826.
Harriet Tubman’s year of birth is uncertain, but records indicate it was around 1820 with a five-year margin of error. Either way, she was born while our second and third presidents were alive, and was also alive when Ronald Reagan was born.
I have sometimes played such generational gymnastics myself. For example, my mother was born in 1927 before the death of Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), and even before the introduction of sandwich bread (1928). Before her death in 2019, mom got to play with her great-grandson who was born in 2013, and hopefully the child will be there to witness the 22nd century.
By the way, let me express my amazement at the amount of progress my grandparents have witnessed in their lifetimes. My four grandparents were all alive when the Wright brothers made their first airplane flight in 1903. One of them, my maternal grandmother, lived a decade after men walked on the moon.
It is unusual for a non-government official or a woman to appear on American paper money. Pocahontas was shown on $ 20s in 1865 but was replaced by Hamilton after four years. The portrait of First Lady Martha Washington appeared on $ 1 silver certificates in the late 1800s.
I can’t predict if we’ll ever see Harriet Tubman on the front of $ 20 bills. Even if that happened, Tubman would not completely supplant President Jackson. As part of the 2016 proposal, Jackson’s image would move to the back of the bill as part of a comprehensive overhaul of multiple currency denominations.
While Hamilton has appeared on the most different denominations, Jackson has also been moved. Jackson was on $ 2 bills in the 19th century and was involved in the last revisions in 1928.
The first $ 20 government bill issued in 1914 featured President Grover Cleveland. Jackson replaced him in 1928 as Cleveland switched to the $ 1,000 bill. Of course, bills over $ 100 are no longer in circulation, but many remain in the hands of collectors and are priced well above face value.
Grant has been in his 50s and Franklin in his 100s since 1914. The portrait of President James Madison has appeared on the $ 5,000 note since its introduction.
The $ 500, $ 1,000, $ 5,000 and $ 10,000 bills all date back to 1918. Chief Justice John Marshall first appeared on $ 500 bills, but was replaced by President William McKinley . Salmon P. Chase, who lost the party primary in 1860 to Abraham Lincoln and served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, is featured on the $ 10,000 note. Chase introduced the concept of paper money in 1862, and its face was initially that of the nation.
Finally, a few $ 100,000 bills depicting President Woodrow Wilson were issued in the 1930s, but these were exclusive to the Federal Reserve and were never made public. It is actually illegal to own one.
I have carefully checked these details, but there are a lot of moving parts. I am certainly open to reporting clarifying information.
No notes worth more than $ 100 have been printed since 1945, and the Fed and Treasury took them out of circulation in 1969. If you have one, smile. You are in the money, whatever your generation.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. Its “TGIF” column appears on Fridays. He can be contacted at [email protected]