By Alex Durham
How often do you look at your dollar bills? The odds are likely pretty small, as there really is no reason to. Money is money, and most people don’t give a second thought about what is on their money other than the number.
In the past two decades, though, there has been a movement to draw attention to what, or more specifically who, is on American dollar bills. There is a very clear theme across the faces on our currency: They are all white historical figures deemed notable enough to be awarded a place on our currency. For much of our history this lack of representation has passed without an outcry, but it is far past the time that there be more representation in the figures we want to honor by putting their faces on our money, as well as an evaluation of the people we currently have on our money.
This movement has mostly skirted around the edges of the national limelight, sporadically popping up on social media as people voice their concerns about still having old, white men on every dollar bill, but quickly being shunted to the side in light of another scandal or topical issue hitting the news. This erratic support also comes with erratic condemnation, though, with the main criticism coming in the form of this question: Why should the public care?
On its face the question has merit, but I believe that once you dig a little deeper the argument becomes clear. Our money holds significant symbolic value. Who we put on our dollar bills is a statement about the people we revere, the people we felt were so important in American history that we had to immortalize them on money that will be used all over the globe. If money held no more value than what you could buy with it, then it might as well just be a blank piece of paper with a number on it. The government chose to decorate these bills, and the people they chose to decorate it with hold symbolic value in our society.
After answering that question, the case for revisiting who is on the bills becomes much clearer. People may not look at their dollars all that much, but the very existence of the heads of Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton on them speaks volumes about their value in our historical timeline. Despite whatever role they played, though, the time in which they were chosen to grace our dollar bills was a very different time from today. The dollar bills we use today were designed by the Secretary of the Treasury in 1928. That was a different time with a different interpretation of American history, and it is time to update the look to reflect what, and whom, we as Americans value today. Whether we choose Harriet Tubman, who was proposed to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill before being stalled by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin last year, or Thurgood Marshall, the time is nigh for more representation on our money.
The very fact that Harriet Tubman was proposed to replace Jackson on the $20 bill is more than just an incredible step in the right direction; it is an intentional choice, and one that introduces another important aspect of why our money needs to be revised: the history of the people on the bills. All of the men currently on our money have pasts riddled with controversy, but due to their other accomplishments and putting their actions in the context of the time, we are able to reason with ourselves that they are not that bad. This rationale has many problems in and of itself, and should also be reevaluated, but there is another equally controversial event worth discussion.
And that is Andrew Jackson’s extremely controversial treatment of Native Americans. In Robert Heizer’s book “The Destruction of California Indians,” he shows how Jackson was particularly flippant about the lives of Native Americans. In 1830, Jackson told the U.S. Congress to overcome “melancholy reflections” resulting from driving Indians “to the tomb,” and went on to say that “true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another.” This particularly mortifying statement is evidence of Jackson condoning the mass extermination of Native American populations, and I believe it is an act we cannot look past in favor of other, potentially “redeeming” actions.
This question of what we are willing to look past in light of other redeeming actions or historical context is not an easy one to grapple with. I believe, in the case of who we put on our money, we must use a holistic evaluation to ensure that we are not honoring people like Jackson who have such glaring atrocities in their past that should not be overlooked, no matter what.
Contact Alex Durham at ahdurham ‘at’ stanford.edu