Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Our mediocrity is reflected on our money

August Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece

     It was Napoleon who said, "If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna."
     Meaning, don't be half-assed. Don't do things part way. Finish the job.
     Like the U.S. Treasury Department taking Andrew Jackson off the front of the $20 bill and, in the same smooth motion, putting him on the back.
     Weenies. Really. If we wake up one day and we're a province of China, it'll be because we're not bold enough to change the person on our currency every century.
     Jackson has been on the twenty since 1928.
     I should show my hand here.
     I was a coin collector, which means also a currency collector, a little.
     That might sound timid, but you need guts to collect coins.
     To be a coin collector is to despair for America, a little.
     Because we not only know how far we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to putting something of beauty in our pockets.
    We also know how we fail to match our own legacy from eras gone by.
     We weren't always like this.
     Changing the twenty now made me think of another time when we changed the twenty—the $20 gold piece, that is. Teddy Roosevelt was president.
     "I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness," he wrote to the treasury
$10 gold piece
secretary in 1904. Roosevelt sought out August Saint-Gaudens to re-design the $10 and $20 gold pieces, leading perhaps the most beautiful coins ever produced by this or any country.
     I'm not one of those complaining that Tubman somehow isn't worthy—she does seem a bit of a flat historical figure at this point, veiled in semi-myth, like Johnny Appleseed. But that could be my own ignorance of her history. She was a real person, who did real acts of heroism to free slaves, and I get the need to nod in the direction of women and African-Americans, though were I them, I might be miffed at the tininess of the gesture. 

     Other women will crowd the backs of smaller denominations: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. peaking out from the back of the $10, Marian Anderson singing on the back of the $5.
     What they should have done is exiled the lot—Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, et al—for a decade, ushered the women onto the front of all the bills. Then we could bring the presidents back, or not , in 2027. 
    But that would be bold. And people might complain. Hence these half-measures, these mincing semi-honors.  Stealthily stealing into one suburb of Vienna.
     What kills me most is they're keeping Jackson, on the back, in some capacity, a craven surrender to the idea that we can't change anything decisively. The heart breaks.
     Yes, there are more important things, as day by day, year by year, the United States sinks into frozen decrepitude. But the money is a symbol of our paralysis. In a functioning country, it wouldn't be such a big honking deal to change the face on currency, because we'd have new money every decade or two.
     Not this country. Tiny interests are the tail that wags the dog. So rather than irk the change-counting machine industry—yes, such a thing exists—we keep the penny, while aversion to change of any sort inspires us to keep its Lincoln design which, by the way, first appeared in 1909. We've seen it plenty.

     I won't rave on about the ugliness of our coinage. I'd rather see a sharp bas relief of Donald Trump on the quarter than the bland profile of Washington we've been looking at since 1932. Although maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. I'm thinking what kind of currency, what kind of coinage, a dynamic nation striding into the future would have. Maybe these ugly coins and outdated bills, and incremental half changes are exactly what we deserve. 


  1. I believe it's time to get rid of "In God We Trust."

  2. I believe most people here would agree with me when I say it would t be inappropriate to put Ayn Rand on a twenty dollar bill. That is why I propose reconstituting the ten thousand dollar bill with a portrait of Ayn Rand, with the rest of the bill decorated in art deco style. We could also add a new colloquialism to the American lexicon, a thick bundle of Rands could be called a Chicago bankroll.

  3. One reason our currency is so ugly is that it's crammed with scrolls, curlicues, cross-hatched backgrounds, and other baroque, fusty elements. From what I understand, they were put there to make the bills hard to counterfeit. Now that we have watermarks, holographic seals and other safety features, maybe it's time for the bills to join the 21st century (or even the 20th) with a clean, simple design.

  4. "To be a coin collector is to despair for America." Perhaps we fall so short because we ain't got a realm.

    Tom Evans

  5. The more I read about Harriet Tubman, the more I like her. She was, frankly, a slightly terrifying hero, slipping into visions and usually armed with a pistol.

    She's an action hero, and her actual history is much more interesting than the sort of bland "She took some slaves to freedom" history that I was exposed to.

    I think she's worth checking out. Nathan Hale, in his Hazardous Histories, put out a graphic novel on her that's worth checking out. Her adventures are actually well suited for that medium.

  6. Those gold pieces are gorgeous.


  7. It seems a silly controversy to me given how more and more people rely upon their debit and credit cards to the exclusion of cash to make purchases and pay bills.

  8. I wish the US would change the size of the bills based on the currency along with the redesign. I live in the Euro zone and it is great that the more the bill is worth the larger it is. I have my sight and I still find it useful - imagine how much better it is for those who struggle.

    And dollar bills! Don't even get me started on how nice 1 and 2 Euro coins are instead of paper.....


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