The Values Of A Dollar: American Currency

I promised myself I wouldn’t just throw rocks at US currency for being bad, because let’s face it, most things in America can be pointed at as being a little bit crap. I could make articles for days, standing outside the United States saying look at what this asshole does or look at how this crappy crap works, isn’t it crap, and I don’t wanna be that guy. But.

Currency is a practical element of an economic nation, and that’s fine, I mean, if we’re going to have it, we’re going to need it, and I’m not going to get into Hill People conversations right now. But currency is more than a purely pragmatic piece of government infrastructure: It is the most commonly produced, reproduced, and seen artwork that a nation has. Currency lets you reflect, to your citizens, in everyday ways, things that matter to you all. It is one of those places where media and community can feed into one another, and thanks to their passive practical application people will slowly, osmotically internalise the importance of these figures.

Don’t get me wrong: Australians broadly speaking do not know the people on most of their currency. But when you use their names, they often can attach those names to people.

Now, I want to start complaining about American currency infrastructurally (why do you still have pennies and dollar bills and cotton notes you galloping goons), and there’s a time for that, but let’s not, and instead I’m going to talk about what’s on the notes. This is easy, compared to talking about the Australian notes, because the American notes are kind of churned out to a really basic theme.

Now, I’m just going to focus on the common circulation bills here: The $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 notes. There are some bills of higher value than that, but they are silly, and dumb, and let’s throw rocks at them.

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Who do you think you’re kidding, Salmon B Chase

Anyway, in order, those bills feature on their front faces George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, Ben Franklin. On the reverse, they feature The Seal of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Lincoln Memorial, the Treasury Department Building, The White House, The Capitol, and Independence Hall.

Now, this basic structure was picked in 1914, and has only been slightly changed since then (like, the bills shrunk). The people on bills can be basically broken into two major historical beats: The Civil War (Grant and Lincoln), and Founding Fathers-Era Stuff; early presidents and signitaries of the Declaration of Independence.

And… Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson. What the fuck.

Content Warning: Following video contains some insensitive ways to describe what might have been mental illness or may have just been some gigantic asshole:

Andrew Jackson, in case you weren’t aware, is basically the kind of thing the Constitution was meant to prevent happening. You can scratch this pyramid of a life and see that every layer down reveals something worse. It wasn’t enough that his Presidential Inauguration party was so raucous he had to sneak out, fill bathtubs on the lawn with whiskey and then sneak in while his revellers ran out onto the lawn and get more hammered there. Andrew Jackson used to duel as a hobby – and no, I don’t mean he liked to fence, I mean he liked to go out behind the actual White House and shoot people in the face over ridiculous slights. At least once he was actually shot and responded by killing the person who shot him. This was while he was President. Jackson used his last days in office to recognise Texas as an independent country because he didn’t want that pro-slavery bastion of anti-Mexican sentiment to be ignored by an anti-slavery president coming after him. He committed actual acts of genocide, and I mean he was personally there, a lot, killing people. And then, as if to just add a little dash of irony, he didn’t want America to have banks or banknotes.

Why the fuck is this guy the special exception!?

I mean, set aside that the guy was a total raging asshole, then set aside that he was a complete fucking monster, and then set aside that he didn’t believe in money, you have to be able to value other stuff this guy did a lot more than things like not-murder, not-slavery and not-random-acts-of-pointless-violence. And that, right there, is kind of the problem with all these money people.

For the most part, these guys are notably, historically, for their part in creating America, or, more specifically, creating American government. Government that, again, see back up the top of the document, is at the very least, a little bit crap. And the reverse faces are all… monuments to, or instances of government. The lesson then, in the simplest possible way, is that the US Government wants Americans to think of the most artistically relevant part of their lives as, well, the US Government, but the US Government as expressed and represented by the historical context of old white slave owners signing documents and huffing about not paying taxes that they, themselves, were responsible for incurring.

But you know what else is interesting in this? The money, in its basic template, has been the same since 1914. The money is designed to evoke a timelessness, an aesthetic of ages and represent things that also do not change. So you have this common artwork that holds fast to history, if you can ignore all the ugly bits of history, and then emphasise them as important in their shaping of the aforementioned slightly crap system…

And then consider how Americans are resistant to systemic change.Consider how every American, every day, looks at art they are told is important, they associate with importance, and with living, that is of old dead men focused around one narrow window of time, doing one narrow band of things, and … okay, one total fucking maniac in the form of Jackson. You even have an example of change in the notes – Lincoln and Grant! They had a civil war, and that’s what it took to free slaves, because this country is that resistant to change, jesus christ.

What I’m saying is: Art of a culture reinforces and influences that culture’s attitudes, and America’s most common art is about how America, as it is, is totally fine, and stop complaining or trying to fix anything created by these divine flawless old guys.

And now

NOW

you’re thinking about adding Harriett Tubman to a note. On the obverse of an Andrew Jackson note, possibly? Because man, that’s not awkward – a man who murdered people for fucking fun as opposed to one of the great icons of humanitarian risk? A man who hated how people made a big deal about his pro-slavery views on the other side of a note to a woman who was a former slave?!

What the hell?!

It’s nice to put Harriett Tubman on a note. It’d be good too, to strip off the people who wrote about ‘all men created equal’ while they were treating women and black people like awfulness. But that’s the real gist of it: This is nice. There’s more to do. There’s a lot more. A lot better.


Also, there’s the possibility you don’t want anything to do with money and you find the idea of putting art of Hariett Tubman in every pocket across America as gross or vile because it’s part of capitalism. I’m not about to say that being against money is a bad thing, but I do feel like at least, right now, it is a part of art and culture.

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