TGIF: Nation’s history long in years, but brief in its citizens’ lifetimes

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

Quick: Whose face is on a $50 bill? Here’s a hint. It’s a president famous for being buried in his own tomb.

As we advance toward a cashless society, familiarity with portraits on our currency retreats. The ones and fives 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 for this information is not the contents of my wallet, but instead some online research — prompted by a languishing proposal to add slavery abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist Harriet Tubman to the front of our $20 bills. Tubman is credited with completing 13 missions to rescue some 70 slaves after herself escaping slavery.

While that 2016 proposal remains on the backburner, it’s still being considered. Such revisions don’t happen quickly, even when widespread support exists. As usual, change is difficult.

An online meme promoting the redesign linked Tubman to the lifespans of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, and Ronald Reagan, our nation’s 40th president. When you track American history by years, it seems lengthy. However, when you count 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 when Reagan was born.

Additionally, the lives of Tubman and John Adams, our second president, overlapped. Adams was born in 1735 eight years before Jefferson, and the two presidents died on the same date — July 4, 1826.

The year of Harriet Tubman’s birth isn’t certain, but records indicate it was around 1820 with a five-year margin of error. Regardless, she was born while our second and third presidents were living, and was also alive when Ronald Reagan was born.

I’ve 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 sliced bread (1928). Before her death in 2019, Mom was able to play with her great-grandson born in 2013, and with a little luck, the kid will be around to witness the 22nd century.

Incidentally, let me express amazement at the number of advancements my grandparents witnessed during their lifetimes. All four of my grandparents were alive when the Wright Brothers made their first flight in an airplane in 1903. One of them, my maternal grandmother, lived for a decade after men walked on the Moon.

It’s unusual for a non-governmental official or a woman to appear on U.S. paper currency. Pocahontas was shown on $20s in 1865 but was replaced by Hamilton after four years. First Lady Martha Washington’s portrait 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 it happens, Tubman wouldn’t totally supplant President Jackson. Under the 2016 proposal, Jackson’s image would move to the back of the bill as part of an overall redesign of several currency denominations.

While Hamilton has appeared on the most different denominations, Jackson has been moved around too. Jackson was on $2 bills in the 19th century and was involved in the last revisions in 1928.

The first $20 bill issued by the government in 1914 featured President Grover Cleveland. Jackson replaced him in 1928 as Cleveland moved to the $1,000 bill. Of course, bills higher than $100 are no longer in circulation, but many remain in the hands of collectors, and they command prices much higher than face value.

Grant has been on 50’s, and Franklin on 100’s, since 1914. President James Madison’s portrait has appeared on the $5,000 bill since its introduction.

The $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills all date back to 1918. Chief Justice John Marshall initially appeared on $500 bills, but he was replaced by President William McKinley. Salmon P. Chase, who lost the 1860 party primary to Abraham Lincoln and served as Lincoln’s Treasury secretary, is on the $10,000 bill. Chase introduced the paper money concept in 1862, and his face was initially on the nation’s ones.

Finally, some $100,000 bills featuring President Woodrow Wilson were issued in the 1930s, but those were exclusive to the Federal Reserve and never released to the public. It’s actually illegal to possess one.

I’ve dutifully checked these details, but there are a lot of moving parts. I’m certainly open to reporting clarifying information.

No bills worth more than $100 have been printed since 1945, and the Fed and the Treasury yanked those from circulation in 1969. If you happen to have one, smile. You’re in the money, whatever your generation might be.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.