The Faces of American Currency

A group called Women on 20s conducted an online poll for respondents to decide on which person they would like to see replace President Andrew Jackson on our nation’s $20 bill. Among many prominent female figures of American history, Harriet Tubman finished on top. This is the first time in my life I have seen a serious questioning of a figure’s portrait on American currency.

Behind this particular poll is a campaign designed to persuade President Obama to place a female face on America’s paper currency (The results of this poll have been sent to the White House in the form of a petition). While I hold a deep appreciation for this type of effort dedicated to the American female voice, my qualms with some of the symbolism depicted on our nation’s currency today come from a somewhat different perspective fueled with different priorities.

As a society we are increasingly moving away from the use of cash for everyday transactions. With the complexity of cyber security and the increasingly globalized marketplace we find ourselves functioning under, there are many arguments to be made as to why we should become more of a cashless society.

  • Credit cards make it easier
  • Paypal makes it more secure
  • Bitcoin makes it faster
  • Cash is difficult to keep track of

In an effort to reduce retail costs, Denmark’s government recently proposed that certain retailers not be obligated to accept cash payments from customers. Kenya is one of the world leaders in mobile payments with the country’s mass adoption of the mobile phone money transfer service called M-Pesa, a service responsible for the country’s transactions valued at nearly half of Kenya’s GDP. Cash use is disappearing all throughout the world. But what I have not heard as being a potential motivating factor for people to stop using hard currency in the United States is the fact that we still maintain portraits of figures on our coins and bills who are associated with one of the darker periods in America’s history: slavery. Fair or not, this type of symbolism and imagery continues to haunt us as Americans, and is a reminder carved in stone of where we have been in the past as a society.

In addition to the utility I find in using cryptocurrencies over paper currency, this dark imagery I see emanating from the King Dollar has in part motivated my increased use of Bitcoin as a method of payment over the past year. However, the decision to not use U.S. hard currency because of the unfortunate symbolism it carries with it and the decision to use cryptocurrency as a method of payment both warrant their own stories with two completely different narratives.

The decision to replace any figure on paper currency, I would hope, involves heavier consideration than collecting the results of an unofficial poll. It’s fair to say that any figure prominently showcased on any nation’s currency should serve at least as a unofficial representative of that country and it’s value system. While I would not be able to cover the particular issue of Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with the detail it deserves, I will raise a few points worth further consideration. The particular period in time when a figure is introduced onto a paper currency is of great relevance in judging the intentions behind such decision making. Any serious candidate for this honor would have to be held in great public favor. So I ask this question: Does President Andrew Jackson, as a political figure, embody our present-day collective values?

For someone who advocated the expansion of slavery, took pride in his propensity for violence, and detested paper currency, Andrew Jackson would seem like an odd choice for being one of the prominent faces of our currency. Our current legal system would have no issue in supporting Jackson to remain on the $20 bill over Tubman. They would most likely argue that the country viewed Old Hickory as operating within the confines of the law during his lifetime while seeing Harriet Tubman as a criminal via her activities involving the Underground Railroad. Should THIS be taken into consideration when deciding whose picture should placed on our currency, potentially serving as the face of our culture?

Regardless of whose image is placed on U.S. legal tender, electronic/mobile transactions will not have such images attached to them (unless you embed an image within a bitcoin transaction on the blockchain….. but that’s a whole other discussion). Because of all the choices in payment methods available to us in 2015, we can afford to toss around the idea of changing the faces on our money. Paper currency just doesn’t seem to be as sacred as it used to be. If a discussion to replace Andrew Jackson, or any other person, with a new face on our paper money is to take place with action to follow, it is very important we approach it with deep care and thought. We must shy away from the all too common degree of laziness that comes with hashtag activism. It is important for us to get this right.