Thursday, March 4, 2010

What the Green Is Wearing

Proving that South Carolina is not the only source of unreconstructed silliness, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina has proposed taking Grant off the $50 bill and putting Reagan on. This idea has provoked a certain amount of hilarity, with suggestions including putting Reagan on a credit card. My own suggestion is to symbolize budget deficits by putting him on money with a hole in it. This might not be practical for bills, but the Chinese used to do it with coins, right?

To say the least, one can find more worthy candidates. James Madison, not only a dead president but America's greatest theorist of democracy, hasn't been on currency since we stopped making the $5,000 bill. Does anyone really want to argue that Reagan is greater than Madison? (McHenry finesses this problem by arguing that every generation needs its own heroes, meaning, I think, that he doesn't have any idea who those other guys were.) Or what about Republican maverick Theodore Roosevelt? Too controversial among Republicans; Tea Partiers view the presidency of TR, not FDR, as the beginning of the end of American liberty.

Some of the people on U.S. currency were not presidents at all, of course, notably Hamilton and Franklin. One could argue that Grant is there not as a president but as the other man who saved the Union. This is apparently still not a greatly honored achievement in North Carolina, though no one has yet suggested dumping Lincoln.

For that matter, why only politicians? Before the euro, the French franc had pictures of Saint-Exupery, Matisse, Eiffel and the Curies. Belgium had Magritte-- how cool is that? What's wrong with the idea of U.S. currency with pictures of Edison, Einstein, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Scott Joplin, Martha Graham?

This would have, I think, a small but useful effect on the American psyche, conveying the idea that the greatness of a nation is embodied not just in its statecraft but in its science, technology, and art. On the other hand, I'd be happy if people just knew a little about Hamilton and Madison. Not to mention Washington and Lincoln, those twin fathers of the February sale.

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