In for a Dime, In for a Dollar

Why it's time to change the faces on our money


When I heard about the proposal to replace Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill, I had two thoughts. The first: Grant is on the $50 bill? The second: Jimmy Carter is going to be furious. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

I'm in favor of the idea, partly because it would give us a break from the bitter partisan warfare over the problems of the 21st century, allowing us to enjoy bitter partisan warfare over the problems of the 1980s.

But there is something else to be said for the proposal. Americans are enamored of change, in cars, clothing, communication, you name it. We are always open to the hope of progress—except when it comes to money, a topic that brings out the hidebound reactionary in all of us.

The question is not: Is it time to change the $50 bill? The question is: What's taking us so long, and why are we considering only one bank note?

The current lineup of faces—George Washington ($1), Thomas Jefferson ($2), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Andrew Jackson ($20), Grant ($50), Benjamin Franklin ($100)—has been around since 1929. The world has changed beyond recognition, but you're carrying around bills that look pretty much the same as the ones your great-grandfather carried around during the Great Depression.

Money was not always synonymous with monotony. Back in the 19th century, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War under President Lincoln, appeared on the $1 bill. So did Martha Washington. Grover Cleveland was on the $10 note.

In the old days, our currency was a carnival of images: Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Union Gens. George Thomas and Philip Sheridan, and inventors Samuel Morse and Robert Fulton.

There were even subjects now forgotten by everyone except history buffs, such as Thomas Hendricks (vice president under Cleveland) and Running Antelope, a Sioux chief.

Heck, previous generations didn't limit the options to real people. Allegorical figures were common, including a winged goddess entitled "Electricity Presenting Light to the World."

By contrast, our modern bills and coins show about as much variety and imagination as a Bulgarian housing project. The figures adorning our currency have a claim to be remembered. But there is no reason to grant them eternal tenure.

As the three presidents who had the greatest impact on our history, Washington and Lincoln ought to remain on their bills and Franklin Roosevelt is entitled to keep his spot on the dime. But everyone else on bills or coins should have to compete with other important figures.

Grant, having been on the $50 bill for nearly a century, would make way for Reagan, the most successful president of the last 50 years (Bill Clinton, his only real competition, isn't eligible because he's alive).

Hamilton might yield to Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson could be replaced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Theodore Roosevelt.

Am I leaving out any deserving souls? We can go beyond political people. Maybe a scientist—such as Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine—or a novelist. F. Scott Fitzgerald, tribune of the rich, would be perfect on the $100 bill.

Or how about a musician? Say, Ella Fitzgerald, who sang "Love for Sale." Since we're talking about money, I'd include Milton Friedman, the peerless economist who worked so hard, though without complete success, to preserve its value.

Once we open up to new faces, we may find there are more we should accommodate. Fine: We can rotate in the runners-up after 10 years, and again 10 years after that.

The idea will take some getting used to. Jay Beeton and Rod Gillis of the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs tell me that Americans generally distrust any monetary change. That's why the $1 coin has never caught on.

It's easy to see how many Americans who tend to be suspicious of government would fear being shortchanged by any alteration of their money. For them, I have reassuring news: Our experience proves that our leaders do not need to redesign the currency to debase it.

It may be too much to hope that our leaders will uphold the purchasing power of our dollars. But if we are going to have to watch as the currency declines in value, at least the government could make it more interesting to look at.