In God We Trust

A short while ago, a popular TV program (Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?) asked a question: On the U.S. currency is a portrait of a man who was not a president. As I recall, the choices were; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. There was no consensus of opinion by the students or contestant. All candidates were selected.

The response to this question is not surprising. Few of us ever bother to examine our money, and would at best make an educated guess. Think I'm kidding? Whose picture is on the $10 bill? Don't cheat now. Hint, he wasn't a president.

The American currency has a (pardon the pun) rich and colorful history. Benjamin Franklin holds the honor of being the father of paper money. In 1729, he published "A modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency." The colonies attempted to follow Franklin's plan by issuing paper money, and Franklin himself was contracted to print the money issued by Pennsylvania, a service that would often cause his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, to be delivered late.

Then in 1751, the British Parliament outlawed the use of paper money in New England, and in 1764, extended the ban to the other American colonies. In response, Franklin himself went to London in 1766 and successfully petitioned Parliament to allow more money to be printed.

In a letter dated July 11, 1765, Franklin wrote regarding the Stamp Act, "idleness and pride tax with a heavier hand than kings and parliaments." He wrote, "If we can get rid of the former, we may easily bear the latter." His dicta have become a part of the American language and public psyche.

• Remember that time is money.

• Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

• There are three faithful friends - an old wife, an old dog and ready money.

• No nation was ever ruined by trade.

• In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.

The Second Continental Congress created paper money before it had declared independence from Britain. Congress needed money to raise an army to fight a war. They issued paper bills of credit supposedly backed by gold and silver and with a stiff penalty for any traitor who refused to accept them as currency. In 1777, Congress issued $13 million worth of paper bills called Treasury notes, but dubbed "continentals" because of the label "Continental Currency" that was printed on them. By 1781, Congress had issued some $241 million in continentals, and their value had dropped to 75 continentals to one silver dollar.

The experiment with paper money disgusted most Americans and provoked a deep mistrust of paper currency. In response, the United States printed almost no paper money for nearly a century. The one bright spot to this debacle was the enrichment of the language. The continental had lost so much value that it gave rise to a new cliché: "not worth a continental."

It wasn't until 1861 that paper money was again printed. A $50 bill printed in 1863 featured a vignette of Alexander Hamilton; this was replaced with a note issued in 1869 with a portrait of Henry Clay. Subsequent bills featured Benjamin Franklin, Edward Everett, Silas Wright, William H. Seward and finally Ulysses S. Grant, who's portrait still remains.

The $10 bill also featured a variety of vignettes. The first was Abraham Lincoln, followed by Salmon P. Chase and Daniel Webster. On the left of Webster was an allegorical representation of Pocahontas.

In 1870, a Gold Note featured a vignette of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite. Then a $10 Silver Certificate with a portrait of Robert Morris. He was followed by Thomas A. Hendricks and General Philip Sheridan. In 1890, a $10 Treasury Note featuring portraits of Meriwether Lewis on the left, William Clark on the right, and Black Diamond, an American bison, in the center. In 1923, a redesigned note with a portrait of Andrew Jackson was introduced.

It wasn't until 1928 that all currency was redesigned and the current format was adopted. The old large bills which measured approximately 7.4218" x 3.125" were reduced to the current size of 6.14" x 2.61" and featured a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury.

One controversial change occurred when Andrew Jackson's picture was put on the $20 bill. Jackson had opposed the national bank and the printing of paper money. Opponents questioned his suitability because Jackson had been identified as a leading "exterminator of Indians" and the public commemoration of Jackson obscures this part of American history.

During his days as a general and later as president, Jackson broke treaties he had made with the Indians. He had forcibly removed the Indians from their lands and located them west of the Mississippi. Even today because of his treachery, many descendants of those tribes refuse to accept a $20 bill.

There have been other changes. In 1963, the words "Will Pay to the Bearer on Demand" were replaced with "In God We Trust." This slogan too has been irreverently modified, as "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

Now, for you readers who didn't cheat, or have not already guessed, Alexander Hamilton's portrait is on the $10 bill, and Benjamin Franklin appears on the $100 bill.