Hamiltons, Benjamins, Dead Presidents.
All these slang terms for money come from the same source – the portraits on US bank notes. But who is on our paper currency, and why?
Who Is On US Dollars?
Fifty-three different individuals have been on US paper money. Most have held some kind of political office, and true to the nickname, 13 of those have been Presidents. But congressmen, treasurers, and other historical figures have shown up on bills as well.
The most common denominations, the $1, $5, $10, $20, and $100, are well known, respectively represented by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and Benjamin Franklin.
Why? Who Chooses?
As outlined by the US Treasury website:
[T]he Secretary of the Treasury usually selects the designs shown on United States currency. Unless specified by an Act of Congress, the Secretary generally has the final approval.
In 1873 Congress prohibited the use of living people on any US currency, but otherwise, the limitations for chosen figures are pretty minimal.
The current choices have remained unchanged for a very long time. Why this is the case is a bit unclear, but political and historical relevance were likely major factors in the decision. Most of the figures on the common denominations are famous enough that the average American knows their names, if not their stories.
Interesting Figures on US Currency
While the current and common bills are well known, there have been many specialty or short run bills with entirely different historical figures pictured. Not all of them were presidents, treasurers, or even politicians.
Here’s a selection of some of the more unique choices the US Treasury has made:
Martha Washington, the first First Lady, joins the rank of her husband George as a figure on the $1. Her portrait was on a $1 Silver Certificate, which was not used in day-to-day exchanges, but specific government transactions (like customs, taxes, and bank exchanges).
Running Antelope was another figure used on a Silver Certificate, this time the $5. He was a Sioux Chief of the Hunkpapa. His head-dress is depicted improperly on his portrait – the artist used a head-dress from another Native American group entirely.
Robert Fulton & Samuel Morse
Samuel Morse was the inventor of Morse code. He was also an engineer and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy. Robert Fulton was another American inventor – credited with creating the first commercially viable steamboat. They were featured on a $2 Silver Certificate together.
Meriwether Lewis & William Clark
Lewis and Clark were another pair featured together, on a regular (legal tender) $10. Lewis and Clark were famous for their expedition through the American West together, so the pairing makes a lot of sense.
The Future of US Currency
Intermittently, movements arise to change the portraits on the bills. In recent years, there have been major pushes for Harriet Tubman to be featured on the $20. For a while, it seemed very likely that she’d be on the bill by 2020, but now it seems less sure. The US Treasury is saying that it may be some time before any new currency designs are revealed – and they won’t say much about the content of the redesigns either.
Show off your knowledge of the dead presidents (and other historical figures) with our US Historical Figures From Money Portraits quiz. Or if you’d rather imagine a world where we honor Star Wars characters and superheroes on our money, check out our Funny Money quiz.