Presidential Faces Worthy of Recognition
Use dollars and cents to study the biographies and achievements of America's past presidents.
By Erin Bailey
November’s presidential election provides the perfect backdrop for studying our nation’s past leaders. Instead of cracking open a history book, try cracking open your piggy bank and taking a look at the faces staring back at you.
Saying No to Kings and Yes to Eagles
The framers of the Constitution realized the importance of a having a respected monetary system. Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, Alexander Hamilton began drawing up plans for a national mint to coin money. Given their history with the King of England, early Americans were anti-royalty and didn’t want leaders’ portraits on their currency because they feared it was too king-like. In 1792, Congress mandated that all American coins show on one side "an impression emblematic of Liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty, and the year of coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver coins shall be the representation of an eagle, with this inscription, 'UNITED STATES OF AMERICA'. . . "1
In addition to coins, states and private banks began to issue paper notes. However, these lacked uniformity. With so many designs, colors, and sizes, it was easy to make counterfeit notes. The variety of money made it difficult for citizens, and even bankers, to recognize real money. To combat this problem, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was established in 1861, and a year later, the first standardized US paper notes began rolling from its presses. To foil counterfeiters, the money was redesigned often until the 1920’s.
Choosing the Faces and Places
In 1929, a committee appointed by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon chose the portraits and vignettes that appear on the faces and backs of today’s notes. The individuals featured on the notes were chosen because most citizens of the time were familiar with these famous people. Americans would likely have seen portraits of these historical figures so they would more easily recognize a note on which the portrait had been changed.
Collaborate to Select New Honorees
Next, begin a discussion about why these particular people were chosen to be featured on the nation’s money. Be sure to point out that not everyone on our currency has been a president. If possible, find an image of the Susan B. Anthony one dollar coin or the Salmon P. Chase $10,000 bill. As a class, make a list of attributes or achievements that might earn someone a place on a bill or coin. Older elementary, middle, and high school pupils should read the news article “Ohioans fight to keep native son Grant on $50 bill.” The article discusses reasons why some lawmakers wanted to replace Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the fifty dollar bill. Leave time for a discussion and questions that might arise from this.
Next, select eight students who will participate in a separate part of the activity and pull them aside. Divide the rest of the class into small groups. Tell them to imagine it is 1929 and they have been appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to select the people who will appear on a series of new bills. Present them with a list of people who have been nominated for this honor. Three of the participants you selected will be engaged in a similar activity; however, the three nominees that they will research came later in US history and include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.
Ask the five remaining participants to review both lists of nominees and come up with five additional Americans deserving of the honor. These will be called the wild-card nominees. Students will follow the same procedures as the other groups. Reconvene in a day or two and have the groups present their research. The class can vote on a winner from the wild card nominees. As a wrap-up activity, visit the US CURRENCY website where each group can design their own bill or they can create one on paper.
1 From the History of the US Mint http://www.usmint.gov/about_the_mint/historianscorner/?action=production
Visit Lesson Planet for more resources:
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