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Would It Be Illegal to Put Margaret Thatcher on U.S. Currency?

Probably not. And would it be any stranger than Douglas MacArthur on the Filipino peso?

USD $10 bills, formally known as Federal Reserve Notes, from 9 of the 12 district banks of the Federal Reserve System on display in the exhibition "The Fed at 100" at the Museum of American Finance December 17, 2013 in New York. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the Fed. First column, top to bottom: A for Boston, B for New York, C for Philadelphia. Second column, top to bottom: D for Cleveland, E for Richmond, F for Atlanta. Third column, top to bottom: G for Chicago, H for St. Louis, I for Minneapolis. The Fed was created on December 23, 1913, with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act, largely in response to a series of financial panics, particularly a severe panic in 1907. Over time, the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System have expanded and its structure has evolved. Events such as the Great Depression were major factors leading to changes in the system.  AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
USD $10 bills, formally known as Federal Reserve Notes, from 9 of the 12 district banks of the Federal Reserve System on display in the exhibition "The Fed at 100" at the Museum of American Finance December 17, 2013 in New York. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the Fed. First column, top to bottom: A for Boston, B for New York, C for Philadelphia. Second column, top to bottom: D for Cleveland, E for Richmond, F for Atlanta. Third column, top to bottom: G for Chicago, H for St. Louis, I for Minneapolis. The Fed was created on December 23, 1913, with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act, largely in response to a series of financial panics, particularly a severe panic in 1907. Over time, the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System have expanded and its structure has evolved. Events such as the Great Depression were major factors leading to changes in the system. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

When asked during this week’s Republican debate which woman they’d like to put on the $10 bill, neither Ohio Gov. John Kasich nor former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could seemingly think of an American deserving of the bang for the buck. Instead, both opted for foreigners: Kasich for Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun widely admired for her charitable works in India, and Bush for Margaret Thatcher, the union-busting former British prime minister. But both put forward their choices with a caveat: As Bush put it, “It’s probably illegal. But what the heck.”

Is it illegal to put a non-U.S. citizen on U.S. currency?

Likely not. According to Andrew Shiva, founder of the National Currency Foundation and a research associate with the Smithsonian’s National Numistic Collection, “the secretary of the Treasury has extremely broad authority when it comes to the design and people depicted on U.S. currency.” That is, a Bush or Kasich Treasury appointee would be able to do his boss’ bidding — unless the president wanted to mess around with the $1 bill, in which case, that’s another story: Shiva says an act of Congress is required to remove George Washington from the U.S.’s smallest bill.

And there’s precedent — sort of. Not all people featured on U.S. currency have been citizens. Both Sacagawea and Pocahontas have appeared on U.S. currency, despite the fact that Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924. And, though a citizen, the about-to-be-deposed Alexander Hamilton was born abroad in what was then know as the British West Indies.

However, it is rare for a country to put people on their currency that are not nationals, said Emily Gilbert, associate professor at the University of Toronto and co-editor of the book Nation States and Money: The Past, Present, and Future of National Currencies. “National currencies try to capture someone who has some kind of national resonance in terms of nation building, heroism, or leadership,” she said. That’s why currency often features political leaders, who historically have mostly been men.

There are a few examples of other nations that have previously featured foreign people or symbols: Serbia features Nikola Tesla, a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering, on its 100-dinar note. Tesla was born to a Serb family in what was then part the Austro-Hungarian empire, but is now part of Croatia. He lived much of his later life in the United States, where he became a U.S. citizen, but Serbia still takes tremendous pride in the ethnically Serbian inventor. In Northern Ireland, banknotes — not technically legal tender, but accepted by merchants — are issued by individual banks, and can be quirky: The Danske Bank five pound note featured a picture of the U.S. space station until the note was discontinued 2004, while the Spanish Armada appears on First Trust Bank’s notes to commemorate the shipwreck on the shores of Ulster.

But perhaps the closest analogy to the Iron Lady making an appearance on a greenback comes in the Philippines, where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur appeared on commemorative coins both in 1947 and 1980 to recognize his efforts to defeat Japanese invaders in World War II. His image on the 1980 coin with opaque sunglasses and a corncob pipe in his mouth is particularly striking.

However, for Bush and Kasich, the suggestion of putting a non-U.S. national on our currency has not played well. Bush’s choice of Thatcher, who he called “Ronald Reagan’s partner” has been particularly maligned — even Brits don’t like the idea — and on Thursday he showed signs of quietly walking back the proposal, saying he would solicit suggestions from the American people — but only after calling the debate “not the most relevant thing in the world.”

Photo credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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