America’s Currency Is as Weirdly Outdated as Its Political Structure
The dollar’s aesthetic conservatism is a sign of how hard reform is in the United States.
In its first week in office, the Biden administration made a series of measures designed to undo former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legacy both substantively and symbolically. Besides measures like canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the administration’s Treasury Department announced that it would speed up the production of $20 bills featuring the 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman, reinstating an Obama administration plan that Trump officials had tried to kill by slow-walking.
For the Biden administration, the decision makes perfect political sense. Placing Tubman on the currency—and overturning a Trump decision to block it—will not fix racial wealth disparities or end unjust policing practices, but it is a visible symbol of the administration’s policies and its commitment to the Black women who helped Joe Biden win.
There’s another way to look at this story, though. Scholars in international relations and related fields have long taken seriously how official symbols, like stamps, public architecture, and coins and currency, reflect the institutions that produce them—and the ideas that animate those institutions. Viewed in that lens, what matters isn’t that the case ends with Tubman going on the $20 bill, but that U.S. symbols are so politicized and so resistant to change that putting anyone new on Federal Reserve notes takes so much effort.
Americans are famously resistant to learning from other countries’ experience, but it’s worth recalling just how unusual the conservatism of U.S. banknotes is. When Tubman displaces President Andrew Jackson from the face of the $20 bill (he will continue to appear as a statue on the reverse), it will be the first time anyone has been shuffled off the currency since the 1929 standardization of Federal Reserve notes.
Compare that with the Bank of England notes. To be sure, these notes all feature Queen Elizabeth II on their face—as they often have for the reigning monarch—but their design changes regularly. Those rotations offer English currency opportunities to display portraits of other national notables. The current line-up includes industrial revolution figures James Watt and Matthew Boulton, artist J.M.W. Turner, Jane Austen, and Winston Churchill. These notes replaced the previous generation, which featured Charles Darwin, composer Edward Elgar, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. And Bank of England notes change with what seem by American standards to be dizzying speed: There have been five designs of the 10-pound note alone since 1964.
Canada similarly changes its notes far more frequently than the U.S. government does. It’s already on its second major currency redesign of the 21st century. Although Canadian currency tends to feature politicians’ portraits on their face, their reverse is far more interesting than the American version. On the five-dollar note, whose face features Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, the reverse features Canadarm2, the country’s contribution to the International Space Station. The new 10-dollar note features civil rights activist and Black businesswoman Viola Desmond on its face and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the reverse.
Japan redesigns yen banknotes only slightly less often, but it also displays a far greater variety of portraits and images than U.S. notes. A redesign announced in 2019 will include portraits of Umeko Tsuda, a pioneer in women’s education, as well as bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitasato. The reverse of the 1,000-yen bill will feature the artwork The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.
The varieties of currency designs offer tantalizing evidence for scholars interested in how the performance of politics affects the legitimacy of governance. Kathleen McNamara’s The Politics of Everyday Europe, a study of how the European Union uses symbols like currency to legitimate its authority, demonstrates that currency is inextricable from larger political projects. The displacement of local forms of exchange by national, and then in the EU’s case by transnational, currencies reflects the EU’s ambition of centralizing and rationalizing authority—but in such a boring way that you’re not supposed to notice.
The banknotes that manifest those currencies therefore also manifest the political project creating those currencies. McNamara argues that euro notes display “abstracted bridges and windows” rather than recognizable national symbols because the EU wants to appear “complementary to, not in competition with, local identities.” If euro notes appear inoffensive and forgettable compared to the (modernized) nationalism of yen and British notes, that’s a feature, not a bug. The aspiration of the European project is to blend into the background, just as the euro’s images are “standardized into a seemingly unobjectionable blandness.”
Making currency serve a political project can be difficult. The Danish researcher Anders Ravn Sorensen finds that redesigning the krone has become increasingly difficult for the Danish central bank as conflicting ideas about what “Denmark” should be have battled for symbolic primacy. Heightening the stakes was the belief that the krone would have to symbolize Danishness—but not nationalism—to not only a domestic but also an international audience. As the central bank put it, a “banknote is a little work of art; the face of the country internally and externally.” But the notes couldn’t be too artistic—an interesting modernistic proposal was dismissed as “too weird for banknotes.” The Danes ended up with notes featuring bridges (albeit real ones, not the imagined ones on the euro).
What does U.S. currency say about the American political project? Economics graduate student Kerianne Lawson analyzed the design of 198 countries’ currency to create indices of the symbolic contents of those notes in categories including gender, science, religion, art and culture, and politics. She found that countries with higher political content on their banknotes—more portraits of former heads of state, activists, and so on—scored worse on Freedom House’s political freedom rankings and the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index.
The United States scored a zero for representation of religion (top scores: Macedonia, Egypt, and Iran), representation of women (top scores: Australia, England, and Anguilla), arts and culture (top scores: Switzerland, Uruguay, and Romania), and science and agriculture (top scores: Somalia, Cameroon, and Central African Republic). The United States did, however, score second overall by how much political imagery its currency contained, behind only Thailand.
Correlation isn’t causation, but Lawson’s cross-national findings hardly contradict the idea that the stodginess of U.S. currency design reflects an ossified political structure that promotes, rather than ameliorates, inequality. Sometimes that promotion of inequality is brutally literal. The dollar is the only major currency without different sizes and tactile markings to allow those who cannot see to distinguish bills of different denominations (and reportedly will not have such markings before 2026).
If McNamara is right that official symbols shape how people think about government, then what’s the project that U.S. currency reflects? Americans love to talk about how young and dynamic their country is, but their currency tells a different story. The currency is all about venerating the old (the most recent figure to grace the bills is President Ulysses S. Grant, who died more than half of U.S. history ago). And where other countries get national heroes in art, science, and activism, Americans get a mixed bag of historical figures who uneasily represent the country in the 21st century on the front of the currency. (If Tubman goes on the currency, she will still be outnumbered by former slaveowners by at least three to one, maybe four to one depending on how you count Alexander Hamilton.) On the back, instead of space stations or art masterworks, Americans get weird, possibly Masonic imagery and federal buildings and monuments.
The project of American currency, then, is to preserve the past while projecting an image of power. That could change. The designs could be refreshed to include a wider range of U.S. accomplishment, having Harriet Tubman joined by cultural figures like James Baldwin, political trailblazers like Dalip Singh Saund, and scientists like Sally Ride, would better reflect this sprawling, dynamic country.
There would be howls of protest. Dethroning the presidents would be unconventional for a country that’s slipped into veneration of its temporary monarchs. But a little iconoclasm could go a long way to breaking those familiar habits and getting Americans used to thinking of themselves the way they are now.