Should U.S. Currency Celebrate Slave Owners?

The faces that grace the coins and bills Americans use every day are the men that created this country and made it strong and democratic. But the faces you don’t see on any currency are those of the women and men who made the founding fathers’ lifestyles and political aspirations possible — their slaves. Should we really be celebrating slave owners on American currency? And if we are, what does that mean for the legacy of American slavery and the fight against modern-day slavery around the world?

In case you’ve gotten into the habit of relying on your debit card for all financial transactions, here is a quick run down of the politicians on our most commonly used denominations: George Washington ($1, quarter), Thomas Jefferson ($2, nickle), Abraham Lincoln ($5, penny), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Andrew Jackson ($20), Ulysses Grant ($50), and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Of these seven founding fathers, at least five owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln, famously, did not. And it’s unclear whether or not Alexander Hamilton ever owned slaves himself. Benjamin Franklin, despite his famous conversion to abolitionist ideals, owned two slaves in the first part of his life, and Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson owned slaves while in office. Even discounting Hamilton, that means over 70% of the faces on U.S. currency are the faces of slave owners.

Let’s face it, America is a country that was founded and built on slavery. But unless I get the flux capacitor for that time machine I’ve been working on in my basement, there is nothing I or anyone else can do about that fact. What we can do, however, is decide how we’re going to deal with the legacy of slavery and the continued enslavement of people illegally in America. Do we recognize slavery, both past and present, for the egregious human rights violation and blight on society it was and remains? Or do we gloss over the nasty details of the past, present, and future of slavery in America because it makes us uncomfortable?

You may think that fact that most of our money is decked-out with the faces of slave owners is a petty issue easily blown out of proportion. After all, Washington and Jefferson were just men of their times — could we really have expected them to see slavery as evil when the rest of society condoned it? No. But we do need to think about how America should be represented today. As the most powerful economy in the world, the American dollar has tremendous meaning and influence. And the literal faces of those dollars are the faces of people who owned other people. Why doesn’t that upset us? Why is it so easy to overlook that fact and focus only on their contributions to the country?

If we want to heal the legacy slavery has left in America and really address the issue of modern-day slavery, we need to look at how our social attitudes about slavery are represented and symbolized. And one of those symbols is smiling up at you from inside your wallet.

Photo credit: SqueakyMarmot



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