(Aired on KGPR, Montana Public Radio Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011)
These are not easy times. You might have a buck or a five-spot. Maybe you’re totin’ around a ten, a few twenties, a fifty. If you’re flush, you might be able to flash a couple hundred dollar bills.
Take a good hard look at that cash. Seven denominations, printed in decayed blackish green, the unfortunate color of oxygen-deficient sludge. Our redesigned $10, $20 and $50 notes add a faded blood-tinged blush, as if to echo current monetary policy: “Help! We are bleeding money!”
I can’t help looking at these long-dead white males, our Founding Fathers and our dear martyred President Lincoln, without imagining what was going on below their shoulders when these engravings were made.
I can say with certainty that Ben Franklin was constipated when his portrait was engraved. Seriously, get the man some fiber, will you? Look at the face gracing the $100 bill, and tell me he’s not expressing particular effort.
On our fifty dollar bill, Ulysses Grant wears a thirsty poker face. Is that a sterling flask in his breast pocket? Colonel Theodore Lyman, Grant’s contemporary, said it best. “Ulysses Grant habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall and was about to do it.” This may also explain Grant’s reported penchant for liquid anesthetic.
On the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson’s body is aimed left. His head is aimed right. This is an inside joke. Jackson was notoriously two-sided, with acknowledged strength and fearless pluck, but he could be self-absorbed and vindictive. He openly despised Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and a Cherokee Indian chief named John Ross, among others. Is Jackson, while posing for posterity, riding right on a reluctant steed, affronted by something coming from the other direction?
Alexander Hamilton’s ten dollar portrait is remarkably attractive. Other paintings of our first Secretary of the Treasury are not as flattering, but Hamilton had enough appeal to stir up a lurid affair and the poor judgement to publicly divulge disgusting intimate details. The dapper Hamilton, wearing a popped collar and white bow tie, is aiming right and looking left. Bet you ten bucks this engraving was inspired when Hamilton was two paces from Aaron Burr, looking the wrong way.
Abraham Lincoln has sunken eyes and cheeks, an unruly strand of hair over one large droopy ear, his tie askew. Our sixteenth president looks, in this portrait, to have just been awakened from a fitful sleep in an uncomfortable wooden chair. Lincoln isn’t about to waste time gussying up, and he’s not going to make chit-chat in hopes of a flattering likeness. Look at that face. He’s planning something. Something unpleasant, something painful, something necessary. Do you really need to spend that fiver? Keep a Lincoln engraving as a solemn reminder that discipline can eventually overcome disaster.
Thomas Jefferson looks vaguely distracted if not downright annoyed. See that furrow in his brow? The two dollar bill? Hardly worthy of mention. Jefferson looks like he’s realized the backhanded compliment, which explains the part of the picture this engraving might have missed: a small spade hidden in one hand and a sharp quill pen in the other: Jefferson was equally adept at digging furrows in Virginia soil and digging remarks.
George Washington wears a look of weary relief. His overtly phallic neck is festooned with ruffles and a stylish bow. Unlike Lincoln, Washington posed while sitting back on a fine leather wing chair that was dyed the color of oxblood and tanned to a subtle sheen. His small eyes cut a dark warning. Go ahead, pull out a new $1 note and then pull out an older one: see how George’s eyes lose their intensity as this portable engraving passes from hand to hand? Washington has lost sight of the horizon, along with the rest of us.
These long dead, brilliant, brave, fallible white men, they don’t want us to forget: these United States are a valuable and fragile gift. Never mind what’s going on below the shoulders, please.