CoinWeek Podcast #156: Money & Race: An American Story
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In the pageant of American history, some things aren’t negotiable.
In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, Charles and Chris talk to author and historian Michael O’Malley about how issues of race and money commingle in real and sometimes even surprising ways. O’Malley is the author of a book titled Face Value: The Entwined History of Money and Race in America – a powerful work that delves quite deeply into a number of numismatic topics, including the intrinsic monetary value of the human body, the depictions of black figures on Confederate paper money, 19th-century racial views on silver and gold, and more.
These are topics often fraught with passion. We attempt to break it all down in numismatic terms… next on the CoinWeek Podcast.
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The CoinWeek Podcast is brought to you by PCGS. The print and digital version of the May-June issue of the PCGS Rare Coin Market Review is out now. Be sure to check out Dutch graphic designer Ootje Oxenaar’s excellent article about the art and application of banknote design. Plus an in-depth look at the 1921 Chapman Proof Morgan dollar, PCGS pricing, and more.
To read this issue and to learn about PCGS’s grading services and special offers, visit www.pcgs.com.
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The following is a transcript of Charles and Chris’ conversation with Michael O’Malley:
Charles Morgan: Actually, collecting is one of those manias that doesn’t limit itself to one subject area, and you will find that amongst some of the more prominent coin collectors, there’s vintage music collectors.
Michael O’Malley: I’ve always wondered, somebody should write a book about the history of collecting as a thing. My own take is that it’s always about arresting circulation. It’s the stereotype of the guy who collects Star Wars figures that they have to be in the original packaging, that’s all about hating circulation, hating use. It’s all about arresting circulation, I think. I don’t know what to do with that, but there’s something good that could be done about it.
Charles: There’s a moment when you get something before you actually use it that’s full of possibility.
Michael: Right. All sorts of things could happen. Also, the unboxing videos, all those weird unboxing videos.
Chris Bulfinch: Yeah. Companies put so much work into the packaging that things come. I mean, you buy an iPhone, and you think that you’re finding some kind of scriptural tablet or something.
Michael: Yeah, it is like that.
Chris: There’s this piety about the minimalism that is weird. I found a couple of years ago when I still had full access to JSTOR because my college forgot to cancel my account. As long as I had, I just started printing things out because– [crosstalk]
Charles: You paid for it, trust me.
Chris: Right, as Trinity’s tuition is unjustifiably high. I printed out a ton of literature about collecting because I was interested in exactly the same thing. What’s the root collecting impulse? They’re all of these different theories. It’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve wondered about, too.
Michael: Yeah, I haven’t found a good book on it, but I think that book is waiting to be written. Maybe anthropologists have done it. I don’t know.
Charles: Well, hey. Hello, everybody. We’re already starting. I’m Charles Morgan, Editor of CoinWeek, with Chris Bulfinch. Today, we’re very fortunate actually to have back again, Michael O’Malley, author of Face Value: The Entwined History of Money and Race in America. This is our second go-around. Unfortunately, I messed up, and we didn’t record our first session. We’re back, Michael has been gracious enough to come back and talk with us. When we talk about collecting coins, or paper money, or any of these objects, we talk about holding history in your hands, what does that really mean? In the sense of understanding the people, their aspirations, the motivations they had, behind their creation of these objects, their decision to use paper as opposed to specie, their decisions to support silver as opposed to gold, their decisions to create different images, even on the coins, or what they valued, all these things are very important and sometimes fraught with very challenging subjects.
Today, we decided we were going to go a little deeper into these objects that normally you would find in a numismatic publication, talk to a real historian who’s done groundbreaking research into this topic and written a very accessible book. We will have a link at the bottom of our description, so you can check it out for yourself. You can get it on the Kindle app or the analog copy.
Chris and I put together some pretty interesting questions we’d like to ask Michael, and to get him to explain to us some of these concepts, and why they are so prevalent throughout the history of America. I’ll let Chris start and then I’ll jump in shortly.
Chris: Many collectors are familiar with a massive array of paper money used in the colonies before and during the Revolutionary War. In your book, you write that in a specie-poor colony, imagined intrinsic racial difference came to define value in a way that would echo down the centuries. Could you explain a little bit about how race and value are related to each other in Colonial America?
Michael: I think what the most basic way would be that absent gold, they don’t have gold, and when they get it, it goes to England, it flows overseas most commonly or concentrates in the ports and goes overseas. They search around for a lot of different ways to symbolize value, or they put different kinds of paper. What really works is racializing value. The argument I make is that there’s a similarity between the word ‘specie,’ meaning gold or silver, precious metal, and ‘species’ meaning a non-negotiable difference, a non-negotiable biological difference. Imagine Africans as possessing a non-negotiable difference and non-negotiable essence, makes it possible to traffic them, like money, like goods, but also to use them like money as the store of value that enables issues of paper, and other forms of credit. So, there really is a racialization, there’s a parallel between the idea of specie and the idea of species.
Chris: That imagined intrinsic racial difference is made manifest on obsolete banknotes that depict slaves. In an essay that you published in the collection, a collection of essays, Historians on Hamilton, your essay was “The Ten-Dollar Founding Father”, as a reference to a line from one of the songs in the Broadway musical. You talk about how vignettes on obsolete banknotes were aspirational in a way that the depictions of steam locomotives or other symbols of progress was– those symbols were a way of the printers and the bankers articulating what they wanted to use the capital for. Specifically in relation to the depictions of slaves, how, if at all, did those obsolete banknotes manifest this racialized understanding of value?
Michael: Well, often there’s slaves associated with the stuff they make with cotton. There’s a direct correlation, but also the if the goddess of commerce signifies enthusiasts for commerce, the presence of a slave signifies an enthusiasm for slavery. Your listeners would know, what’s that post-Civil War note that has the picture of coins on the back of it?
Chris: Oh, a gold certificate, right?
Michael: Yeah right. It has a picture of gold coins on the back of it.
Chris: National Gold Bank Note, I think.
Michael: Yeah, I think that’s right. The picture of the image of slaves on a banknote signifies that there was some store of value somewhere, some fundamental essence of value that will persist whatever the banknote does. However that banknote can move, the black person or the banknote can’t renegotiate their identity. What I meant before, about imagined difference is that the difference between black and white is obviously really negotiable. The presence of mixed-race persons points that out. Jefferson knew this, he already had them in his household. Clearly, the difference between white and black is negotiable. People were negotiating it all the time, but persistently, when people would talk about race, they would talk about miscegenation, as they sometimes call it hybridism, as something that would fail, it would produce infertile offspring, because there was a fundamental, non-negotiable difference.
Chris: But the aversion to miscegenation or the aversion to hybridism is a little bit ironic considering America had a bimetallic monetary system for a very long time. Gold was ascribed magical properties in the minds of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century Americans. The hierarchy emerged in the same way that a lot of the same people who were articulating the philosophy of intrinsic racial difference had a hierarchy of metals in their minds. Could you elaborate a little bit on that hierarchy and what it meant for bimetallism in the United States?
Michael: It was very common, particularly after the Civil War, to find people arguing that gold was the natural metal of the Teutonic races, they would literally say that. The Germanic peoples used gold and lesser peoples use silver. The Spanish were a silver-handling race. They would sometimes use that phrase for the Mexicans. They were a silver-handling race, and that you couldn’t actually– no alchemy could transmute the blood of the Anglo-Saxon and make the Anglo-Saxon into a silver-handling people. It’s complete nonsense. The most striking instance in this is when they’re building the Panama Canal, they divided the workers, they gave– the black workers, the dark-skinned workers, they paid in silver, they were on the silver roll, and the white workers, they paid in gold. You would be on the gold roll, or the silver roll, depending on your race. Literally, they were making a connection between money and race, literally.
Charles: One of the things that I think about that you’re spurring me to consider, it seems like the separation or the hierarchy of metals has gone way back to Roman times, or before even, the wealthy would trade in gold. If you’re a laborer, you’d never ever earn enough money to have a gold coin. It goes all the way down to like the base metal, lead or bronze or whatever they’re using. If you think about the United States, the first coins they make are the cent and the half cent, like a very lowly denomination for common people. I’d imagine when you think about some of these banknotes, with these aspirational motifs, these aspirational motifs are depicting basically the future. In some of these more isolated pockets of America, Jefferson’s agrarian version of America, they wouldn’t have had electricity or industry in the same way. They’re basically seeing an America the future that has not yet reached them, which is why when you get something like the World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1890s, people travel from all over Middle America to see electricity in a city for almost the first time. They see skyscrapers for the first time.
Then, when it comes to these banknotes, it seems like there were denominations that were made or meant to be used by the lower classes, by orphans, and by African Americans who are not given the full franchise of citizenship. I don’t know if the spending slave notes what slavery motif’s on them, because I don’t know if they’re handling that kind of money.
Michael: There is an interesting moment– it’s clear in public discussion that what they call shinplasters, I’m sure everybody knows what those are, are understood to be that the currency of the poor, there’s a moment– where there’s a bill, of course elites hate shinplaster currency because it undermines the value of other kinds of currency and also because they talk about it as promiscuous, dirty. It’s dirty, it’s filthy, it circulates promiscuously without order. There’s a bill in the 1840s to ban shinplaster currency for Washington D.C. Henry Clay gets up, he’s opposed to it, and he says, “If you’ll do this, you’ll be taking away the money of negros, widows, and orphan children.” There’s a whole community that use shinplasters as a form of credit, as a form of mutual trust. They might take their pay from their employer in shinplasters, and they’d know that all the local businesses would take them. The shinplasters might actually be better money for them than other forms of paper in circulating.
Charles: I’m assuming the shinplasters would be circulating as limited legal tender. In other words, somebody couldn’t accrue like thousands of dollars of shinplasters and expect that to be accepted by a bank or any other institution as payment.
Michael: There’s a guy in Baltimore who makes shirts, it’s interesting. He’s in the rag trade, and he makes rag money. He pays his workers in rag money. The money says this entitles the bearer X amount of dollars at the pay window of his shirt company. If you were a butcher, and one of his employees paid you in that, you could presumably go to the pay window and get that back. But I don’t think he’s printing huge amounts of money. He says he’s doing it as a service to people. It’s convenient for them, that’s what he tells himself. It’s widely detested in Baltimore, but it seems to have functioned reasonably well for people who are being paid very little and had no access to higher forms of money.
Chris: After the Civil War– to expand on the negative associations that people were drawing with some forms of paper money, or the negative associations a lot of people had with paper money. After the Civil War, many components of emancipation and citizenship for Freedman likened Black Union soldiers to the paper money issued by the federal government beginning in 1861. Could you explain the connection that was being drawn between Black Union soldiers and paper money and how Americans were thinking about paper money at that time?
Michael: The union uses greenbacks, the Confederacy uses paper money too. The greenbacks are controversial from their moment of issue. The claim, of course, is that they don’t represent any real value. They’re founded strictly in law, they have no real or intrinsic value, so they’re kind of empty. When Lincoln makes the decision to allow black soldiers to enlist, they are treated very similarly, that is they lack the intrinsic qualities of a soldier, they lack the intrinsic qualities of a citizen and so they represented enactment of equality by law, rather than in fundamental nature.
The famous quote from Frederick Douglass, he says– He pushes really hard to let African Americans fight in the Civil War. He says, “Once they get the brass buttons and the eagle on their uniform, no power can deny their equality. Once they’ve served their country honorably, then we must admit their equality.” Of course, that is true for some people. Some people see it that way, he’s not wrong about that. But there are a significant number of people who regard the issue of greenbacks as in the same as the issue of African American soldiers. They’re inflated to a value that their natural intrinsic qualities can sustain.
Charles: This is an issue actually you bring up before with a writer who went under the pen name, Pro Patria. The point that Pro Patria was making is that paper money created a scenario where the social order was made topsy turvy, where you would be able to confuse a regular person to Jane for a lady. Is this just coming to the idea that paper money is, in essence, a statement of value that has no basis or backing? It’s an empty promise made manifest by a government as opposed to something that is universally known and accepted as real?
Michael: I concluded in looking at this, that Americans are pretty profoundly ambivalent about exchange itself. On the one hand, we love the freedom of self-transformation. We love to tell the story of a person who rises from nothing and transforms themselves. We genuinely do. People fight and die for that. At the same time, we’re ambivalent about the implications, because if it’s always true, then there is no way to tell Jane from my lady. If the paper money economy enables the poor person to dress well and buy the apartments of wealth, how are they not really the thing they appear to be? That’s the fundamental anxiety that’s unleashed.
Often the people who are most enthusiastic about the market, are most enthusiastic about market freedom, want to imagine gold as a refuge from that kind of unbounded renegotiation, where people are just transforming themselves without any kind of referee to judge who’s a decent person and who’s not.
Chris: Those anxieties were heightened in the late 19th century with successive waves of immigration. How does immigration fit into the imagined a picture of value that whether they’re gold bugs, or whether they’re just xenophobic Americans? How does immigration fit into this picture? There were plenty of arguments from political economists. It’s a reasonable question, why are some countries wealthy and some are not? It’s Adam Smith’s question. Well, it’s a good question. One of the answers they come up with is that the people coming over in the 1890s are poor, this is the phrase they use, “low wage races.” They don’t understand money. They’re not intellectually equipped to understand the modern economy. It was often used to say that, like the instinct of an immigrant to save money, was criticized by say, Simon Patten who was a very influential economist, because there’s something wrong with that. They don’t understand the modern economy, they should be spending money, but instead they hoard it. In McTeague, Frank Norris’s novel [And the inspiration for the great American silent film Greed (1924), directed by Erich von Stroheim. —CoinWeek], which is a great novel about gold. It was several of the characters hoard mindlessly with the kind of peasant instinct for saving, they don’t ever spend the money. They just hoard it.
The part of the economic discourse evolved the idea that people coming over simply could not understand political economy. That argument was used against black people, but then it was used against, like Sicilians who came from a poor country, why were they poor? They were a low-wage people. Why were the Irish poor? They were a low-wage people.
Charles: Yeah, but these assumptions are basically put into sort of policy at the same time. I mean, you see anti-Chinese legislation, and obviously, you had after the Civil War, and emancipation, you had actually a century of Jim Crow, and all sorts of race-based policies, which made an uneven playing field. I mean, one thing I wonder about is, we do see much discussion in contemporary context about wealth inequality today. I do have to wonder, if at the time of the Colonial period leading up to the Revolutionary War, if there wasn’t also a tremendous amount of wealth inequality that may have, contributed to the way our founding fathers, and that generation of Americans when they start our monetary system. The way they understood money was, from the perspective of those who had the wealth and influence to have wealth as opposed to regular laborers, and slaves.
Michael: Well, until the ’70s really, there’s always an inflation party in American politics. There’s always a party that wants loose money or soft money, and it’s obvious why. They want it because it makes credit easy, and it makes repayment easy. It tends to transfer money from the holders of capital to the seekers, and that paper money camp would include Benjamin Franklin at different points in his life. It includes lots of people who are wealthy because a lender is often also a borrower. There is always a discourse about democratizing the economy so that the poor person can thrive, that kind of language is common.
By the Civil War, it’s become installed pretty closely at the heart of the Republican Party. There’s Eric Foner’s classic book about this, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, that talks about the ethic of democratizing the economy, which is very strongly felt. There’s always been a party that’s enthusiastic about expanding credit. Then, of course, there’s always been a party that’s enthusiastic about contracting credit. That ambivalence has always been present in American life as far as I can tell. The difference is after the ’70s, it kind of disappears from politics for a while, and inflation fear silences that political party.
Chris: Not all Americans were sold on gold as the most stable or most appropriate medium of exchange. The language employed to describe non-gold-handling people, silver-handling people, that makes me think of the Populist Movement and of the Free Silver Movement. Not all Americans sort of bought into this concept of gold as being superior, or as being like the ultimate metal. Could you talk a little bit about how the Free Silver Movement relates to this concept that you’re talking about, of the link between gold and white supremacy? Do the Populist and does the Free Silver Movement, do they buy into this kind of metal hierarchy? Or do they reject it altogether?
Michael: I’m one of those among the historical camp that says there’s a big difference between the populace who are greenbackers, who want paper money, and they don’t want any metallic backing at all. They want paper money and the populist who wants silver. Initially, populism comes out of the Greenback Party, and the greenbackers will say, quite frankly, they want paper money, and what backs the paper money? They’ll say, “I served at Shiloh, I served in Antietam. Paper money is backed by my courage and sacrifice, the sacrifice I made for the Union cause. Our commitment to the Union cause backs this money.” That’s far more important than any precious metal, they’ll make that kind of argument all the time. They’ll also say, “If we have paper money, we can have a flexible currency that can expand as needed. We can meet the needs of the people.”
The greenbackers strongly influenced the populace who want a paper currency, but they’re kind of in the historical literature notoriously seduced to the dark side by the silver movement, which offers as gold does, the promise of something intrinsic and fundamental that there’ll be some stable foundation to values, and the rhetoric of the populace is all about the dollar of our daddies. They’ll say, “Well, Hamilton wanted silver. Hamilton founded the dollar in X amount of gold and X amount of silver. He didn’t say just gold, silver was what the founders intended. We should return to that.” They express it in terms of this kind of piety towards ancestors. At the same time, there’s a great journal that was published by gold bugs called Sound Currency, you can find it on Google Books. They had issue after issue of attacking the silver standard, and they’re the ones who very strongly racialized the language. They’re the ones who say to populists, “You’re becoming like a Mexican if you use silver.” They have to unseat that reverence for silver that the populace was advancing.
Chris: That reverence for silver from the populists essentially it replaced the reverence for gold of– the gold bugs reverence for gold. It seems like it’s similarly dogmatic that you’re just replacing gold with silver in that sort of [crosstalk] thought.
Michael: It’s fascinating to look at– this is also available for free online is Coin’s Financial School, which is the great pamphlet of silver. It’s beautifully illustrated, very cleverly illustrated to make the case for silver, and it tries to make the case for silver. Often, silver is like a struggling, beleaguered, oppressed person trying to swim upstream against the current of wealth and oppression. It’s really interesting to look at that language. They see silver as more democratic, because there’s more of it, and it will cause some inflation, but also that it’s enshrined in history.
Charles: Well, William Jennings Bryan made that famous religious speech about not being crucified on a cross of gold. This was a religious war as much as it was an economic one.
Chris: Well, of course, their opinion, it’s not unreasonable. Why are you creating an artificial monopoly in the money supply? Why are you somewhat arbitrarily against the opinion of the Founding Fathers deciding that only gold can be the foundation of the money? They’re quite reasonably calling attention to that. They’re quite reasonably calling to the costs of it. I think, if you were a greenbacker, you’re just rolling your eyes and shrugging your shoulders, why are we bothering to talk about precious metal at all? We should just get rid of it, as we’ve been doing, since 1934 domestically, and 1972 internationally. It’s been quite a while that we haven’t had a specie standard.
Charles: Let’s go from the actual physical characteristics of the money to start talking about the symbolism and the effigies. It seems to me that the Founders, they had a choice at the beginning of the country to– they could have put George Washington’s likeness on the money, sort of an imperial motif. Washington didn’t want that, so they went with Liberty. This aspirational goddess drawn from antiquity, appropriated for America. America, there’s a school of thought thinking maybe they call America “Columbia”. Liberty exists in various forms throughout much of the 19th century, only begin to be replaced with likenesses of Native Americans or allegorical figures with Indian headdresses. At the same time, we’re having Indian Wars. Indians, Native Americans, indigenous people are not considered sovereign citizens, inheritors of the great American traditions, yet we’re producing these monies and putting it out. Do you see that also as a racial component to American money?
Michael: That’s a really interesting question. The Buffalo nickel, what does it mean to have the head of a Native American on that nickel? I think one argument would be people would say, “Oh, it’s an homage.” We’re acknowledging the place of Indians in our history. I guess you can make that argument. You can also just as easily argument in subjection, it indicates subjection. Your image is now stamped on this thing that I use for all sorts of purposes to suit myself. It’s doesn’t seem that much like an homage. I doubt that people whose ancestors were killed saw that as an homage. It’s a tricky question, because, of course, we would want to honor and acknowledge Native Americans in our history. There are plenty of people with native blood who want to acknowledge that fact of their heritage, it’s hard to do it without tokenizing, without reducing.
Charles: Well, I don’t know if you’re aware, but there was a controversy regarding whose likeness was used on the Buffalo nickel. This was a controversy that roared around the time of its actual circulation. I think there were a handful of native men who came forward and claimed to be the model, and the government and the designer of the coin came out on multiple occasions to say, “No, no, no, it wasn’t this person. It wasn’t that person.” [crosstalk] In other words, the Mint and the government had no problem using a likeness of somebody from another culture, but if anybody in that culture wanted to take credit for actually being the basis of it, the government made sure that everybody knew that they didn’t endorse that. They couldn’t get any celebrity off the actual use of their own likeness, which I thought was very interesting.
Michael: A few years ago, when there was the movement to change the $20 bill, or change the $10, I was asked to be part of like a panel of historians who were meeting at the Smithsonian with the Secretary of the Treasury. It was fun. We talked about what could be on money. One of the proposals was to have like a graphic novel. There’s a lot of real estate on the back of a bill. You could have three panels that would tell the story of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, or Rosa Parks getting on the bus or Benjamin Franklin and the kite, it could tell any number of stories. The three panels would allow you to have an actual narrative in there. If you wanted to show a native person, you could show something more than just a static head, which is passive and symbolic, you could actually have a story of somebody. I think that would be an interesting way to represent. You can’t do it with a coin that very well, but you could do it with a bill, and you could have it be a story as much as a symbol.
Charles: It seems to me that, like, our money being fairly conservative in this fact that we don’t update or modify the designs very often. What was the reaction you got from that proposal?
Michael: It was interesting to be there because there were a lot of historians and everybody has their favorite person they want to put on the money. There are certain rules, of course, about who can be put on and in what depictions. There was some agreement that money represented a moment of telling who we were, who we aspired to be, as we said before, and it’s particularly true when the money is cut loose from any kind of connection to specie or where it only represents our gross national product or communal enterprise. I had my favorites. I think there might have been different ways to finesse it. It was a controversial decision when they did it, and I think remains so. One way might be to say, I think we discussed this before, we’re just going to redesign all the bills at once, or we’re just going to read that redesign them every 20 years, we’re going to make a habit of rethinking the design of bills. I think that’s a reasonable decision for a society to make.
Charles: Well, it seems if you do it that way, then replacing like– I assume we’re sort of talking about the Andrew Jackson/Harriet Tubman controversy. Yeah, it seems to me that with that whole decision that you draw attention to the replacement of one effigy on a note, and then everybody’s asking, “Well, what’s the reason?” Of course, every decision is political by its very nature. It becomes more controversial than it really needs to be because frankly throughout our history, we’ve commonly changed motifs, on banknotes and on coins, but it seems the past century that tradition has given way to, what I call an “imperial” money where you’ve elevated these figures into the house gods essentially for the American Empire, and getting rid of Washington or Jefferson, or Roosevelts or any of these figures would be fraught because now you’re saying– people will accuse you of erasing history.
Chris: Every historian who was on this panel was adamant and agreeing that the last person who should be on American currency is Andrew Jackson, a man who hated the central bank. The deep irony of Jackson on the 20. People were saying, “Put aside what you think about his Indian policy, put that aside. The man hated central banking,” and to put him on the $20 bill is deeply ironic, he’s probably rolling over in his grave for quite a while as a result. The general feeling was that if you want the money to mean something, Hamilton should be on the 20, or Grant, or Roosevelt–Franklin or Theodore–somebody who stood for a federal state. Whereas Jackson stood for a kind of hostility to the federal state. Now, maybe he should be on the money because of that reason, but it was common among all historians that Jackson was problematic, not just because of what people thought about his Indian policy, but because of his hostility to the very idea of centralized bank currency.
Chris: Given how problematic a figure he is in the history of central banking, or at least problematic for those who would support a central bank, why was he ultimately included if he wasn’t really an appropriate standard bearer or an appropriate symbol to be featured on federally issued paper money?
Michael: My understanding has always been that it was a consolation prize for the South, that is that you’re getting this thing, this central bank, you’re getting this stronger federal state, but you’re going to get unambiguously Southern figure on the money. Of course, Jackson is a great man, by any standard, not that I necessarily approve of or disapproval, but he accomplishes a lot. He, in that sense, deserves beyond the money. As I understand this is kind of a consolation prize to the South because otherwise, it’s a lot of symbols of fed– as would be sort of appropriate to a lot of symbols of federal power on that money.
Chris: Your essay in Historians on Hamilton deals with the changing meaning of Hamilton on paper money. How did his role in America’s founding make him an appropriate figure for inclusion on federally issued paper money and why was he not featured on obsolete banknotes?
Michael: Yeah, I think it has to be because of his deep commitment to central banking. Interesting to read Hamilton, he’s very smart. he’s extremely cynical. In his essay on the establishment of the Mint, he talks about why people like gold. He says, “Basically, who knows why? I don’t know, but they do. Let’s go with it.” He’s not interested, as Jefferson would be interested, in the philosophy of it. He’d want to come to some final answer. Hamilton is pragmatic and, frankly, cynical, I think. Let’s get the rich on board, let’s have a central bank, sell shares for a high price, we’ll get the rich enmeshed in the project of the new country. Jefferson can howl about that all he wants.
Chris: Hamilton understood the importance of appearance in terms of cultivating public trust. Do you think he was aware of the connection between race and value that you write about, was that something that people were acknowledging explicitly?
Michael: He wrote about it. “Admixture”, he called it. He wrote about the color. He was very concerned with the color of the coins, and he wrote about it very explicitly. You didn’t want too much gold or too much red or too much silver, that you wanted a balance. He talked about it in ways that described racial mixing. Now, I don’t know if he was actually thinking about that. I can’t prove that, but his language, like a lot of the language is quasi-racialized. They use that term all the time to describe miscegenation. They call it “amalgamation”. The practice of amalgamation will ruin the South, that kind of language would be common. Amalgamation was the same word they use to describe the alloying of metals, or they use it a lot. Gold and silver are amalgamated, and he would talk about the proper balance. “You don’t want too much red, because it injured the beauty of the white,” he said, things like that.
Charles: That makes me think about another colloquial term we use, “melting pot”. When did that become like a standard term that would be thrown about in American culture to talk about the blending of the different people from different parts of the world? I mean, it was just something that kind of becomes school child rhetoric after desegregation, or is this something–?
Michael: No, it’s later it’s a play. Israel Zangwill is a Jewish immigrant write a play called The Melting Pot, which makes that metaphor. It’s, I think, early 20th century, maybe late 19th, I don’t have the date at hand, but the most famous iteration of this is the Ford Motor Company. They do know this, they have a sociology department, and it’s devoted to trying to Americanize immigrants, and they had this pageant they would do when you graduated from the Ford sociology course, which included history and English, things like that. Immigrants would be on one side of the stage, in their native dress, and in the middle was a giant pot, and they would literally climb up into the pot in their native dress, and teachers would stir it. Then they would come out on the other side, in suits with American flags. It was literally The Melting Pot enacted.
Charles: Basically, once you give up your identity, then you can become a real American.
Michael: Yeah, that was pretty much the message that Ford was promoting. Ford, until he becomes a crazy anti-Semite, in the ’20s, Ford was actually pretty progressive on immigration. I mean, he had no problem with hiring these people and there’s no reason they can’t become equal citizens was his argument. Of course, they have to surrender their native dress in the melting pot. People always talk about it as an industrial metaphor. It’s a metaphor of an industrializing society. You’re going to melt everybody down and cast them.
Charles: Well, he needed customers.
Michael: Yeah. [crosstalk] Right. He needed them to buy cars. He paid black people higher wages, he paid higher wages in general, and he hired black people. Part of his argument was, “I need people to buy my cars.”
Charles: Well, let’s switch back gears. Let’s talk about the Harriet Tubman redesign, which I assume is an ongoing concern in the current administration, after being put on indefinite hold during the Trump administration. I don’t know how I feel about it, to be honest with you. I mean, on the one hand, I feel that we’re taking somebody off of the notes in a very sort of a public way of debasing them and their memory deserved or not, replacing them with somebody who’s a certain respect is going to be known mostly for her actions during the Civil War in– and basically against slavery. The Underground Railroad. I mean, I think fewer people know that she was a spy for the Union Army or is involved further than that, and probably even fewer people know that she was a staunch suffragette and actually a major philanthropist for later years.
If we’re going to go in that direction on the money, then essentially– we’re putting the only person of color on a piece of paper money and they’re most known for standing up against injustices put on blacks by whites as a reason for being there. Don’t policymakers understand that that’s going to cause a backlash?
Michael: Well, if you want to extend that, you could say, what she’s most known for is helping people’s property escape. I mean, those people she’s helping liberate are expensive propositions. She’s an admirable person. Admirable person, historically. She strikes active blows for freedom, she starts with nothing. She’s quite an impressive person. By that standard, she deserves to be there as much as Jackson is. I mean, she starts humbly, like Jackson does, with fewer advantages. She accomplishes a surprising amount with very few resources. In that sense, she deserves it.
I objected to her for opposite reasons. I didn’t really object to her, I think it’s fine. There’s going to be a problem with anybody. My objection to her was that it’s too easy to make her a sedate and maternal, elderly kind of mammy figure. It’s too easy to kind of pull her teeth, historically. The one thing you could say about her is that she’s quite a fierce person, and resolute and courageous, and you could just put her in a shawl, with the kerchief around her neck, and she looks like the stereotype of mammy. She almost looks like Aunt Jemima. I was afraid that that would happen, that actually picking her was a way of softening what you’re talking about.
Chris: If the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Treasury adopted your graphic novel concept, I imagined that that would open up a lot of possibilities to portray her as a more dynamic, fierce figure. Right?
Michael: Well, she doesn’t even have to be fierce, that’s one side of her. Like anybody, she has a lot of sides. Yeah, you could tell her story in a narrative form and it would change the idea that she was simply replacing one icon for another. It would kind of undermine the idea that this is an equal swap of icons, which I think is what you were implying before, an equals– it might mitigate that to say, “Well, there’s a story here.”
Chris: Sure, because you’re changing the symbolic structure in a more profound way than swapping one portrait for another, you’re adopting a more dynamic visual representation.
Charles: Also, most well-known likenesses of Tubman happened when she’s an elderly woman. During the Civil War, she’s a young woman in her 20s, not too many images of her because that probably wouldn’t help her with the underground railroad.
Michael: Right, that would be a strategic mistake. That might be a way of softening or finessing some of the anxiety that people feel about the change in iconography. It’s like statues. I mean, on the one hand, you can say about statues. Most people have no idea who that statue in the Square is depicting and what they did. I can ask people now, “What did Admiral Farragut do?” “Why is there it’s a Farragut Square in D.C.?” I’m pointing towards D.C. Most people don’t have any idea. The Civil War, 1812, some revolutionary, no idea?” The statues fail. They fail their purpose. You could say that about the money. They failed their purpose. The portrait of Lincoln is beautiful. The portrait of Washington is stunning, artistically, but it fails to tell much about it.
Charles: Well, I don’t want people to get me the wrong way. I think assuming the Tubman note actually does happen, [crosstalk] I think it’s going to be one of those things where a majority of Americans are either going to be ambivalent about it, or they’re going to generally accept it. I think you can’t undersell the power of representation. I think when people actually see themselves represented in the money, in the economy, and the culture, that does have a positive impact on it, and it helps create an environment where more good things can develop.
I do wonder, though, if without overhauling the entire series of currency, overhauling the entire series of coins, just swapping out one effigy for another, especially when you go from Founding Fathers or presidents to social figures or historical figures, that there’s an incongruence to that, which gives you, again, people the reason to say, “I want to resist this change, this is just political correctness,” or whatever. Whereas if the entire thing was overhauled, then you’d have five or six, seven ideas that could be decided by artists and historians, and then you would have basically a moment of an event in American history, as opposed to this one-off little situation.
Michael: Part of the argument against that is that they have a schedule for revising them. They don’t want to do it all at once. That was part of what they said. The 20 was next and then the 10. They had a very set schedule for revision. I’m sure they can depart from that. I suppose you could make the argument that changing all the currency at once is more psychologically destabilizing than changing it gradually. I think your point is a good one, and a reasonable one.
Chris: You just mentioned the psychological destabilization that changing the designs of the currency could bring about, and you also mentioned assuaging anxieties that people might have about Tubman’s appearance. Again, assuming that the Biden administration continues with a plan to place her on the 20. Where do you think those anxieties come from? Why do you think people respond as viscerally as they do to this change? Some people viscerally, some people don’t care, but those who respond viscerally.
Michael: I had a discussion with my father-in-law once who was a marine, he was enlisted in the Marines at 17, and retired as a three-star general. He was talking about people wanting to rename buildings and tear down statues. I said, “Look, people are talking passionately about the meaning of history, and they’re looking up facts to support their case. Explain to me why that’s a bad thing. That’s what I do for a living.” If people are discussing the meaning of the imagery on money, that’s for history, that’s a gain. If people are educating themselves, and taking a position that’s a gain. I think, there’s a certain number of people for whom the act of thinking about history is unsettling, because I did that, already. I answered that. I passed that test, I graduated, I’m done. I don’t want to think about it anymore. I do think that people who love history are more committed to the idea that it’s endlessly being renegotiated. You’re always thinking about how to understand the past, and it’s never set in stone. Of course, the engravings are literally set in steel, not stone, but they’re set in a way that means you don’t have to think about them.
Chris: That gets back to the concept of negotiability, where we kind of started that in terms of public discussion of history, there seem to be people who think of it in a very fixed way for whom an icon like Jackson is very important, and it’s important to maintain them as a way to– pick up what s Charles said, lionizing them or turning them into a mythic figure. Do you think that the Tubman note and the discourse that surrounds it, do you think that that is helping to destabilize that sort of fixed notion in history? Do you think that that will help citizens think about history more critically?
Michael: I would, often in class, my goal for undergraduates is to teach them not a particular interpretation of history, but rather the sense that they’re entitled to think about it. It belongs to them. They’re entitled to work with it. If it would encourage people to claim some entitlement over the meaning of history, that seems like a good thing. I think, would certainly be a powerful symbol to see yourself on money. I know, in my family, the Kennedys were Irish Americans, were just a huge deal. For my parents, it was a powerful symbol that they had arrived and they were accepted, they were American, they weren’t second class in any way. That was deeply meaningful to them. I think it has to be meaningful to somebody to see themselves represented on money, to see their face, it has to be really meaningful. And that involves a renegotiation of a lot of things.
I would argue, again, that a lot of our debate about money is caught up in our own ambivalence about market negotiation. Again, we love it, but we’re made nervous by it at the same time. It seems to me historically, that the more free the market seems to become, the more people want to imagine racial difference, and also to imagine intrinsic value in money, is the more and market freedom extends, the more they get interested in that.
Chris: In our previous conversation, you had mentioned the American sort of ambivalent relationship to capitalism, and that at times, like you just said, free exchange and when markets are their freest, people often retreat into an essentialism. They retreat into assigning fixed definitions, and it seems like we might be in– my sense, and it’s a vague one is that since 2008, especially we’ve been in a similar space, do you see that sort of a similar process playing out since the Great Recession, since the Great Recession started?
Michael: Yeah. It was fascinating to watch Obama because he was such a powerful symbol. Lots of people wanted to call attention to the fact that he was a mixed-race person, that was common to point that out. He himself acknowledged it, and he described his African American identity as to some extent chosen, that he had had a mixed heritage and this is the one he inhabited. That probably also troubled people about him that he was both really black and also not really black in troubling ways. If you add to that, the financial destabilization– I point out in the book that when Obama was elected, there were lots of alarmist concerns about what they called Zimbabwe-style inflation, and they never talked about Weimar Germany. They didn’t talk about Argentina, they talked about Zimbabwe as the model. Again, low-wage races, or people who don’t understand money fundamentally, that was the implied discourse there. It’s been interesting since the pandemic, which has really pushed a lot of that kind of– well, it’s brought John Keynes back off the bench into the starting rotation. There’s been much more enthusiasm for government spending in the Keynesian model than there was certainly in 2008.
Chris: I don’t think we could discuss the American fixation with gold, and maybe it’s a worldwide fixation with gold, without talking about Donald Trump to some extent. He basically managed to guild his entire life in some sense. Your book was published in 2012, so in the aftermath of the Tea Party Revolution. Among certain libertarian factions, there’s still this lingering fascination with the gold standard. Do you think that the racialized understanding of value and the racialized image of gold that we talked about from the 19th and early 20th centuries, do you see any strains of that in the 21st-century fixation on the gold standard or trying to return to it? Do you see that as connecting in any way to the image that Donald Trump created of himself?
Michael: Yeah. It’s hard for me to make sense– it’s early for his story.
Chris: Fair enough.
Michael: I don’t want to talk about people until they’re dead, basically. They don’t argue back, the dead people. One way to interpret Trump is the gold coins and that heroic masculinity that he seems to embody for a lot of his people. Another view of Trump is that he’s a classic paper money guy. His career is built on exaggerated promises. It’s built on outward signs of success that he then hopefully will turn into success. He looks in that way a lot like Colonel Sellers in Mark Twain’s novel, The Gilded Age. He looks like a classic fast-talking salesman. That gold statue of Trump that was paraded around CPAC was really jaw-dropping. On the one hand, it looked like the golden calf, it looked like idolatry. The other hand, it was so clearly comic. He was wearing like boardshorts, I think he had a magic wand.
Charles: I believe it was made in Mexico too.
Michael: Yeah, and it was made in Mexico. It didn’t have the appurtenances of an idol. It didn’t look like a movie idol. It wasn’t stirred in forbidding. It was actually sort of comic. There’s an element of his persona, I think that was always about flim-flam. I think people from New York would scratch their head, they’d say, “We always knew this guy was a flim-flam man.” I had a student who said, “Yeah, there’s people from Iowa, they don’t have flim-flam men, so they weren’t used to seeing them.” It was a different take. There’s an element of him that has as much to do with the expansion as paper money, part of American history as it does with the gold standard. I guess that’s the simple point I’m trying to make.
Charles: Michael, it’s been a pleasure having you on. Thank you for doing this, agreeing to do this a second time. It’s been very lively. Thank you, appreciate it. Have a great weekend too, by the way.
Charles: That was a great discussion. I’m glad that we didn’t on the technology side mess that up again.
Chris: [laughs] Yeah, it would have been tough to go back to the well a third time, huh?
Charles: Yeah, it just would be really great to be like– it just takes me back to like a long time ago for me, but when I was back in college, just how interesting some of the classes were. I’m sure taking a history class of Michael O’Malley’s would probably be something definitely well worth the very pricey George Mason University tuition.
Chris: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. I read his book right about a year ago actually. I read it as research. I read Face Value as research for a piece that I was reading for CoinWeek actually, that was the impetus, that’s how I discovered his book. Just looking at the title and looking at the description on– I think I ordered it on Amazon. It was something that immediately piqued my interest. I read it, I absolutely loved it. I knew that he’d be a great interview subject. I’m glad we had the chance to talk to him. Then of course, it’s funny, I read his essay in Historians on Hamilton, which is a great essay collection that anyone interested in the musical or just in the musicals’ impact on culture should absolutely read it. It’s a great collection of essays and his essay in it is really good. What’s funny is, I had been given the essay collection as a gift by someone, I think it’s from my parents, and then know that Michael O’Malley had written an essay in it, and I didn’t initially either, but then I was looking at his faculty page on George Mason’s website, and I saw, “Oh, he wrote something that’s in this collection of essays. I know him.” Anyway, both his book and his essay in Historians on Hamilton, it’s great, so I would highly recommend that people go and check that out.
Charles: Well, yeah, definitely. Like I said, this isn’t the kind of topic we normally have the opportunity to cover. Usually, when we talk about numismatic objects, we’re really focusing on the physical object, or maybe what they sold for, how rare they are, how scarce. Obviously, with the creation of money, the state or the issuing authority is conveying a message. Sometimes, those messages are benign, sometimes they’re highly political, sometimes are highly charged and highly political. But these objects all have meanings, they had meaning at the time of their creation. In fact, actually, it’s interesting what Michael O’Malley said about statues, and how their commemorations ultimately fail. In time, as they lose the impact of the actual accomplishments of the figure, they just become an ornament of the landscape. I think for numismatists, it’s something to be considered, when you look at any of these objects, if our only instinct is to look at the art and to look at the design and the date and the mint mark, then we may be losing touch with the actual historical implications of these objects. It’s always important to keep that in mind when you’re doing your research, or even your collecting, because in my opinion, understanding these topics and the time and the use of these objects, is what makes them so fascinating, at least to me.
Chris: Oh, absolutely. That’s a big part of the reason that I have started making a career of this, is that precisely because I share your interest in the kind of the cultural history, not just the material history. I agree with you that it’s easy to get lost in the technical minutiae of collecting, whether it’s learning how to grade certain coin series, whether this coin grades right, did it get a CAC sticker, look at those die cracks. All of those technical details are valuable and important and having a sophisticated understanding of those is vital to more deeply enjoy numismatics. I also think that it’s– if not wrong, I think, to not understand how these things connect to larger social and political movements, I think is to miss a lot of what makes the object so fascinating, and then worthy of the fascination that we all have for them. I was really happy. Michael O’Malley can explain those connections so much better and more articulately than I can. I was really glad to have had the opportunity to have let him do that.
I was really struck also by his discussion of the two different strains of populism that the greenback and the sort of silver strains of populism. I just hadn’t thought of the Populist Movement, of the Free Silver Movement in quite that context. Him making that connection between greenbacks and the free silver movement, him drawing that connection was really interesting. It’s given me something new to kind of look into. Again, it was just a really fun interview, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it.
Charles: Well, all that talk about melting pots makes me think of fondue and I think it’s dinnertime for me.
Chris: [chuckles] [crosstalk]
Charles: Anyway, thank you, CoinWeek audience, for sticking through that. We’ll be back next week with another great episode. Until then, I’m Charles Morgan.
Chris: I’m Chris Bulfinch.
Charles: Happy collecting, guys. Thanks, Chris.
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