From Britain comes the germ of a good idea. The Duke of Wellington's picture is being replaced on the five-pound note by that of George Stephenson, the engineer who developed steam power. Michael Faraday, the physicist (electrical induction), is replacing Shakespeare on the 20-pound note.
There is proper indignation about the demotion of Shakespeare, the greatest shaper of that nation's discourse and imagination. But science and technology deserve honors. A British intellectual says sniffily that although Stephenson is "a man of eminence" he "hardly serves to fill you with patriotic fervor." Well, even if making us fervid is government's proper business, why celebrate so many political figures, such as the Duke? Wellington deserves his ample honors for squishing Napoleon. But what good is done by reminding people, redundantly, of the glories of their most famous political and military pinups? Better they should be nudged to note that science, commerce and the arts are national glories, and necessities, too. Actually, the British know this. Florence Nightingale and Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, adorn some paper notes.
Many European nations steer clear of political persons on their paper currency, partly because those nations are so old and grumpy no one can praise any political figure from their past without picking a fight. German currency features poets, musicians, scientists and the like, or portraits of unknown people by famous painters (Durer, Cranach). That is understandable. If our political history were like Germany's, we, too, would dodge the subject. In France, where governance is emphatically not the nation's gloire, the currency features cultural heroes such as Pascal, Montesquieu, Delacroix, Debussy. Italians, who regard their government as a disagreeable rumor or a temporary inconvenience, decorate their currency with portraits of some of those who have helped decorate and ennoble their peninsula: Maria Montessori, educator and physician; composer Bellini; Bernini, sculptor and architect. The painter Caravaggio is on the 100,000-lira note, worth about $79.
Until 1969, when bills larger than $100-were withdrawn, 11 political men had their portraits on U.S. paper currency: Washington ($l), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), Grant ($50), Franklin ($100), McKinley ($500), Cleveland ($1,000), Madison ($5,000), Chase ($10,000). Now, it does not matter that most Americans haven't a clue who Chase was (Lincoln's first Treasury Secretary). It matters more, but not much, that the sainted Madison, our subtlest political thinker, was re appearances on a large denomination. However, what is seriously wrong with the list is its monomania: Politicians are not the sole sources of a nation's success and grandeur.
There is much more to national enrichment, material and moral, than the people who make its laws and run its institutions of governance. Those important things depend on other things-habits, mores, customs, values, virtues that are shaped, vivified, nurtured and husbanded by people often working far from the public arena.
So, to tutor the nation in the myriad sources of its greatness, let's scrub all the political people from the greenbacks. And while we're at it, let's get rid of the green, which is intensely boring. Let's reissue the big bills and liven up the currency with many colors and the following faces:
$1: Mark Twain. The smaller the denomination, the more common the usage. Who deserves this place more than the man who, through Huck Finn, put the American language of common usage into literature?
$2 (Let's print more of these, please-they are convenient, and not just at the racetrack): For our jazzier money, let's have someone representing our distinctive music, jazz and the musical stage-Scott Joplin, W. C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin.
$5: Choose a painter for the prettified currency, perhaps Mary Cassatt, or Sargent, Remington, Whistler, Homer.
$10: Someone who exemplifies the American turn of mind-Emerson or William James.
$20: Alexander Joy Cartwright, who codified the great game, or Willie Mays, who perfected it.
$50: America's inventors democratized science, turning technology to common uses, so pick one: Fulton, Whitney, Edison or the Wright brothers.
$100: One source of America's success is public education. Therefore: Horace Mann.
$500: By the written word, especially novels, America emancipated itself culturally from the Old World. So make room for Hawthorne, Melville, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Faulkner.
S1,000: If money is, as Emerson said, the prose of life, let's put a poet on it, Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman.
$5,000: Henry Ford (or Charles Kettering or Alfred Sloan). A giant of American industry, a pioneer of mass manufacturing, should grace a large denomination.
S10,000: Wealth without wisdom is not merely barren, it is a menace. Therefore here, at the pinnacle of the currency that is supposed to serve as a store of value, is the place for philosophy in the form of a man who is not much read anymore, which is our loss: John Dewey.
It is frustrating having so many eligible people and so few denominations of paper currency. Of course, there is no reason why we could not rotate the people portrayed on the paper money. The government constantly changes the value of the currency (always in one direction: down), so the paper could be redecorated periodically. The paper currency could be a slowly expanding honors system-sort of a House of Lords for the eminent departed. Someday-not soon, let us hope-we shall want to make room for, say, some American writers still writing. What fun it would be one day to whip out a wallet and pay for dinner with two Eudora Weltys, three Peter Taylors and a Saul Bellow.
Furthermore, we may not always have just 11 denominations. By the time our government gets done debauching our currency (actually, government's inflationary work is never done), we may be buying loaves of bread with $10,000 bills. We will need bigger denominations, so save the names of those (Frank Lloyd Wright, Aaron Copland, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Frost, Michael Jordan ... ) who do not make our new varsity 11.