The Slatest

Which White Guy Should Obama Replace When We Honor Him on Our Currency?

The future?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by U.S. Mint, Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images.

In a triumph of common sense, historical awareness, and crazed enthusiasm for a Broadway rap musical, the Treasury Department has announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, which will void a previous decision to take Alexander Hamilton Hamilton off the $10. (Update, 4:45 p.m.: Treasury says there will still be some sort of image of Jackson on the back of the bill.) This is great news, and it brings up another important question: Which historical figure should our current president, Barack Hussein Obama, replace when we honor his legacy by putting him on an item of currency?

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That Obama is the United States’ most admirable, accomplished modern president is a widely acknowledged fact, of course, but it seems possible that controversy might develop if he replaces another equally beloved figure. Here’s who’s currently on our coins and bills:

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  • Penny: Abraham Lincoln
  • Nickel: Thomas Jefferson
  • Dime: FDR
  • Quarter: George Washington
  • Half-dollar: JFK
  • Dollar: George Washington
  • $2 bill: Thomas Jefferson
  • $5: Lincoln
  • $10: Hamilton
  • $20: Tubman replacing Jackson 
  • $50: Ulysses S. Grant
  • $100: Benjamin Franklin

The most obvious candidates for replacement would seem to be Grant and JFK, whose historic import is not quite as weighty as that of the others on the list. If we’re removing someone from the currency, though, it probably makes sense to take off a slave owner rather than an individual like Kennedy who, for all his faults, did not perpetuate the system of owning human beings as property for purposes of unpaid labor. On that note, we should probably also continue to honor Grant, whose support for civil rights during Reconstruction was for many years unjustly maligned because of the influence of white Southern revisionists.

So who does that leave? I would suggest it leaves Thomas Jefferson, who—in addition to having owned slaves and held demeaning views about racial “inferiority”—is already on two items of currency. To respect the positive elements of Jefferson’s legacy, let’s leave him on the $2, giving the nickel over to the first black president. And, while we’re at it, how about we make a symbolic statement about George Washington’s own mixed legacy by leaving him on the dollar but reserving the quarter for the first female president, Hillary Clinton?

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