The Mythic One

The currency of images, and the images of currency represent important clues to a nation’s identity. The images of two American presidents recurs on both paper and metal currency: George Washington’s likeness occurs on the most common piece of paper money, the dollar bill and the quarter. Abraham Lincoln is present on the most common coin, the penny, and again on the five-dollar bill. One motif constant across American currency is the presence of a face on the front, and a building on the back. The history of image-making in the United States is marked by this duality, by changing captions placed near these images, and by shifting attitudes towards the image-makers.

The didactic function of images was embraced by the founders of America. As John Adams noted in his diary after visiting an art exhibition in London in 1786, “The pleasure which arises from imitation we have in looking at a picture of a landscape, a port, a street, a temple, or a portrait. But there must be action, passion, sentiment, and moral, to engage my attention very much.” Control of the moral attached to the image was of great importance to the founders, and Thomas Jefferson, whose visage now appears on the five-cent coin, engaged in debate with James Madison over the caption which was to appear under a statue of George Washington suggesting that it say “Behold, Reader, the form of George Washington. For his worth, ask History; that will tell it, when this stone shall have yielded to the decays of time. His country erects this monument: Houdon makes it.” The inscription proposed by the legislature included Washington’s achievements, and it seems clear from Jefferson’s suggested alteration that the explicit revelation of a moral sentiment was deemed unnecessary, if the image was crafted accurately enough. The artist who crafts the image is given credit, and his praise is bound to the result. (Williams).

However, the makers of the images on American currency are uncredited. The identity of artists who forge the heritage of the nineteenth century America, like medieval scribes, is also difficult to discern. They are subsumed into the murky depths of cultural heritage. Only iconic heroes survive the ravage of simplification through history, known only by their employer’s stamp. In archives across the country, landscape photos remain unidentified and tintype portraits of people long dead lack captions, with no surviving family to identify the sitter or the photographer who captured them.

Currently, coins of the United States bear the inscription “E Pluribus Unum”— out of many, one. But there is a strange lapse of this motto in the history of coinage. From 1795, the legend began to appear on gold coins. It appeared on most gold and silver coins until 1834, when it was dropped from the gold coins. E Pluribus Unum disappeared from silver coins in 1837. These were the years of Andrew Jackson, the man whose face appears on the twenty-dollar bill. It did not become law that all coins must bear this motto again until 1873. The faces that are on our current paper currency were not fixed until 1928, just over a year before the Great Depression, and a great shift in the nation’s perception of heroes.

Andrew Jackson was a tremendous popular hero of his day. Twenty-dollar bills are dispensed as the most popular denomination by electronic cash machines across the United States, and yet he is not celebrated by all members of our nation. A Choctaw writer I knew snarled with disgust each time this man’s portrait crossed his hands. Andrew Jackson was the man behind the removal of Native Americans from their lands. The years from 1838-1873 were marked by turmoil and a struggle for human rights that carried over long into the twentieth century. In 1839, a new image making technology was introduced that helped galvanize the struggle. From the beginning, photography has both aided and fought against the domination of economic forces. The Jacksonian era was marked by rising forces of technology, and the oppressive physical and economic manipulation of the indigenous populations and imported African slaves. It seems strangely poetic that the cruel frontiersman’s image should be spit out in great frequency by cash machines.

The dream of creating one from many enlisted the support of technology, and new rhetorics were forged along the way. The romantic notion of the heroic frontiersman and the pragmatic practicality which marks American rhetoric is perhaps best embodied in Ralph Waldo Emerson— a staunch critic of Jackson’s Native American policies. Both Emerson and Jackson sat for portraits in the early years of photography in America. The history of photography in nineteenth century America is fractured along economic lines, traveling a parallel path with the struggle for the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of science and technology to fuel the ascendancy of a nation, a nation built upon a mythic one.

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