Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The bureaucrat who put his own face on our money

As the Civil War continued into the early 1860s, U.S. money in the form of coins was in short supply. People tended to hold on the coins as more intrinsically valuable than paper money in such troubled times. And there’re some reports that the war effort’s demand for metals crimped the supply of coins too, even driving up the cost of metal so high that at least some coins became worth more than their face value.

In response, the U.S. government issued fractional notes – paper money in denominations of less than a dollar – beginning in 1862. At one point or another during the war and in the years that followed, paper bills were issued for 3 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents.

During the first several issues of these fractional notes, portraits of either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson were on the bills for every denomination. But that changed with a new issue of notes in late 1864, when the 5 cent note carried the portrait of Spencer M.Clark, the first superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing). The Bureau was the agency responsible for the design of the notes.

Members of Congress were outraged when they saw the bureaucrat's likeness on the new notes, and soon passed legislation prohibiting U.S. bills from carrying the portraits of anyone still living.

Clark reportedly kept his job at the time only through the intervention of U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Clark resigned in 1868, however, as a result of a congressional investigation into alleged improprieties at the Bureau.

Clark is generally credited for organizing and developing the Bureau, creating the basic design for one of the seals appearing on U.S. bills today, and for implementing security measures such as a standard reproduction of federal officials signatures on the bills rather than having those officials signatures penned by Bureau workers. Little definitive information about his life and contributions seems easily or widely accessible, however.

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