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    • Document type
      Presentation (monograph)
      Author (Presentation)
      • Tschachler, Heinz
      Language (Presentation)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Tschachler, Heinz
      Americans for George
      Das Gesicht der Nation und der schöne Schein der Papierdollar
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      Dr. Dieter Winkler
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      Social and Cultural History, Economic History
      Time classification
      Modern age until 1900, 20th century
      Regional classification
      America → North America → USA
      Subject headings
      George Washington
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Heinz Tschachler: Americans for George. Das Gesicht der Nation und der schöne Schein der Papierdollar (presented by Heinz Tschachler)

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In the fall of 2015 Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, became the third Arizona lawmaker since 1991 to propose a law that would eliminate $1 bills from circulation. Called the USA Act (for Unified Savings and Accountability), the legislation would implement recommendations included in the Government Accountability Office’s annual duplication report to reduce waste and create efficiencies throughout the federal government. One of the key savings in this legislation would be the replacement of the dollar bill with the more sustainable and efficient dollar coin. The switch from paper bills to coins is estimated to generate at least $4.4 billion and up to $13.8 billion in taxpayer savings over thirty years. These are impressive figures, and they should convince the most hardened skeptics. Yet previous attempts to enact similar legislation have not made it past committee review. And opinion polls have shown consistently that few Americans are prepared to give up their beloved “Georges”.

How can this be explained? It is a truism to say that trust or confidence make up the difference between a piece of paper with specific marks and images on it that enables its bearer to command a measure of food, drink, clothing, and other goods, and a piece of the same size torn from a newspaper or magazine that is fit only to light a fire. Pieces of paper money are more than mere commercial conveniences, carrying a specific denominational value. They also carry symbolic value. While they perform their proper function by encouraging trade and investment, they are at the same time documents of culture, cultural products that speak to the identity of a group of people, a place, and a time. The $1 bill performs its cultural work principally through its characteristic portrait of George Washington. $1 bills may be worn out, but to discard them and to replace them with another form of currency, as the law proposed by the worthy senator intends, means to discard the face of the nation, of the “father of his country.”

Symbolic fathers have been all-important for America’s public rhetoric from early on. Already the English kings were seen as “fathers,” fathers who had a responsibility for their family. Yet fathers can fail, such as George III, who came to be seen by many colonists as a “tyrant” neglecting his “children.” The need for a symbolic father persisted, however, and George III’s role eventually was transferred onto George Washington. All kinds of representations of the nation’s founder and savior—the new “father of his country”—soon became omnipresent, including on documents as “banal” as bank notes. Washington’s image was instantly recognizable, and who would dare to not accept a paper bill graced by the face of the nation? Would such a person not be immediately exposed as “unpatriotic”? Moreover, Washington’s image on paper bills suggested that the bills were trustworthy, as trustworthy as the nation’s first president.

In more general terms, George Washington is at the core of a pictorial agenda in which American society has come, and continues to come, to an understanding of itself. In Americans for George, I attempt to explore the political iconography of America’s money, using a symbolic George Washington—the “father of his country”—as its focal point. I argue that representations of the symbolic father on the currency serve an important function: They strengthen the bonds of union to the national community. As a personalized quality mark, the face of the nation constitutes a promise of value that helps maintain trust and confidence both in the currency and in the community at large. The history of America’s money shows that the promise of value was of particular importance during times of crisis: In the early republic, when an antimonarchist agenda collided with the memory of a currency that became increasingly worthless; in the years before and during the Civil War, when the union’s cohesion was in jeopardy and the modern territorial state as yet only nascent; during the Great Depression, when the prevailing sense of fear was to be assuaged by “the more permanent familiarity” of presidential portraits on the currency; and in the present crisis, when the loss of importance of the middle classes is met with an increased investment in patriotic symbols, at the same time as the actual use of currency is increasingly confined to the “cash ghetto”. George Washington thus continues to serve as a symbol of national consensus, continuity, and stability to which all citizens are called upon to defer. Altogether, the hallowed face of the “father of his country” provides at least a semblance of stability in periods of domestic change, and of continuity and comfort in times of international crisis and decline.