Today, the Federal Reserve released new $US100 notes.
They have a bunch of new security features, but they will remain “Benjamins,” as Founding Father Franklin will remain on the front, as he has been for 99 years.
But before 1914, $US100 bills featured several different portraits, including 6th President James Monroe and Union Admiral David Farragut.
One Franklin predecessor stands out from the rest.
His name was Thomas Hart Benton.
And he went by the name “Old Bullion.”
Benton was a five-term senator from Missouri who’d served as an aide-de-camp to General Andrew Jackson.
His loyalty to Jackson put him squarely in Old Hickory’s camp when Jackson declared war on the Second Bank of the United States.
According to a Benton biography by Teddy Roosevelt — himself a hard money enthusiast who admired the senator — Benton was the most well-known gold bug in the country, “zealously” in favour of an independent treasury and hard-money payments.
“The government was to receive nothing but gold and silver for its revenues, and it should be kept by its own officers in real, not constructive, treasuries — strong buildings, with special officers to hold the keys.”
Jackson and Benton, largely representing rural interests, argued the Second Bank had gained too much power and was subverting states’ rights. Farmers moving out west had little use for the credit the bank subsisted on, they said.
Roosevelt quotes Benton thusly:
“I am willing to see the charter expire, without providing any substitute for the present Bank. I am willing to see the currency of the federal government left to the hard money mentioned and intended in the Constitution;… every species of paper might be left to the state authorities, unrecognised by the federal government!”
Of course Jackson and Benton ended up succeeding, and the country proceeded to enter its chaotic Free Bank Era, where local banks sprung up across the country issuing currency that often proved practically worthless.
Benton would claim he never intended such an outcome — “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States to put up a wilderness of local banks…I did not strike Caesar to make Antony master of Rome.”
But Roosevelt admits Benton’s “mental vision was singularly warped in regard to some subjects,” and the Senator appears to have numbered among those who blamed the rich for having purposefully sparked the panic of 1837.
He was not so bent, however, as to not recognise when crises required unpleasant but necessary measures, and he ended up supporting a one-time issue of redeemable Treasury notes.
Still, he never recanted his views on currency, and he went on influence William Jennings Bryan, probably the most famous hard money proponent in American history (though by then gold had taken on a different role entirely, and Jennings Bryan only argued against gold in favour of silver).
It’s probably best to remember Benton for his opposition to slavery and secession; both views ended up costing him elected office.
This is what most interested Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy included Benton among his “Profiles In Courage.”
“No man gave more than Senator Benton for the preservation of the Union,” Kennedy wrote.
Thus, when national greenbacks were reestablished in 1863, Benton, who died in 1858, landed on the $US100.