The Faces on Every U.S. Bill

The Famous and Obscure Men Who Grace Our American Currency

Alexander Hamilton and the $10 bill
Alexander Hamilton is on the face of the $10 bill and is one of America's Founding Fathers. John Piekos/Getty Images

The faces on every U.S. bill in circulation include five American presidents and two founding fathers. They are all men: George WashingtonThomas JeffersonAbraham LincolnAlexander HamiltonAndrew JacksonUlysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin. The faces on larger denominations that are out of circulation - the $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 bills - are also those of men who served as president and Treasury secretary. 

The federal agency responsible for printing the seven denominations, however, was planning to reintroduce a woman to a U.S. bill for the first time in a century in upcoming years. The Department of Treasury announced in 2016 it was planning to bump Jackson to the back of the $20 bill and place the face of Harriet Tubman, the late abolitionist and former slave, on the front of the currency in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which acknowledged and guaranteed the right of women to vote.

"The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old," then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew wrote in announcing the plans in 2016. "I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy."

Who Decides the Faces On Every U.S. Bill

The person with the final say over whose faces are on every U.S. bill is the secretary of the Department of Treasury. But the exact criteria for deciding who appears on our paper currency, save for one glaring detail, are unclear. The Treasury department says only that it considers "persons whose places in history the American people know well."

The faces on our U.S. bills fit those criteria, mostly. One figure might seem obscure - Salmon P. Chase - but so, too, is the denomination on which he appears: the out-of-print $10,000 bill. (Yes, there is actually a $10,000 bill. And a $100,000 bill. But more on those later.) Chase was actually the first person responsible for the design of the nation's paper currency. 

Why No Living Person's Face Is Allowed on a U.S. Bill

Take a look at the faces on every U.S. bill. Notice anything? That's right. They're all dead people. That's because federal law prohibits any living person's face from appear on our currency. States the Treasury department: "The law prohibits portraits of living persons from appearing on Government Securities."

Over the years, rumors spread by email and social media have claimed living former presidents including Barack Obama were being considered for inclusion on U.S. bills. One parody that has been shared repeatedly and mistaken for true states Obama's face was going to replace George Washington's on the $1 bill. “We thought about creating a new denomination for Obama, but George Washington has had plenty of time in the sun," the parody states. 

Redesign of U.S. Bills Would Include First Woman

The inclusion of Tubman's face on the $20 bill was part of a redesign of all $5, $10 and $20 bills to honor women’s suffrage and civil rights movements announced by the Treasury in 2016. Tubman would be the first woman represented on the face of paper currency since First Lady Martha Washington’s portrait appeared on the $1 silver certificate in the late 1800s. 

The faces of Lincoln and Hamilton, which appear on the $5 and $10 bills, would remain in place. But the backs of those bills would depict key players in the suffrage and civil-rights movements - Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. on the $5 bill, and Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul on the $10 bill.

But the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 may have halted those plans. The Republican president's administration has not yet signed onto the idea of swapping out Jackson with Tubman. “People have been on the bills for a long period of time. This is something we’ll consider. Right now we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on,” the Trump's Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, told MSNBC in the summer of 2017. 

Trump himself has declined to endorse Tubman being on the $20 bill, stating before his election that he preferred to keep his favorite president there: “I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination."

While Trump has not rescinded the Treasury plans announced in 2016, he has not yet addressed the currency redesign as president.

So whose faces are on every U.S. bill now? Here's a look.

$1 Bill - George Washington

$1 bill
The face of George Washington, the first president of the United States, appears on the $1 bill. Public Domain

George Washington certainly fits the bill as being among the "persons whose places in history the American people know well," the Treasury department's only known criteria for deciding whose face goes on a U.S. bill.

Washington is the first president of the United States. His face appears on the front of the $1 bill, and there are no plans to change the design. The $1 bill dates back to 1862, and at first it didn't have Washington on it. Instead, it was Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase whose face appeared on the bill. Washington's face first appeared on the $1 bill in 1869.

$2 Bill - Thomas Jefferson

$2 bill
The face of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, appears on the $2 bill. Public Domain

President Thomas Jefferson's face is used on the front of the $2 bill, but that wasn't always the case. The nation's first Treasury secretary, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, was the first person to appear on the bill, which was first issued by the government in 1862. Jefferson's face was swapped in in 1869 and has appeared on the front of the $2 bill since then.

$5 Bill - Abraham Lincoln

$5 Bill
The face of President Abraham Lincoln appears on the $5 bill. Public Domain

President Abraham Lincoln's face appears on the front of the $5 bill. The bill dates back to 1914 and has always featured the 16th president of the United States on it, despite being redesigned several times. 

$10 Bill - Alexander Hamilton

$10 bill
The face of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton appears on the $10 bill. Public Domain

Founding Father and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's face is on the $10 bill. The first $10 bill was issued by the government in 1914 and had President Andrew Jackson's face on it. Hamilton's face was swapped in in 1929, and Jackson moved to the $20 bill.

The printing of the $10 bill and larger denominations following the passed of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created the nation’s central bank and authorized the circulation of Federal Reserve Bank Notes as a form of currency in the early twentieth century. The Fed's board of governors later issued new notes called Federal Reserve notes, our form of paper currency.

$20 Bill - Andrew Jackson

$20 bill
The face of President Andrew Jackson appears on the $20 bill, for now. There are plans to replace him with Harriet Tubman. Public Domain

President Andrew Jackson's face appears on the $20 bill. The first $20 bill was issued by the government in 1914 and had President Grover Cleveland's face on it. Jackson's face was swapped in in 1929, and Cleveland moved to the $1,000 bill.

$50 Bill - Ulysses S. Grant

$50 bill
The face of President Ulysses S. Grant appears on the $50 bill. Public Domain

President Ulysses S. Grant's face appears on the $50 bill, and has since the denomination was first issued in 1914. The Union general served two terms and helped the national recover from the Civil War.

$100 Bill - Benjamin Franklin

$100 Bill
The face of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin appears on the $100 bill. Public Domain

Founding Father and famed inventor Benjamin Franklin's face appears on the $100 bill, the largest denomination in circulation. Franklin's face has appeared on the bill since it was first issued by the government in 1914.

$500 Bill - William McKinley

$500 Bill
President William McKinley's face appears on the $500 bill. Public Domain

President William McKinley's face appears on the $500 bill, which is no longer in circulation. The $500 bill dates to 1918, when Chief Justice John Marshall's face initially appeared on the denomination. The Fed and Treasury discontinued the $500 bill in 1969 for lack of use. It was last printed in 1945, but the Treasury says Americans continue to hold the notes.

McKinley is noteworthy because he is among the few presidents who were assassinated. He died after being shot in 1901.

$1,000 Bill - Grover Cleveland

$1,000 Bill
The face of President Grover Cleveland appears on the $1,000 bill. Public Domain

President Grover Cleveland's face appears on the $1,000 bill, which like the $500 bill dates to 1918. Hamilton's face initially appeared on the denomination. The Fed and Treasury discontinued the $1,000 bill in 1969. It was last printed in 1945, but the Treasury says Americans continue to hold the notes.

$5,000 Bill - James Madison

$5,000 Bill
The face of President James Madison appears on the $5,000 bill. Public Domain

President James Madison's face appears on the $5,000 bill, and always has since the denomination was first printed in 1918. The Fed and Treasury discontinued the $5,000 bill in 1969. It was last printed in 1945, but the Treasury says Americans continue to hold the notes.

$10,000 Bill - Salmon P. Chase

$10,000 Bill
The face of former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase appears on the $10,000 bill. Public Domain

Salmon P. Chase, a onetime Treasury secretary, appears on the $10,000 bill, which was first printed in 1918. The Fed and Treasury discontinued the $10,000 bill in 1969. It was last printed in 1945, but the Treasury says Americans continue to hold the notes.

Chase, who served in the Lincoln administration, is perhaps the least known of the faces on U.S. bills. He was politically ambitious, having served as a U.S. senator and governor of Ohio and set his sights on the presidency in 1860. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party's nomination that year; Lincoln won and, upon election, tapped his former rival to be Treasury secretary.

Chase was described as an able manager of the nation's finances, but he quit the job after clashing with the president. Wrote Lincoln upon accepting Chase's resignation: “You and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation which it seems cannot be overcome, or longer sustained.”

Of Chase, historian Rick Beard wrote in The New York Times:

"Chase’s failings lay in his aspirations, not his performance. Convinced he was the ablest man in the cabinet, he also believed he was Lincoln’s superior as both an administrator and statesman. His dream of occupying the White House never deserted him, and he sought to further his ambitions in ways small and large. Responsible for the design of paper currency, for example, he had no compunction about placing his own face on the $1 bill. After all, he told one confidant, he had placed Lincoln’s on the 10!"

$100,000 Bill - Woodrow Wilson

$100,000 Bill
The face of President Woodrow Wilson appears on the $100,000 bill. Public Domain

Yes, there is such a thing as a $100,000 bill. But the denomination, known as a "gold certificate," was used only by Federal Reserve Banks and was never circulated among the general public. In fact, the $100,000 was not considered legal tender outside of those Fed transactions. If you're holding onto one, chances are it's worth more than $1 million to collectors. 

You'll recognize the six-digit denomination because it has the face of President Woodrow Wilson on it. 

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Murse, Tom. "The Faces on Every U.S. Bill." ThoughtCo, Nov. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/faces-on-us-currency-4153995. Murse, Tom. (2017, November 6). The Faces on Every U.S. Bill. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/faces-on-us-currency-4153995 Murse, Tom. "The Faces on Every U.S. Bill." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/faces-on-us-currency-4153995 (accessed November 20, 2017).