America’s own Da Vinci code
Take out a $1 bill and look at it. The bill at first came off the presses in 1957 in its present design. This so-called paper money is in fact a cotton and linen blend, with red and blue minute silk fibers running through it and is actually material. But what gives the dollar bill or any currency its value?
The American dollar is a belief shared with other people. If it weren’t, it would be almost worthless. Money can be anything people want it to be. It can be stone, gold, silver, peanuts or paper, just as long as everyone agrees on what it is. We accept money because we believe that others will accept it, too. It works because it works.
The history of money, in particular U.S. “paper” currency, is an interesting phenomenon. At the outbreak of the Civil War, people began hoarding coins and soon there was very little money in circulation, so Congress authorized the Treasury Department to begin printing paper money, known as greenbacks, and that every dollar bill issued by the U.S. Treasury since 1863 is as good as it’s ever been. That’s not the case with most of the other world currencies. If you don’t believe that, take a 10 shilling note to the Bank of London and see how far you get.
There are officially 12 denominations of U.S. paper money, ranging from the $1 bill to the $100,000 bill, although the highest denomination printed during the last 60 years has been the $100. Only two bills do not feature the image of an American president: the $100 bill that features Ben Franklin, and the $10,000 bill with Salmon P. Chase (U.S. senator, Ohio governor and chief justice of the Supreme Court).
There are 22 billion paper bills or notes, ranging from $1 to $10,000. in existence, with approximately a third of them outside the United States. The $100,000 bill was never made available to the public; it was used exclusively between the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. The $2 bill was resurrected in the mid-”70s, but it lacked public appeal so the U.S. Mint got rid of its last $2 bills in storage by burning them.
In many ways U.S. currency is its own Da Vinci code. When you look on the back of the $1 bill, you will see the U.S. Treasury seal. On the top you will see the scales for a balanced budget (but let’s not go there; this is an academic discourse). In the center you have a carpenter’s square, a tool used for an even cut. Underneath is the key to the U.S. Treasury.
If you turn the bill over, you will see two circles. Both circles, together, comprise the Great Seal of the United States. The First Continental Congress requested that Benjamin Franklin and a group of men come up with a seal. It took them four years to accomplish this task and two more years to get it approved.
Looking at the left-hand circle you will see a pyramid. Notice the face is lighted, and the western side is dark. This country was just beginning. We had not begun to explore the West or decided what we could do for Western civilization. The pyramid is uncapped, again signifying that we were not even close to being finished. Inside the capstone you have the all-seeing eye, an ancient symbol for divinity (the same divinity that the ACLU is trying to eliminate from public places). Franklin believed that one man couldn’t do it alone, but a group of men with the help of God could do anything.
“IN GOD WE TRUST” is on this currency. The Latin above the pyramid, ANNUIT COEPTIS, means, “God has favored our undertaking.” Once again, ACLU take heed. The Latin below the pyramid, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM, means, “A new order has begun.” At the base of the pyramid is the Roman numeral for 1776.
The bald eagle was selected as a symbol for the U.S. for several reasons: He is not afraid of a storm; he is strong; he is smart enough to soar above the fray; and he wears no material crown – after all, we had just broken from the king of England.
The shield is unsupported because this country was now able to stand on its own. At the top of that shield there is a white bar signifying Congress, a unifying factor (at least it was in the days before Teddy Kennedy, Tom Daschle, and Tom De Lay). In the eagle’s beak you will read, “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” meaning, “One nation from many people.”
An interesting sidebar is the prominence of the number 13 in our nation’s history. It is almost a worldwide belief that the number 13 is an unlucky number and seldom will you see a room numbered 13, or a hotel with a 13th floor.
But think about this: 13 steps on the pyramid, 13 letters in the Latin above, 13 letters in “E Pluribus Unum,” 13 stars above the eagle representing the original 13 colonies, 13 bars on that shield, 13 leaves on the olive branch, 13 fruits, and if you look closely, 13 arrows, not to mention the13 signers of the Declaration of Independence, the 13 stripes on our flag and if you happen to be a minority, the significance of the 13th Amendment.
We’ve looked at the $100 and the $100,000 dollar bills and all of us know that Washington is on the $1 bill, Lincoln the $5, Hamilton the $10, Jackson the $20, and Grant the $50. But if you want to play Robert Langdon, the protagonist in Ron Brown’s best seller “The Da Vinci Code,” feel free to investigate whose images grace(d) the $2, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills.
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a local real estate broker and a ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily.
He can be reached at email@example.com