Channeling Benjamin Franklin

So an ad-hoc coalition of right-wing bloggers and design connoisseurs are dissing the redesigned $100 note. What would Benjamin Franklin himself have to say?

First, he'd indignantly correct Lew Rockwell's "inflationist" slur with the following from the 1876 (!) Atlantic, via Google Book Search:

The inflationists have not been so fortunate in augmenting their literary store from the writings and speeches of our early American statesmen. Still, they have made vigorous efforts to draft into their service any isolated paragraph that can be made useful for their purpose. So far as I have seen, they have found no comfort in this search except in very short extracts from three of the great leaders of public thought. The first is from a juvenile essay in defense of paper money, written by Benjamin Franklin in 1729, when he was twenty-two years of age. This has been frequently quoted during the last four years. They are not so fond of quoting Franklin the statesman and philosopher, who after a lifelong experience wrote, in 1783, these memorable words: --

"I lament with you the many mischiefs, the injustice, the corruption of manners, etc., that attend a depreciated currency. It is some consolation to me that I washed my hands of that evil by predicting it in Congress, and proposing means that would have been effectual to prevent it if they had been adopted. Subsequent operations that I have executed demonstrate that my plan was practicable; but it was unfortunately rejected." (Works, x. 9.)

Second, he'd tell admirers of the Euro that at least U.S. currency still depicted the founders of its country and real buildings, not the composite architectural pastiches. (Almost 70 percent of the French people want the franc back, and I suspect its genuine portraits and monuments would have appealed to Franklin, too, reminding him of his years in Paris.)

Third, he'd remind the aesthetic critics that he was the original anti-fashionista, flaunting his fur cap to play the New World Rousseauian child of nature to the Parisian sophisticates. Nor were -- or are -- the bifocals he invented favored by the image-conscious. So the practical virtues of currency, as of costume, outweigh show. In fact, Franklin would have been fascinated by the number of security features of the new currency. His system of incorporating images of actual leaf veins in printed notes -- never disclosed -- was state of the art anti-counterfeiting in the eighteenth century.

On the other hand, Franklin the humorist would have been intrigued by the modest proposal of my friend the graphic designer Aaron Marcus.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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