The faces on every U.S. bill in circulation include five American presidents and two founding fathers. They are all men:
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- Abraham Lincoln
- Alexander Hamilton
- Andrew Jackson
- Ulysses S. Grant
- 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 Treasury stopped printing the larger notes in 1945, but most continued to circulate until 1969 when the Federal Reserve began destroying those that were received by banks. The few that still exist are legal to spend but are so rare that they are worth more than their face value to collectors.
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.
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 African American activist and formerly enslaved woman, 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.
Then-Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew wrote in announcing the plans in 2016:
“The decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20 was driven by thousands of responses we received from Americans young and old. 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.
Chase was actually the first person responsible for the design of the nation’s paper currency. He was also the father of Kate Chase Sprague, a well-known socialite during Lincoln’s presidency who later became embroiled in scandal.
No Living Person’s Face Is Allowed
Federal law prohibits any living person’s face from appearing on 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 that 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.”
Redesign of U.S. Bills
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 Donald Trump in November 2016 may have halted those plans. The Republican president’s administration did not sign onto the idea of swapping out Jackson with Tubman.
Then-Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin told MSNBC in 2017:
“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.”
Trump himself 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.”
Mnuchin revealed in May 2019, however, that the redesigned bill with Tubman’s face on the front would not be ready by 2020 and likely would not be for 10 years.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York asked for an independent investigation into whether White House influence played a role in the decision. Acting Inspector General Rich Delmar said the investigation would take about 10 months.
Here’s a look at who is currently on U.S. currency:
$1 Bill – George Washington
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
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 1869 and has appeared on the front of the $2 bill since then.
$5 Bill – Abraham Lincoln
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, despite being redesigned several times.
$10 Bill – Alexander Hamilton
Founding Father and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton‘s face is on the $10 bill. The first $10 bill issued by the Federal Reserve in 1914 had President Andrew Jackson’s face. Hamilton’s face was swapped in 1929, and Jackson moved to the $20 bill.
The printing of the $10 bill and larger denominations followed the passage 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 20th century. The Fed’s board of governors later issued new notes called Federal Reserve notes, our form of paper currency.
$20 Bill – Andrew Jackson
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. Jackson’s face was swapped in 1929, and Cleveland moved to the $1,000 bill.
$50 Bill – Ulysses S. Grant
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 nation recover from the Civil War.
$100 Bill – Benjamin Franklin
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
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.
$1,000 Bill – Grover Cleveland
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
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
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
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.