Wednesday, March 2, 2016

All About the McDuffies?: The Geopolitics of Jacksonian Bank Notes

by Christopher C. Apap
author of The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic
It is tough in an election year not to pay attention to state and local politics—indeed, as we once more revisit the way that Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries set the tone for the national conversation, we are reminded how local debates shape not only America’s idea of the nation, but the idea of America abroad. This is no new occurrence. My book, The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic, is an exploration of the complexity of local, national, and at times global identities during the 1820s and 30s. And while primary season is now one way that individual states shape their identities today, I am reminded of a different form of localized identity-formation from the period that I study: currency.

We now think of American currency as a nationalizing force, and, whether it is how we think of the Almighty Dollar or how Sean Combs has argued that it is “All about the Benjamins,” we know what American money looks like. Yet national bank notes were instituted only in 1862. Before that, hundreds of state-chartered banks around the nation printed their own notes that could be redeemed at those banks for “specie,” or the hard money of gold and silver. Some of these early notes were simple and quite utilitarian in design, but by the 1820s and 30s, the thriving engraving business would mean that banks could issue complex notes which would be considerably harder to counterfeit. The engraving industry went bust with the Panic of 1837 (for which fans of Hudson River painter Asher Durand, who made a very good living engraving banknotes before turning to art as a more full-time occupation, are thankful), but for nearly two decades, bank notes often reflected complex local identities.

I first discovered this when, during a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester, Massachusetts, I heeded the advice of Paul Erickson and delved into the crates of antebellum banknotes in the AAS archives. I discovered paper currencies that reflected a pointed and often quite political form of self-fashioning.

Take, for example, the currency of the Portsmouth-based New Hampshire Union Bank, whose five-dollar note was printed with a rich tableau across its top. At the left-hand edge, we have images of state houses, churches, and farmhouses, with agricultural workers in the foreground representing the state’s general national image: as an agricultural center. However, the right-hand side of the image suggests a different aspiration to broader commercial interests with the images of a bustling port with ships at sail. In the center, the common representation of America, Columbia, presides, flanked by the representations of other goddesses. To her left, holding an anchor, is perhaps a representation of the goddess Fortune, who is often understood to patronize sea-journeys and trade; to her right is likely Ceres, goddess of agriculture, with what appears to be plowing instruments and a sheaf of grain.

If geography textbooks of the day tended to minimize New Hampshire’s commercial impact, what this banknote seems to suggest is that its agriculture acumen could and should be turned to trade interests that would benefit the state and the nation. Or, at the very least, the bank note suggests that the President and Directors of the New Hampshire Union Bank hoped that this would be the case.

The Farmers and Exchange Bank of Charlestown, South Carolina, can be understood in similar ways. At the top center of their ten-dollar note is a fleet of trading vessels that underscore its position as one of the chief southern ports of Jacksonian America, and the bottom right depicts an agricultural scene that reflects not only the centrality of cotton to their economy, but makes the state’s dependence on slave labor a centerpiece of that depiction. If one is tempted to overlook what John C. Calhoun had termed South Carolina’s “peculiar institutions” on the note, or to minimize it as a mere attempt at honest representation, the portrait at the lower left might cause them to think otherwise. It pictures Representative George McDuffie, who was not merely a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and, a year after this note is dated, the governor of South Carolina, but who also was, with Calhoun and Robert Hayne, one of the more vocal proponents of Nullification (the argument that states had the right to reject, or nullify, federal laws that negatively affected that state; Nullification was the philosophical precursor to secession). McDuffie would in fact powerfully and repeatedly argue that national tariffs had a direct and deleterious effect on South Carolina’s economy. How interesting, then, that this Charlestown bank would choose McDuffie to symbolize its exchange value; it is hard not to read the bank note as a political statement in favor of Nullification, state’s rights, and the defiance of South Carolina in the face of Andrew Jackson and the nation as a whole.

This latter example is a striking reminder of how, even and especially in the 1820s and 30s, bank notes could be fundamentally and intrinsically political: they could be the vehicles through which states articulated their own identities locally and, to the extent that they might circulate more widely, nationally as well. And while our politics today is deeply implicated in money as well, it is the primary races which are capturing the national imagination at the moment. But it is worth remembering the different ways that states like New Hampshire and South Carolina presented themselves to each other and the rest of the nation nearly two centuries ago; they are a reminder of how acts of self-definition often reflect broader political debates and aspirations.

Christopher C. Apap teaches English literature at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and is the author of The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic. 

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