Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Opinion
Stephen Mihm

Trump Checks? Lincoln’s Engraver Did Worse

In 1866, a disgraced official suddenly appeared on millions of 5-cent notes.

Like so much about Clark, we don’t really know what happened, except that the wily survivor had a hand in it.

Like so much about Clark, we don’t really know what happened, except that the wily survivor had a hand in it.

President Trump’s decision to include his signature on stimulus checks has struck many as unseemly, even unconstitutional. From the perspective of U.S. history, it could have been worse.

If not for a colorful little episode during the Civil War, Trump may have had the leeway to go bigger, putting himself on actual money. But he can’t – thanks to a forgotten self-promoter named Spencer Clark who inspired a federal ban on the appearance of the living on the nation’s currency. Such an act risked becoming “derogatory to the dignity and self-respect of the nation,” Congressman Martin Thayer of Pennsylvania said at the time.

Prior to the Civil War, living people did not appear on the federal government’s currency. Instead, the United States Mint stuck to allegorical figures of Liberty and other uncontroversial subjects. (Washington himself may have quashed an attempt to have his portrait put coins).