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History shows a Reagan $50 not too likely

The idea of putting Ronald Reagan on the $50 Federal Reserve Note certainly made for an interesting week for our poll question. As you might expect, there were strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Obviously politics divides numismatists as well as the country at large.

I expect the proposal to put the nation’s 40th President on the $50 bill will go nowhere. The sad truth about our paper money is simply the lack of change of the individuals on the notes.

Throughout my lifetime George Washington has presided over the $1 bill, Thomas Jefferson the $2, Abraham Lincoln the $5, Alexander Hamilton the $10, Andrew Jackson the $20, Ulysses S. Grant the $50 and Benjamin Franklin the $100.

If it were not for the dire threat posed by counterfeiters, American paper money would not have experienced what changes have been made to it since 1996. It is so easy for non-hobby writers to get in cheap shots or cheap laughs by making fun of any paper redesign effort.

Fortunately, the idea of being stuck with a fake $20, $50 or $100 bill persuades most Americans that some changes are worth making.

However, the portrait of Ronald Reagan is a change too far for enough of them that I expect it will not happen.

I don’t base my conclusion on the obvious one of the current state of American politics. The majority party seldom favors projects that appear to honor the leaders of the minority party.

With one exception.

Coinage illustrates how the exception works.

If a design change proposal is made immediately after the individual has died, it has a strong chance of being adopted.

We saw the Roosevelt dime appear in 1946 to honor Franklin D. Roosevelt within a year of his death. The John F. Kennedy half dollar set a record for coin design change speed. I remember that time. I remember the national grief after the assassination. I stood in line at a bank to get the new coin when it was released.

Grief seems to unite the country.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower died, the former president was not in office. It took longer for the proposal to be adopted as a result, but we got an Ike dollar in 1971. The suggestion probably would have failed had the Congress not had the option of adding a denomination and thereby not replacing any of the other Presidential portraits.

National grief for former Presidents is not as intense as for sitting Presidents.

This is proving true for Ronald Reagan. The $50 proposal will not fly in consequence.

It is interesting how quickly some readers came up with the Ike line of reasoning to oppose the $50 design change but if Reagan could be put on a new denomination, such as a revived $500 or a new $200, then the idea becomes more acceptable.

I guess that means our habits of thought are virtually identical to what they were in 1969 when I first had the advantage and the fun of learning about the Ike proposal in the weekly pages of Numismatic News.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition



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