What is 'Dead Presidents'

Dead presidents is a slang term referring to Federal Reserve Notes, or the paper currency of the United States of America. Of the six Federal Reserve Notes in circulation, only the $100 and $10 bills feature the image of someone who did not serve as president. Founding father Benjamin Franklin is pictured on the $100 bill, and the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton is on the $10, and neither served as commander-in-chief. In 2016, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman would appear on the face of the $20 bill starting in 2020, and that President Andrew Jackson’s image would be moved to the back side of the bill.

Between 1928 and 1969, the Federal Reserve issued four additional banknotes: the $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills. Of these, only the $10,000 bill features the image of a non-president, with former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase adorning the front of that banknote.

BREAKING DOWN 'Dead Presidents'

Dead presidents is a vernacular term for American paper money. During the Civil War, the Union Congress ordered the printing of half a million 5-cent notes due to a shortage of the metals used to produce traditional coinage. However, when the notes appeared to the public, the engraved portrait on the bill was of someone named Spencer M. Clark. Naturally, no one in the Union (or anywhere else) had any idea who this was. An investigation quickly revealed that Lincoln had appointed him as the first superintendent of the National Currency Bureau. Because Congress had not specified that any particular historical figure be placed upon the bill, he had simply taken the liberty of putting his own picture there. Needless to say, Congress was furious. They immediately enacted a law stipulating that from that point on, any person who appeared on the face of any U.S. currency had to be famous and dead.

Dead Presidents in Popular Culture

The term dead presidents has been used in hip hop songs to refer to money, most famously by rapper Jay-Z. He released two seperate tracks, Dead Presidents and Dead Presidents II, each about Jay’s entrepreneurial acumen and talent for making money. Dead Presidents was also the title of a 1995 crime-thriller film about the experiences of African American Vietnam veterans after their return from the war. The soundtrack to the film contained a variety of classic 1970s R&B, funk and soul music. Featuring songs by Sly & The Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown, the soundtrack hit number one on the Billboard R&B chart in 1995.

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