How Come U.S. Currency Never Changes Its Face and More Questions From Our Readers

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(Chloe Cushman)
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Q: Is it my imagination, or does the United States redesign its paper currency less often than other countries?

— Wayne Behlendorf | Studio City, California

It’s not your imagination. Today’s bills don’t differ much from those of about a century ago—even though they’ve been updated many times, mostly in subtle ways to foil counterfeiters, according to Ellen Feingold, curator at the National Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History. The U.S. is also late in featuring women on its bank notes. It is unclear whether the Treasury will follow through on a 2016 proposal to feature women on the backs of the $5 and $10 bills, and the face of Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson.

Q: What do wild animals, especially birds, do to survive hurricanes?

— Norman Bidwell | Marietta, Georgia

Birds fare relatively well: They sense changes in barometric pressure, and some pick up low-frequency sounds humans don’t hear, which warn them to evacuate, says Don Wilson, curator emeritus in vertebrate zoology at the National Museum of Natural History. But sometimes, migratory birds will get caught in the eye of the storm and pushed far off track, where they may starve. Other animals must hunker down. Those that live in or on the ground are susceptible to flooding; surprisingly, animals that live in trees tend to fare better. Those that live in water face damage from waves, silt and sand (though sharks, like birds, sense changes in barometric pressure and evacuate). They all face disrupted food supplies after the storm.

Q: How many Native American nations fought in the War of 1812, and for which side did they fight?

— Kristina Heaton | Hamilton, Ontario

Just as they did during the Revolutionary War, most Native American nations supported the British cause in the War of 1812. Exact numbers are hard to establish, in part because some Native nations had divided loyalties, but around a dozen sided with the British, fewer than that remained neutral, and even fewer sided with the United States. Mark Hirsch, historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, says the bulk of Native nations hoped that a British victory would secure their sovereignty and halt the expansion of the United States into their lands. But the end of the war, in 1815, affirmed U.S. sovereignty and undermined tribal security. With no external allies, the Native nations were hard-pressed to prevent settlers from encroaching on their homelands.

Q: Was Aaron Burr really as unprincipled as Hamilton would lead theatergoers to believe? Did he contribute anything to our civil society?

— Sean M. Lou | Baton Rouge, LA

Burr was indeed a complicated and nakedly ambitious character, but he was not without substance: He was a strong proponent of women’s and immigrants’ rights; he proposed abolishing slavery in 1785; and he helped expand the Democratic-Republican Party in 1791. David Ward, former senior historian of the National Portrait Gallery, says Burr may well have performed one of the most significant acts of any vice president: His impartial overseeing of the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase is said to have helped enshrine the principle of judicial independence. (Chase was acquitted on all eight counts he faced.)

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