“Facts Are Stubborn Things”-The Story Behind My Two Dollar Bill

“Facts are Stubborn Things” – The Story Behind My Two Dollar Bill

 

            In New York City, the financial capital of the world, money is what revolves around the minds of many. The homeless journey through the subways begging for coins, bankers deal with colossal amounts of cash on a daily basis, and even the average high school student is heavily dependant on money. Yet what everyone seems to be concerned about is not the money itself, but what it can get him or her.

I have money that I will never spend. In the grand rush for success that many of us are sucked into, few have taken a deep breath and actually observed what is on our currency. Have you ever wondered which historical figure’s face is on both a coin and a bill? Do you know who is the only person on our money who never achieved the presidency? I guess only U.S. History geeks like me who watch Tom Hanks’ John Adams HBO miniseries in their free time for fun care.

            Nevertheless, I was ecstatic when I received three unwrinkled American $2 bills this summer from a friend. I tucked them neatly into my heavy wallet, apart from the rest of my money. However, their novelty or rarity do not appeal to me as much as what’s imprinted on them. On the front is a rather unfortunate selection of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, and on the back is a smaller but accurate version of famous early American artist John Trumbull’s 1817 “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” painting. The painting depicts over forty of the signers in a decadent room, with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson standing in the center in front of John Hancock’s desk. The men are dressed sharply and have impeccable posture and wigs. All of the signers have a dignified, pleased expression on their faces as they not only solemnly watch the fruit of their labor manifest itself into one of the most defining documents in their soon-to-be nation’s history, but also realize that they too will be catapulted into the ranks of the greatest figures of America. The “Signing of the Declaration of Independence” is a beautifully crafted masterpiece that took Trumbull two years of meticulous researching and painting to complete. It’s also a work of supreme inaccuracy.

            In the final episode of the John Adams miniseries, Trumbull proudly invites an irascible John Adams, well into his eighties, to witness Trumbull’s greatest portrait to date before it was to be made for public viewing. By then, Adams was one of the last of his generation, still as obstinate as he was nearly fifty years ago on July 4th, 1776. Adams immediately denounces Trumbull’s painting. He begins to spew the forgotten truth of what happened during the Second Continental Congress. There was never a single point in time in which all of the signers were in the same room, because the process took place over the span of more than an entire year, during which the delegates would spontaneously leave and return to their homes. During the summer months, they were especially spotty in attendance, for those who did had to suffer in a cramped, airless, and dark room and perspire for hours on end. There were many clashes in opinion, as Adams remembers (mainly because he was at the center of the debate) and the delegates were often disrespectful and deceitful. The room depicted in the portrait is also fabricated; the real room, Adams seethingly recalls, was dull and mundane. The painting merely served to glorify the event, and in the midst of its good-intentioned loftiness, the truth was lost.

            This scene of John Adams fascinated me. I had never before thought about all that is forgotten, ignored, or erased from existence. That is why I love history – it is complex and layered and subjective, and it’s up to the individual to figure out the bona fide story.

            “The truth,” one of my writing teachers once said, “is complicated”. This statement resonates with me to this day. I carry this rare $2 bill, imprinted with an inaccurate painting of a shining moment in American history because it reminds me of the convolution of the truth. We are all faced with contradictions and falsehoods in our lives, but to me, it’s important to be at least aware of them, because the truth is the purest, yet also, the most difficult goal one can try to attain in life. While most of me has decided that I should avoid the illusions that have brought down many a great civilization or society. Even though parts of me want to relent and forget about the hard facts and just dream for a bit, Thomas Jefferson’s wrinkled face reminds me that the romantics aren’t always right.

The $2 bill caused me to develop a habit of exploring the story behind everything, and to question the truth behind the story. This past summer, I traveled to Northern Europe and visited 7 countries. Whenever we stopped at a capital city, I would automatically search for local money to examine. The countless symbols and engravings on these foreign coins and bills remind me of toothless John Adams yelling at a cowering John Trumbull: “Facts are stubborn things!”. I investigated the meaning behind the symbol on the back of the old Soviet one ruble coin, and why Lenin’s somber face and sharp facial hair is no longer on today’s Russian money. In Berlin, I got ahold of a Euro bill and my mind was suddenly peppered with questions. I was the only one who asked our tour guide why Germany is so steadfast in preserving the Euro. Like many, I spent quite a bit of money on this trip – rubles in Russia and Euros in Germany – but I was the only one who kept with me the story and the truth behind the money I spent.

 

Chelsea Shieh
Age 16, Grade 11,
Hunter College High School
Silver Key

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