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What's Really Behind the Dollar Bill

We hand it over to cashiers, feed it in machines for more quarters, and crunch them in our pockets. But, other than its extrinsic value, what does the US dollar bill mean? Is there something more to it than just a stoic portrait of our first President, George Washington, on the face? Why is there an eagle on the back compared to another bird? (The answers may surprise you, especially the next time you conduct a Hawaii Secretary of State business entity search.) Read on to learn why the American dollar bill isn’t just a symbol for one of the most powerful economies in the world.

1. The dollar symbol

According to this article, the dollar symbol, “$,” dates back to the Mexican pesos and Spanish piasters, both meaning “pieces of eight.” It literally is the combination of the “P” from the Mexican peso and “S” from the Spanish piasters. Old manuscripts confirm this, verifying that the dollar symbol wasn’t originally an American figure, and that it dates back farther than 1785.

2. George Washington

It should come as little surprise that, being the first president of the United States and the only president to ever be voted into office unanimously, President George Washington’s portrait is on the face of the most frequently used currency in the US. (His name is subtly printed below his portrait for those who may not have recognized the American General.) Given his successful presidency leading America into this new age of freedom, President George Washington’s portrait represents unity and trust.

3. The Pyramid and Latin scripture

The pyramid, located to the left on the back, has a pyramid with Latin scripture above and below it. If you count the steps of the pyramid closely, you’ll notice that there are 13 layers, which represents the original 13 colonies. At the base of the pyramid—the foundation—are the numerals, “MDCCLXXVI” or 1776, the year America gained independence from Great Britain. The founding fathers chose the Egyptian pyramid over other artifacts because the pyramids outlasted the Egyptians of that time; the forefathers wanted the United States to outlive them and, like the pyramids, last for centuries. Now, the Latin scripture below it, “Novus Ordo Seclorum” translates to “Eye of Providence.” In other words, “the eye of God,” which makes sense given the eye overlooking the pyramid. Metaphorically speaking, God is watching over the 13 original and independent colonies of the US. Latin scripture is also above the eye, “annuity coeptis,” reading as “He (meaning God) has favored our undertakings.” Supposedly, Charles Thompson, the original designer of the seal, pulled this Latin phrase from one of Virgil’s passages in the Aenid: “Juppiter omnipotes, audacibus, annue coeptis” (“All-powerful Jupiter favor (my) daring undertakings). While there are several interpretations, one perhaps points to the thinking that America succeeded from Great Britain under God’s hand?

4. What’s Up with the eye

The eye overlooking the pyramid—or the country—carries multiple meanings, one of which we mentioned earlier (God watching over the country). According to an article, the eye could be a masonic symbol, as many of the founders were a part of the Free Masons, a secret society built on mutual help and fellowship. However, it should be noted that the engraver was not in this order so this interpretation is questionable at best. While “God watching over the country” may be a valid meaning, the founding fathers actually weren’t the ones to put the eye on the dollar bill. It was President Roosevelt’s decision in 1935 to put this addition on the Great Seal.

5. If it were up to Franklin and Jefferson

If it were up to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the motto on the dollar bill would translate to “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” While the statement never made it on the dollar bill, Jefferson adopted and used it on his seal. Both also wanted a pharaoh on the dollar bill. Wearing a crown, holding a sword and riding a chariot, the pharaoh would have parted the Red Seas, heading towards the Israelites. Perhaps, like the pyramid, the pharaoh symbolized an everlasting government? Maybe the Israelites represented the Americans, with the pharaoh rescuing them from tyranny?

6. What the Eagle represents

Interestingly enough, Franklin did not care for the eagle on the dollar. In fact, he was in favor of a turkey, a bird he stated was actually from the United States and held more character than the other immoral bird. Despite his arguments, the eagle was used instead. Speaking of which, there are several symbolic details about the eagle. For one, the eagle has its wings raised as if it is in flight. Perhaps this motion could denote rising, symbolizing that the United States was a rising power? In addition, the eagle holds an olive branch in its right talon and arrows in its left. Since the right is the dominant hand, the US has a preference for peace. However, should peace not be an option, the US will strike to protect the rights of its people.

7. The Number 13

Thirteen is the loudest symbol on the dollar bill, appearing multiple times on the face and back. As we mentioned earlier, there are 13 layers ascending the pyramid. There’s also 13 arrows in the eagle’s left talon and 13 leaves on the olive branch, which is held in the right. The seal above the eagle literally has 13 stars and there are 13 stripes on the eagle’s shield. The repetitiveness of 13 loudly indicates the importance of the original 13 colonies and perhaps suggests the significant role they played in gaining American independence.

Final Thoughts

The one dollar bill may have a low extrinsic value, however what it represents is worth more than any currency: American patriotism and history. Currently, there are 11.7 billion in circulation. If you have a second, we recommend that you take a look and appreciate what it represents. Spot any more symbols on the dollar bill? Leave a comment!

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