Confederate Money Had a Cold Standard
August 11, 2002
The paintings of John W.
Jones are fetching on their merits but thundering when one probes their history.
The South Carolina artist has worked some 80 acrylics on canvas, depicting
scenes of the Old South when things were a bit more disturbed. His subjects,
however, and most of them are blacks, are strangely at ease in their slave
setting where they toiled endlessly for no pay.
Any frequenter of American museums, galleries and other public space exhibiting
arts and photographs will notice a stark difference straightaway. Unless it is
so stated in the brochure, black images, at any contemporary showing, are most
likely to be very rare indeed. Jones' exhibit is showing at the Black Holocaust
Museum in Milwaukee.
"The Color of Money" is the theme of Jones' slave-time paintings. Each
painting was drawn from an actual engraving on a banknote of the period. The
artist stumbled across his new life's work quite by chance. Working as an
illustrator in North Carolina, he drew an assignment to enlarge an engraved
scene on an Old Confederate banknote. "I found myself looking at a picture
of slaves picking cotton." Further research showed that such a scene was a
prevailing image on the currency of the mid-1800s.
"I was surprised that so many of the images on the currency were of
slaves," said Jones, who discussed his work at a journalists' conference in
Milwaukee last week. "Whites in the South back then considered slaves, and
holding slaves, as a symbol of wealth."
Who better to put on Confederate currency than the South's chief symbol of
wealth: American slaves?
These days, it's all about the Benjamins.
During the Confederacy, it was all about the slaves.
For the uncool, that is to say old money, that's Benjamin as in Franklin. Not
the kite-flyer so much as the
statesman-printer-scientist-philosopher-musician-economist who made his way onto
the $100 bill. Franklin was one of the most beloved Americans rewarded, as were
Abe Lincoln, Jefferson and the others, with his visage staring out from the
nation's paper money.
Being immortalized in the lush green of the currency is perhaps the republic's
highest tribute to an individual's contribution to its wealth and power. The
face on the money is a sure sign of true value in this citadel of capitalism. It
has always been so, even during the Colonial days.
Back then, of course, there was no strong federal government, no gold standard,
so paper currency was printed by banks with what few presses that existed. Each
state had the authority to print its own currency and drew upon its commerce and
industry for inspiration.
Competing to attract customers for their banknotes, printers were encouraged to
engrave peacefully pastoral scenes with contented subjects.
"The engraved images show the slaves as happy, well-treated and healthy
workers in an 'unnatural' state of bliss," said Jones. "We do not see
hardships, such as slaves being whipped. The positive slave images were used as
Jones, using a magnifying glass, is as truthful to the banknote images as
practical. His field workers, drivers and workers on the docks are healthy,
contented, dignified. On images where the races are mixed, no doubt is left that
the white man, often on horseback, is in complete command.
The iconography of slavery on Confederate notes is richly preserved by
collectors who hoard this currency. Since branching into this art enterprise in
1996, Jones has tapped into this rich vein through the internet. Collectors
provide him with a steady stream of currency with new images for him to paint
emerging all the time.
"When I paint these slave vignettes," Jones said, "I see strong
and indomitable characters as slaves, the will to survive and carry on the
qualities they brought with them from Africa in the form of music, religion,
storytelling, art, agriculture and the culinary traditions. The paintings
empower the slaves by giving them a voice that asks us not to reflect on them as
the objects in the monochrome engravings on the currency, but rather, to join
with them to confront the meaning of a system, past in one sense, painfully
persistent in others, which enslaved them."
It goes almost without saying that, with such sensitivity, Jones is indeed a
descendant of slaves himself. The painter joins historian and conservationist in
Jones' passion for preserving with purposeful art what the South recorded
unwittingly for the ages.
If ever there is doubt about the central role slaves played in the South, that
is to say, America, one needs look no further than its dollar bills.
"With our labor, we built the economy of the South," Jones said.
"The banks even had to say so. Just show them the money."
© 2002, Newsday,