USA Dollar

Let’s Abolish the $100 Bill

The idea of recalling large denominations sounded outrageous, but the federal government had done it before. In 1945 the Treasury stopped printing $1000 bills (graced with the face of Grover Cleveland) and $500 bills (William McKinley), and in 1969, at the direction of President Richard Nixon, the Treasury recalled the $1000 bills, along with $5000 bills (James Madison) and $10,000 bills (Salmon P. Chase). The reason Nixon gave was that these large denominations were used in money laundering. (Ironically, money laundering later featured heavily in the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation. There were no money-laundering prosecutions, however, because Treasury was not yet geared up to enforce a statute outlawing it that Nixon had signed into law in 1970.)

Henry’s Washington Monthly piece generated some attention in the 1970s, according to an update he wrote for The National Interest in 2016. Henry was invited to testify before the Joint Economic Committee, and the Federal Reserve made available to him data on currency flows by denomination confirming that Florida, California, and Texas, all blessed with ready access to foreign markets, were “the key sources of net outflows of $100 bills.” But, as Henry reported, “nothing was done about the big bills.”

In December 2010, writing in Slate, I hopped aboard Henry’s bandwagon, though in more modest fashion, calling only for a ban on Benjamins. I extended clemency to the $50 because its value was a fraction of what it had been when Henry wrote his piece, and I dropped the idea of recalling $100s or $500s because I figured I’d have a hard enough time just persuading America to stop printing Benjamins. (Besides, at the time I wrote that piece, there were too few $500s left in circulation to matter.) I took the cause to CBS’s Sunday Morning show, where at the time I contributed occasional video essays. “This is a $100 bill,” I said, holding one to the camera.

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