Spencer M. Clark, NOT Lewis and Clark – The Trials and Tribulations of Being Head of the BEP

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Spencer Morton Clark was born June 3, 1811 in Vermont and ascended into Federal government work in 1856 as a clerk in the Bureau of Construction inside the Treasury department. Gradually, he found himself more and more interested in the way currency was printed. He later worked his way up to Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau, a post he held between 1862-1868. The National Currency Bureau was the direct predecessor of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Clark worked under Salmon Chase, a famed statesman of the Civil War era whose likeness would later be engraved on the $10,000 Federal Reserve Note. Chase Bank was also named in his honor, although he held no financial or corporate ties to the bank.

Spencer M. Clark
Spencer M. Clark, Superintendent of the National Currency Bureau

Clark caused quite the stir at the National Currency Bureau. According to a Wikipedia entry, Clark was credited with creating the original Treasury Seal, which graced notes up until 1968, when the Latin words and older design were scrapped for English and a more minimal appearance. In reality, though, this wasn’t his folly.

The real problem occurred when he decided to place his own likeness on the famous Third Issue 5 Cent Fractional Currency note, the result of what appeared to be convenient “misunderstandings”. There are a couple different versions of the story explaining how Clark’s portrait appeared on the note.

In version one, Clark is seemingly confused between himself and famed explorer William Clark, part of the Lewis and Clark duo that explored the Western United States under President Jefferson. According to Wikipedia:

“The 5-cent note was supposed to bear a portrait of “Clark,” as in explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. But because no one had distinctly specified exactly which Clark, the currency superintendent [Spencer Clark] took it upon himself to put his own portrait on the bills.”

In version two, Clark apparently brown nosed with Treasury Secretary Francis E. Spinner and chose Spinner’s portrait for the Third Issue 50 cent note. Naturally, Spinner approved this decision. When Spinner asked Clark who would be appearing on the 5 cent note, Wikipedia reports Clark replied in the following manner:

…“How would the likeness of Clark do?” “Excellent,” said Spinner, thinking that reference was made to Freeman Clark, the Comptroller of the Currency. The matter escaped further notice until the notes had been printed in enormous quantities.

Fr. 1238 Third Issue 5 Cent Note, Portrait of Spencer Clark
Fr. 1238 Third Issue 5 Cent Note, Portrait of Spencer Clark

Once all the Third Issue 5 Cent Notes were printed, a firestorm ensued, to say the least. Congress was outraged at Clark’s selfish decision making, not to mention the purported back scratching between he and Spinner. Additionally, Congress didn’t care for the way in which the notes were “mass produced”. Wikipedia reports:

According to numismatic historian Walter Breen, Congress’s “immediate infuriated response was to pass a law retiring the 5¢ denomination, and another to forbid portrayal of any living person on federal coins or currency.

Naturally, this put Clark in the hot seat, and many asked for his ouster. Fortunately for Spencer, Salmon P. Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury, swooped in and saved the day, allowing Clark to remain in his position.

Sadly, he didn’t learn his lesson. Clark had to formally resign from the National Currency Bureau in 1868 facing accusations of faulty record keeping and an congressional inquiry. He decided to seek employment with the Statistical Division of the Department of Agriculture. Later, he moved over to the Bureau of Vital Statistics – also part of the Department of Agriculture – up until his death in 1890.

While Spencer Clark was no Richard Nixon 🙂 he certainly allowed his ego to get the better of him despite holding multiple positions in higher Federal government. This sort of thing was actually quite common when considering the broader scope of American politics from the Civil War era to present, making Clark neither the first nor last to put himself before the better interests of the country.

What this episode did solidify, however, was the creation of a much more principled and well governed currency production department. Thanks to a fast acting congress, no living likeness could be portrayed on American currency. Further, Clark’s “misunderstandings” and inter-office shenanigans were disposed of and replaced with better regulation and procedures ensuring that the greenback was printed – at the very least – in good taste and patriotic fervor.

The image of Fr. 1239 is from a Heritage Auctions catalog, freely available online to members of the www.ha.com website. All other information was gleaned from www.wikipedia.org and other USA currency information resources.