Treasury of the Philippines 1936 5 Pesos Note: A Vision of U.S. Imperialism

Posted on 6/16/2015

One of the many joys of numismatics and collecting paper money are the questions raised by the banknotes we study.

The imagery found on banknotes can operate on many levels beyond the aesthetic. From allegorical figures to significant places to heroes and heroines of history and myth, currency can offer a window on the past in complex and interesting ways. In the case of the Philippines from the end of the Philippine-American War through independence in 1946, the symbols found on banknotes were often potent reminders of US imperial interests.

1936 5 Pesos Philippine Note, Obverse

The 5 Pesos note issued by the Treasury of the Philippines in 1936 (Pick #83) shares a design similar to other 5 Peso notes dating back as far as 1918 and exhibits both subtle and explicit metaphors of US state-craft. As a part of the first issue of banknotes following the endowment upon the Philippines of Commonwealth status, the note exhibits a previously unused seal design to reflect this change. Set in motion by the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, the formation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in many ways was intended to create the foundation for eventual independence. While the growing possibility of conflict in Southeastern Pacific and the onset of the Great Depression raised concerns over the effectiveness of US power over the archipelago, the imagery used on this note and others circulating in the Philippines suggests that US ideology would endure for some time.

1936 5 Pesos Philippine Note, Reverse

Printed by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing this 5 Pesos note is vaguely reminiscent of small-size US notes — particularly funny-back silver certificates and early United States notes. It seems possible that these similarities were intended to promote a sense of shared national heritage and impose the authority of US influence over the dominant means of commerce. To this end, the selection of the two men featured on the face of the note are highly significant when we begin to consider them as metaphors of imperial doctrine and not simply portraits of US figureheads.

President McKinley

As the sitting president during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, President McKinley's inclusion on this and many other notes of the Philippines during the period of US control is not particularly surprising. However, the lack of definitive support for the Treaty of Paris (1898) — which included a provision for the US acquisition of the Philippines — led to McKinley's intervention to lobby eventual Senate approval. The inclusion of the political figure who oversaw a great deal of territorial and political expansion by the US on the banknotes of the Philippines is as much a function of his apotheosis into the collective memory of US politics and culture following his assassination as it is a representation of expanding US imperial ambitions during the time banknotes, such as the 1936 5 Pesos note, circulated.

Admiral George Dewey

The right side of the note features a portrait of Admiral George Dewey. Scoring a decisive victory in the first major engagement of the Spanish-American War on May 1, 1898, Dewey effectively opened and closed the Philippine campaign of the war in a single stroke (save for the Battle of Manila — a brief land engagement later in the same year). While it is far beyond the scope of this article to suggest the possible social and political capital assigned to such figureheads on the currency of the Philippines, their appearance on this and several other notes in the place of more traditional allegorical figures featured seems to suggest some degree of intent. Similar to the suggestions made above regarding McKinley, Dewey's prompt elevation to the status of a national hero and celebrity for his actions during the Spanish-American War suggests that his appearance of Philippine banknotes is a tacit attempt to direct the social and political identity of the Philippines through the implantation of ready-made iconic figures that effectively personify American foreign policy.

Battle of Manila Bay

Another subtle indication of US influence in the Philippines through an investigation of the circulating currency of the period can be observed in the usage of notes from this issue by the US War Department. Although the procurement of series 1936 Philippine Treasury Certificates for distribution to guerrilla fighters represents the second instance such a measure was enacted by the US military, it is — nonetheless — another manifestation of continued US intervention in the political trajectory of the Philippines, albeit only months prior to the US campaign to remove Japanese forces from the island commonwealth.

One of the many joys of numismatics and collecting paper money are the questions raised by the banknotes we study. Similarities between the notes of the Philippines while under US influence, such as the 1936 5 Pesos note, and those circulating in the US are no doubt partially a function of necessity and efficiency. These similarities, as suggested above, could also be indications of the application of soft power by the US, a bruise left on the past preserved on a banknote. To this end, the inclusion of figures such as McKinley and Dewey on the notes of the Philippines could be simple selections of notable individuals who played a role in the political development of the Philippines during a set period of time. Their inclusion could also be an implicit attempt to dictate the terms of memory and alter the foundations of national identity for a country on the path towards eventual independence. As mentioned above, further analysis of such concepts is beyond the purview of this article. However, such conjectures can reveal the many ways that our interest in banknotes can challenge and inspire us. What questions are the notes in your collection asking you?


PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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