Don’t drop your wallet over this one, but it appears the on-again, off-again consideration over putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill in 2020 has turned political.
Twice in this space over the past three years, we have endorsed honoring the famous Maryland-born abolitionist by putting her likeness on currency. She would be the first African American so lauded, and the first woman to appear on U.S. paper money since Martha Washington’s likeness was on the $1 silver certificate in the late 1800s. And prior to that, Pocahontas’ image appeared on the $20 bill for four years after the Civil War, according to the Treasury Department.
We still think it’s a great idea to put the originator of the Underground Railroad on the $20 bill. But the person in direct charge of that decision in Washington is not as jazzed about the idea.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin again last week asserted that no reboot of the design will see ink put to paper during his tenure — or that of his boss, President Trump.
Could part of Mnuchin’s lack of enthusiasm for Tubman’s image on the $20 bill have anything to do with the president’s apparent admiration for Jackson? Trump hung a portrait of “Old Hickory” in the Oval Office, and has tweeted about Jackson’s legacy a handful of times.
It’s also important to note that Jackson, the seventh president, wouldn’t be replaced on the bill, based on the original proposal. He would move to the back of the $20 bill, yielding the front to Tubman. Jackson has been on the note since 1928.
He was an ironic choice to be on the bill anyway, since he reportedly hated the notion of paper money, trusting more in the “hard” currency of gold and silver.
In any event, Mnuchin said no matter who’s depicted, a new design for the $20 bill won’t be rolled out until 2028. New features may adorn revamped $10 and $50 bills before that, but the treasury secretary also didn’t mention if the redesign of the $10 bill would include the portraits of the suffragists his predecessor, Obama appointee Jacob Lew, had advocated for the back of the bill in 2016. Lew was going to include Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony. The rollout of that bill, along with Tubman on the $20 bill, was supposed to be next year, significant because 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote.
Alexander Hamilton, by all accounts, will remain on the front of the $10 bill, his popularity no doubt buoyed by the eponymous, smash-hit musical.
Mnuchin told the House Financial Services Committee last week that whenever the paper currency is redesigned, it would be done not for artistic purposes, but to make bills even harder to counterfeit.
Given the many security features on paper currency these days (and considering there are likely to be others the public doesn’t know about), that seems an increasingly farfetched criminal enterprise.
Here’s why Tubman deserves this acclaim. She was born on the Eastern Shore, in Dorchester County, where she spent nearly 30 years as a slave. She escaped slavery in 1849 but returned to Maryland several times over the next decade to lead dozens of African Americans — many of them family members — to freedom in the North.
Known as “Moses” by black and white abolitionists alike, she reportedly never lost a “passenger” on the Underground Railroad. She later served as a spy and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. She also led a raid in South Carolina to free slaves, becoming the first woman to lead an American military operation. Additionally, she was an early public supporter of women’s suffrage.
Tubman’s efforts against slavery and for women’s voting rights demonstrate her lifelong struggle for equality and justice for all. That courage makes her a fine choice to be celebrated and remembered every time we reach into our wallets to pull out a $20 bill.