Harriet Tubman to Grace $20 Bill

U.S. currency may seem a small issue to write about … when I dig in my pocket, it certainly seems like a small thing … but today it is a BIG thing.  Today, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that the image of Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 will be replaced by none other than one of America’s most noble abolitionist heroes, Harriet Tubman!  This is big for two reasons:  it is the first time since 1900 (Martha Washington and Pocahontas both appeared briefly during the 1800s) that a woman has been on U.S. paper currency, and the first time ever that an African-American has graced the currency. I taught a Black History course for many years, and Harriet Tubman was always one of my favourite people to talk about. Frankly, I am glad she is going to be on the $20 where I may see her occasionally, rather than on the $100 where I would not.

Initially, the idea was to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, but as a result of the euphoria surrounding the Broadway hit “Hamilton” last year, there was a public outcry when word got out that it was being considered. Not to mention that Hamilton was both a founding father and the first Treasury Secretary, thus it was decided to leave him on the currency.

jacksonDetractors have been lobbying to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 for some time.  It is funny how time can alter  perceptions.  Jackson, the 7th president of the United States, was once hailed as a hero. No man (or woman) is all hero or all villain.  Jackson was known for a number of positive things, and is now denounced by some for the fact that he was a slave owner, and for being the president who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that forced a number of southern Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands, leading to the infamous Trail of Tears.  I do not believe that the less glorious things should detract from the good he did.  While I abhor slavery, one must remember that Jackson died nearly 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, so in being a slave owner, he was no better nor worse than most other men of his time.  As a major-general in the War of 1812, he was hailed the greatest hero since George Washington. For a brief bio of Jackson, click here.

tubman4Harriet Tubman is also a subject of some controversy, and there are those who are less than thrilled with seeing her on the $20.  Ms. Tubman was arguably the most famous of the Underground Railroad conductors, having made 19 trips into the south during a ten-year period and rescued more than 300 slaves, escorting them safely to the north.  By 1856, there was a $40,000 reward on her head, approximately the equivalent of $1.2 million today!  The esteemed Frederick Douglass once said of her “Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman].”  Tubman served in the U.S. Army during the war, and even led an armed raid that freed hundreds of slaves.  For a brief bio of Ms. Tubman, click  here.


The announcement was met with good tidings by most, including President Obama, Hillary and Bernie, and most everyone else.  However, there are some who are not happy:

  • I absolutely HATE it that our coins and bills have transitioned to commemorations of personages of our past rather than representations of our national ideals. I really HATE it, but to remove important personages, like Andrew Jackson, the founder of one of our two modern political parties, for someone like Harriet Tubman, who was a truly minor figure in our history, is really absurd and constitutes racial and gender pandering of the most objectionable sort. (name withheld)
  • This country was founded on the idea that all white men are created equal and no one else. As such, Andrew Jackson—slave owner, seventh president of the United States and current face on the $20 bill—represents exactly the values and ethics upon which this country was founded. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig—the pig in this case being a capitalist structure hell-bent on the expansion, maintenance and protection of white supremacy at any costs. (Savali, The Root).  The Root is an African-American publication
  • And even Dr. Ben Carson, former GOP candidate for president of the U.S., had an objection: “Well I think Andrew Jackson was a tremendous secretary. I mean a tremendous president. I mean, Andrew Jackson was the last president who actually balanced the federal budget*, where we had no national debt. I love Harriet Tubman; I love what she did. But we can find another way to honor her. Maybe a $2 bill.”**


As Jim Wright pointed out in his post, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and like-minded conservatives are likely to have a field day with this, and if so, I will be writing an update in a few days.  Meanwhile, there is one more tiny detail I may have forgotten to mention:  the new $20 with the visage of Harriet Tubman is unlikely to be in circulation until circa 2030, about 14 years from now, at which time it will be worth $16-$17 in terms of today’s currency.  Apparently major changes to U.S. currency requires a lengthy process “convened by the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence steering committee, which includes representatives from the U.S. Secret Service, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve.”

tubman 3

* (Note:  Jackson was not the last president to balance the budget. Bill Clinton balanced the budget in 1998 and recorded budget surpluses every year until he left office in 2001.)

** (Note:  the $2 was last issued in 2003. Thomas Jefferson currently resides on the $2 bill, which is seldom used in circulation. Carson didn’t discuss what should be done with the existing design of the $2 bill. )

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