Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced on April 20, 2016, that for the first time in American history, an African-American woman will be featured on paper currency, specifically, the twenty-dollar bill. That woman? Harriet Tubman. Although the concept of honoring a woman on U.S. paper currency has long been discussed, it has not been until of late that definite plans have been made. Originally, the choice was to replace Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill and potential names included some of the most famous women in our history, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Sojourner Truth. During this process, however, a new group of activists, known as “Women on 20s,” grew more vocal in supporting the idea of a woman replacing Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill and that view prevailed.
Is this the first time women will be featured on American currency?
No. Women have in fact been honored on American currency, but none have been featured in decades. During the 1800s, First Lady Martha Washington’s picture appeared on the one dollar silver note. In the mid-1800s, Pocahontas was featured on the twenty-dollar note among other men in a group scene. As for coins, Sacagawea is currently on the obverse of the one-dollar bill. Lady Liberty’s image graced demand notes in 1861. Susan B. Anthony’s portrait was on a one-dollar coin, which was minted for three years until 1999. Helen Keller’s picture is currently on the Alabama quarter. She is depicted reading braille and braille is embossed onto the coin next to her head.
Why remove Andrew Jackson from the twenty-dollar bill?
Although the change is not formally directed against Andrew Jackson, it is also true that with the passage of time his presidency has come under severe criticism on several fronts. Most famously, Jackson championed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced Native Americans out of their homes in Southeast to make room for European settlers. Also known as the Trail of Tears, this tragic forced migration led to the deaths of over ten thousand members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes. Jackson is also known for supporting the use of gold and silver coins and fiercely opposing the idea of central banking and paper money (It is considered extremely ironic that Andrew Jackson is featured on paper money due to his beliefs). His policies are often credited for a devastating economic collapse: the Panic of 1837. Jackson’s major accomplishment as President may have been to prevent the slaveholding states from seceding, but he did nothing to end the underlying problem of slavery. In fact, Jackson, like most other Democrats at the time, was a slave-owner.
Why was the original plan to change the ten-dollar bill and not the twenty-dollar bill?
Changes in the appearance of American currency are not entirely rare. Since the 1990s, the government has regularly scheduled bills to be redesigned to prevent counterfeit. In accordance with this rule, the ten-dollar bill was next in line to be revamped, making the placement of a woman on the bill much easier to implement. In addition, many feel the recent stunning success and popularity of the musical “Hamilton” may have helped convince the Treasury to keep Hamilton a while longer. With the notion that a woman should be featured on the twenty-dollar bill instead of the ten-dollar bill came a new round of discussion among the same candidates. Factors considered were their impact on society, as well as the difficulty they faced in pursuing their goals. Harriet Tubman emerged as the clear winner, undoubtedly because of her heroic dedication to the abolitionist movement.
Did the musical “Hamilton” really save Alexander Hamilton from being removed from the ten-dollar bill?
According to Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and star of “Hamilton”), Secretary Lew told him, “You’re going to be very happy,” regarding Hamilton’s place on the ten-dollar bill. Reflecting the musical’s popularity, this statement may suggest to some that the musical likely may have helped save Hamilton from being removed from the bill. In addition, Secretary Lew indicated elsewhere that the decision to change the bill would upset the many fans among the public and perhaps hurt the new bill’s popularity. Furthermore, Alexander Hamilton’s dedication to his country truly set him apart as a patriot. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton was among George Washington’s most trusted aides and performed heroically in battle. As an author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton helped gain ratification of the Constitution, which incorporated the system of checks and balances he advocated. Later, he advised President Washington on the Neutrality Proclamation which stated that the United States of America would not become involved in foreign entanglements. Hamilton, unlike Jackson, also opposed slavery and was a founding member of the abolitionist New York Manumission Society. Hamilton also served as the first Secretary of the Treasury in President Washington’s Cabinet (the Treasury Department building is on the back of the ten dollar bill). Ever selfless, Hamilton put the good of the country ahead of his political party in the contested election of 1800 by ultimately supporting Thomas Jefferson, probably a contributing factor leading up to the duel with Aaron Burr which cost him his life.
What made Harriet Tubman such a remarkable historical figure?
Harriet Tubman was born a slave, but she escaped slavery in 1849 and began a life of helping other slaves escape. Using the secret network known as the Underground Railroad, Tubman guided countless slave families to freedom. Tubman also played an active role in the struggle to end slavery by recruiting men for abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. Interestingly, when she was a child, Tubman was struck by a slave master with a metal weight, causing her to suffer dizziness and extreme headaches that would stay with her for life. It is speculated that this may have contributed to vivid dreams in which she heard a voice telling her to free the slaves. This is eerily similar to John Brown’s dreams in which God told him that he was “the freer of slaves.” With the start of the Civil War, Tubman volunteered as both a Union cook and nurse before becoming the first armed female spy to fight in battle. Tubman led a raid at Combahee Ferry, South Carolina, which freed over 750 slaves, many of whom joined the Union Army after their liberation. Tubman even helped many freed slaves find jobs. Later in life, Tubman married and adopted a baby girl, Gertie. Tubman worked various jobs while strongly promoting women’s rights along other famous activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Tubman served as the National Federation of Afro-American Women’s first speaker. Even with all her apparent success, Tubman still led a life of extreme poverty. Although a biography of her life written by author Sarah Hopkins Bradford earned Tubman around $1,200, she later fell prey to swindlers who robbed her of all her life’s savings. In 1903, Tubman donated a piece of land to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to be made into a home for elderly people of color. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged is now honored as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Tubman died at age 91 in 1913 and was buried with semi-military honors at the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.
How might history judge the story of the changing twenty-dollar bill?
Historical perspectives change with the times. For example, Andrew Jackson was unquestionably among the most popular people in the country in his time. He was greatly admired for his victories as a general and was elected twice to the presidency (in fact, he won the popular vote three times). Many of the actions for which he is greatly criticized today were considered mainstream policy decisions in the early 1800s. However, it is also fair to say that Jackson never would have been elected if all the people, especially slaves and Native Americans, had been allowed to vote. Even though Harriet Tubman could not vote, her actions helped made it possible for millions to eventually do so. Her legacy will never be forgotten.