Politico reports that Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is set to announce that Alexander Hamilton will get a reprieve and remain on the $10 bill, while Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20, and Treasury will make other changes including “putting leaders of the women’s suffrage movement on the back of the $10 bill, and incorporating civil-rights era leaders and other important moments in American history into the $5 bill” while relocating Jackson to less desirable real estate (his own Trail of Tears, one might say) on the back of the $20.
There are a few lessons here, not least the power of popular culture: Hamilton, previously the most obscure figure (to the general population) of the men on American currency was clearly saved in large part by the runaway success of the Broadway hip-hop musical celebrating his life. Conservatives may decry the politically correct identity-politics drive to demand a woman on the money and downgrade Jackson, but it’s worth remembering that Jackson has only been there since 1928, when he replaced Grover Cleveland, and decisions about whom we should honor on our money have always said as much about our values at a given moment as about any historical merit. Jackson was and is a monumental figure in American history, an unapologetic nationalist who left the nation larger and more secure than he found it, bitterly opposed factional threats of secession, and fought for a larger role for the common man in our democracy, and at times in our history, those have been critical values. But Jackson was massively controversial in his own time and ever since for a great many reasons — as controversial as Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, or Woodrow Wilson. And Jackson himself, in life, was never much restrained by the conventions of history. In retrospect, it is surprising he lasted this long on the $20.
Contemporary liberals, of course, focus on his record as a slave-owner and his brutal relocation of Native American tribes from the American South. Conservatives to this day have our own particular complaints to add: Jackson was a major influence in turning the federal government into an engine of partisan patronage, setting the model for client-based governing that the Democratic party in particular has followed ever since. And his demagogy and politics of grievance remain dangers to this day. The Jacksonians are gone from the Democratic party now — Jim Webb was the last man to turn out the lights on his way out — but the Donald Trump phenomenon has underlined the extent to which they are no friend to principled conservatism, any more than Jackson himself was.
As for Tubman, I would argue that she’s not the most influential woman in American history; that honor should rightly belong to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most important of all American novels. But Tubman herself is a worthy honoree, the first ordinary citizen on paper money and a woman of great courage and powerful Christian witness. She was also — this tends to be forgotten today — a nurse and scout during the Civil War and herself a leader of the women’s suffrage movement until her death at 91 in 1913, more than half a century after her “Underground Railroad” exploits. Tubman’s life is not without its own controversies, like her assistance to John Brown in advance of the Harper’s Ferry raid that ended with Brown being hanged for treason (the justification of Brown’s actions is one of the great ethical dilemmas in American history: How far exactly should one go to stop something as bad as slavery?). And if the debates over the $10 and the $20 lead more Americans to learn the flesh-and-blood stories of Hamilton, Jackson, and Tubman, that can’t be a bad thing. They remind us that our politics have always been messy and sometimes bloody.
Do not weep for Andrew Jackson. He had a good run on the money.