Politics & Policy

Tubman on the Twenty


Last year, a faction of the feminist Left discovered that it was being oppressed by the absence of a woman on at least one piece of America’s paper currency. After much baying from activists, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has struck upon a reasonable compromise. Lew announced on Wednesday that the place of Alexander Hamilton, currently experiencing a historical renascence, on the $10 bill is safe. Instead, Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, and the seventh president will be moved to the back.

Tubman is an admirable choice. Not only was she a courageous chaperone along the Underground Railroad, responsible for escorting more than 300 slaves to freedom; she was also a scout and spy for the Union Army, the first woman in American history to lead a military raid (against Combahee Ferry, in South Carolina, where she helped liberate more than 700 slaves), a Republican, a devout Christian, and a staunch defender of the right to bear arms.

Andrew Jackson, for his part, was a giant of American history, and the animating spirit of the Democratic party. But moods change, and in the current public consciousness, Jackson’s considerable flaws have come to outweigh his also considerable merits. If there is a reason to remove Jackson from the currency, perhaps it should simply be that he hated paper money.

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Meanwhile, Lew’s compromise leaves Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. And as long as great Americans adorn our currency, it would be difficult to think of a person more deserving than Hamilton, who not only was one of the original American rags-to-riches stories but was also, as the first secretary of the Treasury, responsible for establishing the national financial structure that facilitated the greatest engine of prosperity in human history: the American economy. If Hamilton does not deserve a place on our money, who does?

#share#Unfortunately, though, this whole episode has been a product less of considered opinions than of ideological whims. Hamilton became a target not out of any principled opposition, but because feminists decided that it was time for our currency to boast “a woman,” and the $10 bill was next due to be redesigned, in 2019. (Incidentally, Hamilton also was saved by timing: the fortuitous opening of a hit Broadway musical about his life.) The notes and coins of our currency are not national monuments — they are periodically redesigned to reflect shifts in national values, and the American public clearly wants currency that showcases a more diverse array of Americans who have contributed to the ongoing work of winning liberty and justice for all — but decisions about who adorns our currency shouldn’t be made to accommodate momentary fancies.

This whole episode has been a product less of considered opinions than of ideological whims.

Resisting that temptation will be harder, given the slate of changes the Treasury Department is planning beyond the $20 bill. According to Lew, the $10 bill will be redesigned to display on its back, instead of the Treasury building, portraits of leaders of the women’s-suffrage movement. And the back of the $5 bill will be refashioned to include images of Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and opera singer–cum–civil-rights activist Marian Anderson.

Each of those persons made valuable contributions to the American way of life. But printing a Who’s Who volume on the currency is sure to prompt calls to include a representative from this cause and that one. After all, why not Cesar Chavez? Why not Harvey Milk? And it prompts straightforward aesthetic concerns: Who wants a dollar bill that looks like a photo album?

This contretemps highlights, once again, the extent to which the histories of particular groups and interests are now so often preferred to a larger, unifying American history. The current administration may have satisfied progressive demands momentarily. But we’ll be fighting this battle again, soon enough. You can put money on it.


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