The exciting and powerful film Harriet, on screens now, should earn its heroine a well-deserved platform on which everyone can see her: a new $25 bill.
Harriet Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland, fled north 100 miles to Philadelphia, and began life as a free woman in 1849.
But she didn’t sit still.
Through 13 subsequent trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the God-fearing, gun-toting Harriet Tubman helped some 70 slaves slip their chains and escorted them north, to freedom. “I can say what most conductors can’t say,” Tubman declared. “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
Tubman served the Union Army as a Civil War spy, and led the Combahee River Raid, a military expedition into South Carolina that liberated some 750 slaves. The five-foot tall Tubman promoted women’s suffrage and other causes before passing away in 1913 at about age 90.
“I have wrought in the day — you in the night,” abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote to Tubman in August 1868. “The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”
For such valor, Tubman was supposed to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a decision Obama made, late in his presidency. That move was scuttled under President Donald J. Trump, perhaps in an effort to reverse every policy that Obama implemented. Given that damn-near everything that Obama touched devolved into fertilizer, this impulse was entirely reasonable.
“The primary reason we have looked at redesigning the currency is for counterfeiting issues,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the House Financial Services Committee on May 22. “Based upon this, the $20 bill will now not come out until 2028. The $10 bill and the $50 bill will come out with new features beforehand.”
By all means, crush the counterfeiters. But for all the taxes that the Treasury Department collects, it somehow needs nine years to craft and circulate a Tubman bill? It took Uncle Sam from October 1941 to August 1945 to approve, design, and detonate an atomic bomb. Why must deploying a new greenback take more than twice as long?
Also, some people want Andrew Jackson to stay on the $20 bill. While he is vilified these days for cruelly forcing some 20,000 Cherokee Indians down the deadly Trail of Tears, he also was the brilliant commander of the Battle of New Orleans, which kept Great Britain from corking the Mississippi River during the War of 1812. Had Jackson, the Free Men of Color, and his other racially integrated troops surrendered, Americans today might play cricket rather than baseball.
Most notoriously, the father of the modern Democratic party owned slaves. But if having at least one slave, even briefly, bars one’s face from U.S. currency, then it’s time to pry George Washington from the $1 bill, Thomas Jefferson from the $2, Ulysses S. Grant from the $50, and Ben Franklin from the Benjamin.
“I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic,” President Trump has said. “But I would love to leave Andrew Jackson or see if we can maybe come up with another denomination.”
Either Trump could upset Jackson supporters or disappoint Tubman fans. But rather than either/or, why not satisfy both?
Jackson should remain on the $20. And Tubman should stand on her own on a brand-new bill: The $25. And the fact that this intrepid black woman would grace a bill more valuable than Jackson’s? Make of that what one will.
The $25 Tubman note “is a very reasonable compromise,” Lawrence W. Reed, president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education, told me. “It may be a dubious honor to appear on something that declines so regularly in value,” Reed has written. “Without a doubt, this woman would impart more esteem to the bill than the bill would to her. Her value is far more solid and enduring.”