Diverse representation on American currency received a new wave of support after it was announced by the U.S. Department of the Treasury last year that a woman would appear on the $10 bill. Almost a year later, public opinion helped push the boundaries of what was originally planned for the future of U.S. currency. Last week, the department announced that the $20 bill, and not the $10 bill, would get Harriet Tubman, an African-American abolitionist and woman, to grace the front of the bill. Taking it a step further, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that the $5 and $10 bills will also have illustrations of other prominent figures on the back. The decision to make such sweeping actions concerning the images appearing on American money is indicative of larger societal shift and reprioritization of collective values. Department officials asked for public input and listened. What they got as a result was the product of a change in public mindset.
When it was first announced that the $10 bill would soon have the face of a woman, a group called Women on 20s immediately asked that Andrew Jackson, and not Alexander Hamilton, be replaced. On their website, the group states two major reasons why Jackson should be given the boot. According to the group, Jackson played a major role in forcibly removing Native Americans from their land and, ironically enough, was actually an opponent of paper currency — unlike Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the treasury and proponent of the national bank.
These arguments aside, it would be unfair to completely discredit Jackson as a prominent U.S. historical figure. His appointment to appear on the bill in 1928 suggests that at one time he did not receive as bad a reputation as he does today. Known as a war hero prior to his presidential election, he represented the struggle of the common man. In office, he sought to push the boundaries of the American frontier — though regrettably at the expense of countless lives.
No one will really know for sure why he was chosen to appear on the $20 bill. According to the Department of the Treasury’s website a statement explains that the reasoning behind the choice is unclear reading, “our records do not suggest why certain Presidents and statesmen were chosen for specific denominations.”
What makes it even more challenging to know exactly why the former president was chosen is that the only official requirement for a person to appear on U.S. currency is that the person be dead, though preferably of historical significance as well. One could only guess that department heads at the time favored a more romanticized picture of Jackson — a young orphan turned president.
Today, the political climate is one defined by public pushes for equality. And that is perhaps the most simplified yet compelling argument for the changes announced. Harriet Tubman’s resume alone competes with that of any man. As a former slave, conductor in the Underground Railroad and Union spy, she embodies the strength of spirit that is characterized in American imagery. As racial minorities and women struggle for equal representation within public policy, Tubman represents the end goal of both these campaigns. This is not including the other images that are set to appear on the back of the $5 bill, which will be Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. and those on the back of the $10 bill, including suffrage movement leaders Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.
While some may question the necessity of these changes, it should be noted that currency modifications, though not quite to the degree of the ones announced, happen periodically to prevent counterfeiting. What the department did this time around, however, is significant because it documents an evolving American public with the ability to reassess national identity and values.