In Brief

Harriet Tubman Bumps Slave-Owning Andrew Jackson Off Front of $20 Bill

The president who signed the Indian Removal Act, which pushed thousands of indigenous people off their land through events like the Trail of Tears, and owned over 100 slaves, will finally get his own removal from his central place on the American $20 bill.

Harriet Tubman photographed by H. B. Lindsley (1860-75) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
Harriet Tubman photographed by H. B. Lindsley (1860-75) (via Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

The president who signed the Indian Removal Act, which pushed thousands of indigenous people off their land through events like the Trail of Tears, and owned over 100 slaves, will finally get his own removal from his central place on the American $20 bill. As Politico first reported today, Jack Lew, the current Treasury Secretary, is expected to reveal a plan this Wednesday that would put Harriet Tubman on the front of the bill instead.

'Hamilton' on Broadway (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
‘Hamilton’ on Broadway (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

According to the New York Times, Tubman is one of a few “depictions of women and civil rights leaders” who will be featured on revamped “currency designs,” which will be timed with 2020, the year that marks the centennial for the 19th Amendment. That 1920 amendment secured the right to vote for women.

The announcement follows a previous plan that would have taken Alexander Hamilton off the $10. However, with Hamilton the musical soaring on Broadway and a March freestyle by its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, at the White House in March, the initial plan to remove the “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” as proclaimed in the first song of the musical, became unpopular. Not to mention that having the first Treasury Secretary on the currency makes more sense than keeping Jackson on one of the most-used bills. But the faces on American currency are swapped so rarely that history will undoubtably have its eyes on the new featured figures, and how the use of their images on currency reflects their legacies in this country.

UPDATE, 4/20/16: Dara Lind at Vox has a story exploring the significance of the $20 in relation to Tubman’s life. Citing the 1869 biography of Tubman by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, highlighted by Yoni Appelbaum at the Atlantic today on Twitter, Lind explains that Tubman staged a sit-in in order to raise the $20 necessary to emancipate her father.

UPDATE 2, 4/20/16: The Treasury Department confirmed Harriet Tubman on the $20 through Twitter:

UPDATE 3, 4/20/16: Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew discussed the redesigns in an open letter:

Since we began this process, we have heard overwhelming encouragement from Americans to look at notes beyond the $10. Based on this input, I have directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to accelerate plans for the redesign of the $20, $10, and $5 notes. We already have begun work on initial concepts for each note, which will continue this year. We anticipate that final concept designs for the new $20, $10, and $5 notes will all be unveiled in 2020 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Lew added that the “decision to put Harriet Tubman on the new $20” was inspired by the “thousands” of responses in their open call for redesign suggestions.

UPDATE 4, 4/20/16: According to the newly released redesign details, Jackson won’t be expelled entirely from the $20 bill. Instead, the Department of Treasury states that the “reverse of the new $20 will display The White House and an image of President Andrew Jackson.” We say for all those impacted by the Indian Removal Act: Alas.

UPDATE 5, 4/21/16: You can now read up on the other figures who will be featured on the new currency, including Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott for the $10 note, and Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. for the $5.

Update, 5/23/19, 12:06 pm: Yesterday, May 22, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the Harriet Tubman $20 bill would be postponed until at least 2026. The program, spearheaded under the Obama administration, was planned to be unveiled in 2020. It has been speculated that Mnuchin hesitated to cancel the bill outright in fear of backlash against President Trump (who once called the bill “pure political correctness), and instead delayed until after the latest possible end to a Trump presidency.

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