Jacson on $20

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Making Change for Your Twenty

| published April 21, 2016 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

After years of debate, the issue of changes to the $5, $10 and $20 bills has been resolved, perhaps to almost everyone’s satisfaction.

The good news for advocates of Alexander Hamilton, the man responsible for the creation of the U.S. banking system, is that founding father Hamilton will remain—for now at least—on the $10 bill. Hamilton’s recent historical resurgence is being attributed by some in the media to the resounding smash success of the Broadway musical of the same name.

The bad news for fans of Andrew Jackson: he will soon disappear from the $20 bill. Jackson was a supporter of slavery, a slave owner, a ruthless persecutor of native Americans, and a politician who opposed the banking system and publicly disavowed paper money—all disqualifiers, historians have said for decades, for keeping him as the iconic face of the $20.

Jackson’s face will be soon replaced with Harriet Tubman, according to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and officials with the Treasury Department. The White House has already signed off on the change, though because of the security complexities of changing the printing processes—and in order to incorporate newer anti-counterfeit technologies—we won’t see that first Tubman Twenty until January 2020.

Tubman’s arrival to the iconic and frequently used paper currency has been widely interpreted as an ideal solution to what had become a predictably complex political conundrum. Tubman was a humanitarian and volunteer, an abolitionist and an outspoken critic of slavery, and even a spy for the Union at the height of the American Civil War. She will be the first African-American woman to appear on paper currency in the U.S.

And despite much ballyhoo in the press that she will be the first woman to grace printed American cash, she does not get that honor; Martha Washington made a brief appearance on the one dollar bill in the late 1880s. Martha Washington made another appearance just opposite her famous presidential husband on the reverse side of the 1895-1987 series of one dollar bills. Even before Martha appeared on those one dollar silver certificates, a painting by artist John G. Chapman, “The Baptism of Pocahontas,” made its appearance on $20 notes in the middle 1800s.

But Tubman is seen as the first woman to appear in recent times, and the first to break with a long held pattern of white-haired dead white guys on paper money in the U.S. Women have made frequent appearances on American coins almost from the moment of the founding of the republic, but as for the printed paper—it was rare indeed.

Lew and the Treasury were seen as being forced to back down from his original plan—discussed for several years—of dumping Hamilton in favor of the face of a famous American woman. Options had included Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln, Margaret Sanger, Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony (once used on the $1 coin), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Bess Truman, Abigail Adams, Helen Keller, and others.

But the success of a Broadway musical now the favorite of President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and scores of others in Washington may have changed all that, ticket sales trumping the currency change and upping the stakes for the hapless and now famously politically incorrect Democrat Andrew Jackson.

The news may not sit well in some quarters of Florida, the state in which he served as the region’s first territorial governor, and for whom the city of Jacksonville is named. A famous statue of Jackson riding atop of leaping horse graces a centrally located roundabout in the city’s downtown, located aptly—or ironically—at the foot of several skyscraper banks and at the front door of a riverfront shopping mall, where one can buy NFL baseball caps or dine on hot wings at Hooters.

Jackson may have fallen from favor, and that has been Tubman’s gain in the standings among those who get to decide the faces of our most commonly traded paper bills. But Hamilton is a different matter entirely. The musical, written and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and based on the best-selling 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, has become a smash hit with few peers in the long history of Broadway. It has also reignited an interest by American students in a subject thought long-forgotten: American history. According to Ticket Master (and we checked the website carefully only hours ago), you can get a pair of tickets to “Hamilton” (Saturday night, 8 p.m. show) for the modest price of $194.

There is no rule found at the Treasury Department or in Congress or anywhere in the White House that says that to appear on a piece of U.S. paper money that one has to have served as President, as both Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin show. Franklin, a founding father but not ever President, has long adorned the $100 bill. The current gaggle of familiar faces (Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, Franklin) have remained constant since roughly 1929, or nearly 90 years. All the aforementioned bills have undergone various makeovers and modifications, allowing for improvements in printing and in anti-counterfeiting measures. But those familiar faces—all men, all white, all dour—have remained unchanged.

Women have also appeared on other forms of currency besides coinage. During both World War I and World War II, women appeared on Military Payment Certificates—various printed denominations of currency used by enlisted service personnel, officers, and some government officials overseas. Their use was in part a way to make it difficult for U.S. currency to land in the hands of spies or counterfeiters in hostile lands. The system was also a useful way to curb graft and corruption in the military. Those military bills included the faces of Lady Liberty, portrayed often in a quasi-silver-screen glamour poses, and a variety of other women—some known, some unknown. In an all-male military and mostly-male foreign service, this mechanism had the added advantage of conveying core values: liberty, and something worth fighting for waiting back at home.

It’ll take a few years for the Tubman Twenty to become reality. Once the technological issues are resolved and the new paper money is seen as resistant to criminals—counterfeiting the twenty has proven to be the most lucrative form of printing phony money for decades—there could still be a multi-front political fight. Not all women’s rights groups are in favor of stopping with the twenty; and some have complained openly of Lew’s abandonment of his plan to scrap the Hamilton Ten in favor of Eleanor Roosevelt or Martha Washington or Rosa Parks, to name a few.

The compromise plan is to add women and major civil rights activists to the reverse sides of several other bills, including the five, the ten, and possibly the fifty. The current image of the U.S. Treasury Department on back side of the ten will be scrapped in favor of a montage of suffrage leaders, along with a depiction of the 1913 women’s rights march which concluded near the Treasury.

The reverse side of the five will include the faces of Martin Luther King, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Obama has signed off on the changes, but tradition holds that the Federal Reserve also needs to concur in any changes.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Shuttle Milestone: 21 Years Ago; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 3, 2016.

The Father of the Civil Rights Movement; Earl H. Perkins; Thursday Review; February 26, 2014.