Harriet Tubman in, Andrew Jackson out? Not a bad idea

Our currency imagery should better reflect our history

There's something poignant in the notion of replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the top vote getter in a recent (nonbinding, obviously) online referendum by the Women on 20s group.

Dumping Jackson in favor of a woman of historical American significance is not a new idea (I blogged about similar efforts last year), but it’s a fine one, and it's picking up some support in Congress.

There are good reasons to make the switch. First, the dearth of women memorialized on currency and coins ought to be rectified. True, the high-profile players in U.S. history have been mostly men, reflecting the male-dominated society. But one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to find female candidates representing significant aspects of the American past. It’s an oversight of recognition that ought to be addressed.

So which bill should carry a new face? The odd man out is Jackson when compared with the other currency faces: George Washington ($1), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Ulysses S. Grant ($50) and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Hamilton also could be on the short list of people to be replaced, but given his role in establishing the country and the Treasury Department, Jackson seems the better candidate for demotion.

Jackson, to refresh your memory, was a military hero in the War of 1812, which he parlayed into a political career. As president, his policies led to the infamous Trail of Tears, and he not only supported slavery but was a proponent of expanding slavery westward. Which is why Tubman, an escaped slave and one of the most famous conductors of the Underground Railroad, would be a perfect replacement (though maybe we should also give some thought to Wilma Mankiller, the first female head of a Native American tribe, the Cherokee, whom Jackson had rousted).

Enshrining Tubman on the $20 bill would acknowledge the positive roles African Americans have played in U.S. history, while recognizing the evils of the slavery system upon which much of the nation’s early economy was built. For a nation that ostensibly values freedom, who better to lionize than someone who not only escaped bondage but helped others find their way to freedom while fighting to destroy the very system that enslaved her? What is more American than resistance?

Jackson has his supporters, but then, Jackson has also had his day. It’s time to bounce him. Under government rules, the Treasury secretary can, with input from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, change the portraiture on the $20 bill. So this doesn’t require congressional action, though that support would certainly help.

Will it happen? Who knows. But it should - whether the new face is Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt or any other of a long list of contenders.  

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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