Abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s image will appear on a new series of $20 bills, becoming the first African-American to appear on U.S. paper currency and the first woman in more than a century, the Treasury Department announced Wednesday.
Harriet Tubman will be the first woman on the face of a modern U.S. bill, but she’s far from the first woman on U.S. currency.
In replacing President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, the Treasury Department abandoned a previous plan to have a woman replace founding father Alexander Hamilton on the $10.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the about-face came in response to an unexpected show of support for Hamilton in the weeks after he announced that plan last June — a response fueled, in part, by the popularity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical based on Hamilton’s life by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“The show has certainly caught people’s imagination, and I think it’s a great thing,” Lew told USA TODAY. “What we’ve been doing on the currency and what they’ve been doing on the show were really quite complementary.”
But just as important was a book Lew read early on in his quest to find the woman most worthy of being honored on U.S. currency: Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, published just last year. What he found, he said, was a different Tubman than he learned about in school.
Clinton said Tubman is a much more multi-dimensional figure than she was portrayed as in the children’s books that defined her image for decades. “I think most people are unaware of the full dimensions of her Civil War career. I’m a Civil War historian, and I was unaware,” said Clinton, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It took her 30 years to get her pension from the government, because she was a spy and a scout and she worked behind enemy lines.”
The $5, $10 and $20 bills will all be redesigned over the next four years, but will be put into production at various times over the next decade.
The long-awaited currency redesign will have a cascading effect on bills of all denominations over the next decades, as new security features are introduced to make the bills harder to counterfeit. New bills will also have tactile features to make them easier for blind citizens to distinguish.
And, Lew said, the redesign will affect the fronts and backs of each denomination. “We want people to pay attention to the whole bill,” he said. Among the changes announced:
► President Lincoln will remain on the front of the $5 bill, but the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the back will be redesigned to depict historic events that happened there: Opera singer Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
► The back of the $10 bill will tell the story of the women’s suffrage movement, which culminated in the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. Among the women to be honored on the back of that bill: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.
► To make room for Tubman on the front of the $20 bill, Jackson will be moved to the back where he’ll be incorporated into the existing image of the White House. Lew said that image could depict the statue of Jackson riding horseback in Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
Jackson, a democratic populist who opposed the national banking system, has seen his stock fall in recent years because he owned slaves and persecuted native Americans.
When completed, the currency changes will mark the biggest overhaul of the look of U.S. currency since 1928, when the current system of “dead presidents” was designed.
Women on 20s, a group that had lobbied for a woman on the $20 bill, said they’re happy to see Lew abandon his original plan to leave Jackson on the front of the $20 bill — but they’re worried that it could be more than a decade before the new Tubman $20s see the inside of a wallet.
“I’m happy to have a commitment. I’d be happier to have a date,” said Susan Ades Stone of Women on 20s.
The Treasury Department has said it needs to redesign the $10 bill next because it’s most prone to counterfeiting — even though there are four times more $20 bills in circulation, according to Federal Reserve data. Lew said he can’t completely control the sophisticated retooling process that will take place at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is currently set up to produce only one series of bills at a time.
“There’s a reason it takes so many years to design and produce money,” he said. “These timelines are not written into law. It’s a question of how fast these wheels can move. It can be speeded up.”
He acknowledged that the next Treasury secretary could change course, but would likely face a backlash if he or she decided to take Tubman off the $20. “I don’t think someone is going to want to do that,” he said.
President Obama launched the effort in 2014, when he said he had gotten a letter from a girl from Massachusetts saying women should appear on currency. Obama called it “a pretty good idea.”
While Congress maintains authority over coins under the Constitution, the Treasury secretary has the legal authority to design paper currency — except for the $1 bill, where Congress requires a portrait of President Washington. And according to a memo obtained by TheWall Street Journal, Lew considered putting women’s voting rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony on the $10 bill early last year.
He then changed course and decided to ask for public comment about which woman should be on the bill, and the resulting feedback from social media campaigns forced him to delay a decision until this year.
“We said we were going to listen to people, and we actually listened to people. And there was a legitimate concern about what bill a woman goes on the front of, and what story we had to tell,” Lew said.
“I will take credit for this. I had a kind of ‘A-ha!’ moment where I said, ‘We’re thinking too small. We’re thinking about one square inch of one bill,'” he told USA TODAY. “We had this idea that if you went bigger, you’d be able to accomplish a lot of the things that we’d really like to do, tell more stories, honor more than one women.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this week that it’s reasonable to expect that Lew consulted the White House on the redesign, but it was ultimately his decision.
“Secretary Lew has demonstrated a seriousness of purpose in taking a look at what the next generation of U.S. currency would look like. Obviously, there are updates that are made to our currency based on security requirements. And the question that he has considered is when those security updates are required, should we make some changes to our currency to make sure that it better reflects the country, and certainly the role that women have played in contributing to the development of our country,” Earnest said.
Former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, praised the pick once the news broke. “I can’t think of a better choice than Harriet Tubman,” she said on Twitter.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who had personally lobbied Lew to put Eleanor Roosevelt on money instead, said she was heartened that the process generated such passion about American history on all sides.
She hopes more and more women will be added to currency “such that a century from now Americans will begin to ask, ‘Where are the men?’”