Editorial: The choice to place Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (the man who signs all of your dollar bills) announced last week that Harriet Tubman will be placed on the front of the new $20 bill. While initial news had it that President Andrew Jackson would be removed completely, it turns out that Tubman will share the bill with him. The news was received well by many, easing fears that Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father without a father and the creator of many of the United States’ financial systems, would be removed from the face of the $10 bill. However, others were not quite as pleased. Shouts of Lew attempting to “erase history” have been sounded, and politicians like Donald Trump have criticized the Secretary for altering American tradition due to politics and “pure political correctness.” 

The irony of Jackson’s placement on legal tender is not lost on everyone — Jackson fought hard to abolish the Bank of United States and even spoke outwardly against the establishment of a national paper currency. For many, having him become the face of the $20 bill in the first place seems counterintuitive. On top of this, criticisms of Jackson, particularly from the left, are endless. From orchestrating the Trail of Tears to instituting the so-called “Spoils System,” Jackson’s demonstrations of inhumanity and corruption have turned many modern day liberals against him. Unfortunately for his most ardent opponents, Jackson’s image will still be featured on the back of the bill alongside the current image of the White House.

Surprisingly, the most striking criticism of Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill has come from the left. Tubman’s act of leading slaves to freedom was ultimately a subversion of the American capitalist system, under which she and millions of others had been enslaved. Many have therefore claimed that making Tubman a symbol of capitalism would be a downright insult to her legacy. Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill and Jackson’s relegation to the back demonstrates that the oppressor can legitimize their system with images of the oppressed. 

Certainly, there is still work to do in America, but having Tubman on the front is still remarkable as a symbol for both the positive changes we have already made as well as those we can accomplish in the future. Further, the effort to put Tubman’s image on our currency was jump-started last year by an activist group for historic change called “Women on 20s.” This makes the decision proof that at least some of our government agencies listen to the people’s voice and are willing to push for citizen-driven change. Perhaps the most remarkable detail regarding Tubman’s placement on the $20 bill is the fact that it is the same denomination her father paid to buy his wife’s freedom in the late 1840s.

Secretary Lew is not “erasing history.” He is emphasizing a chapter of history that has been downplayed among official narratives for far too long. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” Our government should not ignore the civil disruptors of the past, but should instead acknowledge and prioritize them.