Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will announce plans to replace President Andrew Jackson with famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. This is not the only change: leaders of the women’s suffrage movement will be featured on the back of the $10 bill and there are plans to feature civil rights era leaders on the back of the $5 bill. Jackson may not be completely removed from the $20 bill; it is likely he will still appear on the back.
The reaction to Tubman replacing Jackson was positive. “If this is true, great news!” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “Tubman on $20 is the right call. The redesign needs to happen as soon as possible. Women have waited long enough.”
But Lew’s plan is vulnerable: future Treasury Secretaries would have the power to reverse or alter the decision regarding the $20 bill at any time.
Last summer, Lew proposed replacing Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman. Public reaction was not favorable. Fans of Hamilton rebuked the proposal, citing Hamilton’s hand in creating the Treasury Department and his contributions to the modern American financial system. Critics suggested Lew remove Jackson, a War of 1812 hero and slave owner, from the $20 bill instead, citing his “Indian removal” policy as president. This policy was responsible for moving many Native Americans off their land. Jackson’s popularity coincided with many wars against Native Americans. Jackson’s policies reversed past policy in the United States and in the British colonies that had sought peaceful coexistence, even reconciliation, with natives.
Lew chose to side with his critics. “There are a number of options of how we can resolve this,” Lew said last July. “We’re not taking Alexander Hamilton off our currency.”
The pro-Hamilton movement gained momentum last year after the eponymous musical named after the Treasury Secretary became a surprise Broadway hit, shattering several box
office records. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda even lobbied Lew on Hamilton’s behalf; Lew reportedly told him “you’re going to be very happy” with the finalized redesign plan.
The decision to feature Tubman on the $20 bill will place a female on one of the most widely circulated bills around the world. But the historic change drew criticism amidst concern that it would not happen for at least another decade. A Treasury spokesman originally predicted the bills would be in circulation by 2030. Sources within the Treasury say the new designs should be ready as soon as 2020. The Federal Reserve makes the final decision; it is likely Treasury officials will ask them to speed up the process.
A source within the reserve was less hopeful. "The blue security ribbon on the $100 note took over 15 years to develop," the source said. "This level of technology is why our counterfeiting remains at less than .01% of currency in circulation. We should not expedite the issuance of any currency for political purposes."
Critics shot back at plans to include a mural on the back of the $20 bill showcasing female activists. The group Women on 20s addressed these concerns in an open letter to Lew. "It will take a microscope to see who those individuals are, and we'll be left with another decade or more of woefully inadequate representation of women and their worth," wrote the group.
"Nobody looks at the back of the bill, and that's not likely to change. A vignette without a woman's portrait on the front of the bill (even if she must share with Hamilton) will be seen as a token gesture and an affront to Americans of all ages who are expecting you to reveal your choice of a singular woman based on their input. As a friend of ours put it, relegating women to the back of the bill is akin to sending them to the back of the bus. The Rosa Parks analogies are inevitable."