Column: The currency conundrums of redesigning the $10 and $20 bills

This image provided by the Library of Congress shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875. A Treasury official said Wednesday, April 20, 2016, that Secretary Jacob Lew has decided to put Tubman on the $20 bill, making her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. (H.B. Lindsley/Library of Congress via AP)

Last summer Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stated that he was open to placing a woman on the face of the $10 bill. Many took issue with this change, which would remove Alexander Hamilton from the front of the bill. The Treasury instead considered placing a mural illustrating the women’s suffrage movement on the reverse of the $10 bill. Lew announced yesterday that Hamilton would retain his place on the $10 and Harriet Tubman would replace Jackson on the $20. This is an appropriate response to the movement behind placing women on our currency.

Renewed appreciation in Hamilton, bolstered by widespread interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s successful Broadway musical about the founding father, has bolstered the movement to preserve Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill. Yet we do not need a Broadway musical to prove Hamilton is more than deserving of his place there. Hamilton was the founder of America’s financial system after the adoption of the Constitution. As first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton led the federal government to assume state debts and fund the debt at par. He created the federally supported Bank of the United States, established the U.S. Mint and launched America’s tariff system. Through his efforts, Hamilton led the way in forming America’s financial system and promoting the Union’s public credit. Given Hamilton’s unparalleled contributions to the United States’ economic and financial organization, no founding father has as great a claim as he to a place on the banknotes of our nation’s central banking system. Hamilton’s place is rightly preserved inviolate. He is uniquely deserving of recognition on our nation’s currency given his contributions to our banking system and the Federal Treasury. 

The replacement of Andrew Jackson is also appropriate. While Jackson looms large in the pantheon of American presidents and his role in promoting Jacksonian democracy and the primacy of the common man should not be forgotten, placing him on the $20 bill is nothing short of ironic. Few, if any, of our presidents were as hostile to banks as was Jackson. He especially opposed the centralization of banking interests and viewed himself as a protector of the common man against the wealthy financial classes. Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States, the successor of the institution established by Hamilton. Given his opposition to the centralized banking, it is highly unusual that we give him a place on the Federal Reserve’s $20 note. In fact, Jackson himself would likely not want to have his portrait emblazoned on the $20 bill. To keep him there is little more than a cruel and ironic mockery from beyond the grave. 

It is difficult to conceive of a bill more suitable to place Harriet Tubman on than the $20. As Jackson’s place there makes little sense, we could replace him when the $20 bill comes up for redesign. This solution makes the most sense in responding to the campaign to get a woman on U.S. currency. On the issue of central banking, no two figures are such striking opposites as Hamilton and Jackson. It is silly to consider removing Hamilton, given his role in American finance and banking. He also should not have to share his bill with a women’s suffrage mural on the reverse. The reverse currently depicts the U.S. Treasury, an institution formed and shaped by Hamilton. This is appropriate. His unique achievements merit one bill solely devoted to his contributions. An important woman should replace Jackson on the $20 bill and perhaps the suffrage movement mural could be placed on the reverse of that bill. We should be open to changing who is depicted on our currency, but if there is any figure whose place of honor should remain inviolate, it is Hamilton.


Brian McCarty is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at brian.mccarty@uconn.edu.