Column: Tubman on the $20 will recreate the American image

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)

Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced last week that the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill will be replaced by one of ex-slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, according to a New York Times report. The decision is the result of a debate that started in the Treasury about a year ago, when Lew recognized the need to include women on U.S. currency. The selection of Harriet Tubman is not only an enormously symbolic step forward for the United States, but also an indicator of a change in the attitude toward the American historical identity.

As of now, history is poorly represented on American currency, where the honor of a portrait on the face of a bill is reserved only for the figures deemed most worthy. However, some of these supposedly “most worthy” individuals are worthy only if some of their greatest flaws are ignored. Andrew Jackson, specifically, is guilty of massacring Native Americans and forcing the Cherokee Nation to leave their home in Georgia and migrate to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. He was also a notorious slave owner. The real mystery is how he managed to retain his place on the $20 for such a long period of time. Even Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father who wrote the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, appears only on the rare $2 bill compared to Jackson’s $20.

This, however, is what the image of the great American has always been: a figure of great power, usually a founder or a president, who may have an impressive military victory under his belt. Take a look at George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, both generals and presidents, or Lincoln, the president who can claim victory during the Civil War, or Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, both Founding Fathers, and the pattern is the same. However, Harriet Tubman’s future presence on the $20 bill symbolizes a change in what it means to be a great American.

This April 17, 2015, file photo provided by the U.S. Treasury shows the front of the U.S. $20 bill, featuring a likeness of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. A Treasury official said Wednesday, April 20, 2016, that Secretary Jacob Lew has decided to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, making her the first woman on U.S. paper currency in 100 years. (U.S. Treasury via AP, File)

Most important, perhaps, is the fact that Tubman’s greatest acts were performed without political power. Though she was born a slave, she escaped her masters. Then, instead of securing her safety in the North, she selflessly led other slave families through the Underground Railroad to help them find their way to freedom. After all of her efforts, she still died in poverty. This completely redefines American values and the idea of success. Tubman, after all, was not offered a political position nor was she given any monetary reward for her efforts, yet she is more quintessentially American than many of the other monetary figures; she is a freedom fighter, a proponent of equal rights and a selfless figure who made great sacrifices – all values which are frequently disregarded today.

On the $20 bill, Tubman will recreate this American image, while at the same time representing a piece of long-neglected history. Her identity as both an African American and a woman will bring both of these groups to their rightful place in history alongside white men, not behind them. Until now, no African Americans have been featured on U.S. currency, and the only females who have appeared on U.S. paper are Martha Washington, who made a brief paper appearance on the $1 bill in the 19th century, and Pocahontas, whose portrait was on the $20 bill for a short time, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

While Tubman’s presence on a bill might not seem too significant in comparison to these injustices, she is actually being honored as one of the most important American historical figures. Citizens interact more frequently with the historical figures on their money, and they will become more aware of Tubman’s contributions to the nation. Just as children learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, they will also become familiar with Harriet Tubman, which is a huge victory for feminist and civil rights movements.

Tubman’s presence on the $20 will bring to the forefront everything that Americans have neglected about their history. She will serve as the first step in an apology toward African Americans and women, and she will bring the country back to values of freedom, courage, and selflessness that have been forgotten for far too long.


Alex Oliveira is a staff writer for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.