The Not-So-New $20 Bill: Andrew Jackson Makes Room, But Still Remains

On Apr. 20, 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew revealed sweeping changes to America’s paper currency. But with all the hype and hullabaloo that accompanied the news, one of these changes may have escaped your notice.

Lew announced that for the first time in over a century, a woman will be featured on US currency. The $20 bill has undergone many changes throughout its history having featured various historical figures from Pocahontas to Grover Cleveland before making way for the modern version, featuring Andrew Jackson, in 1928. And now, after nearly 80 years, Jackson will be making way for another individual, though not entirely.

Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson, a former slaveholder, on the front of the $20 bill. While Tubman’s position will mark the first time an African American will be featured on American money and is a triumph for progress and justice, celebrations may be diminished by the decision to keep Jackson’s image on the reverse side of the same bill.

tubman 20

An imagined version of the new $20 bill

Harriet Tubman’s appearance on the $20 is rather fitting. The famous abolitionist who led hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, also served as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil war. At the age of 79, and thirty years after the Civil War, Tubman would eventually be awarded $20 a month for widow’s pension and in recognition of her personal services to the country.

Tubman was a fierce proponent of freedom and justice as she fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. “I would fight for liberty as long as my strength lasted,” she once said.

Jacob Lew explained the decision to honor Tubman on US currency, saying, “Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embodies the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates”.  Yet, just one sentence later, Lew announced that the great champion of liberty would still have to share the honor with a man who, in one of his first acts as president, signed the Indian Removal Act: a move that would see thousands of Native Americans forced from their homes to die on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The terrible irony doesn’t end there. Andrew Jackson actually hated everything that had to do with paper money and banks. Jackson referred to paper money as “soft-money” and only trusted gold and silver (“hard-money”). He didn’t trust banks either, often saying, “I have always been afraid of banks” and stating that the banking system “manufactures money out of nothing […] the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented”. In 1833, Jackson removed federal funds and closed the Second Bank of the United States — an act referred to as the Bank War due to his distrust of the centralized banking system.

This famous cartoon from the time of the Bank War shows Andrew Jackson dueling with a many-headed snake. The heads belong to many of the biggest bankers of the time

This famous cartoon from the time of the Bank War shows Andrew Jackson dueling with a many-headed snake. The heads belong to some of the most powerful American bankers of the time (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Not only does Andrew Jackson’s original image on the twenty-dollar bill not make much sense, there actually appears to be no real reason for it at all. The Treasury Department’s own website says its records “do not suggest” why certain presidents were chosen for particular bills. In 1862, the Secretary of the Treasury’s only requirement for which presidents would be placed on paper money was that they had to be deceased. The CEO of the Andrew Jackson historical museum, The Hermitage, even stated that, “It’s a mystery to us as well,” and that, “The Treasury Department doesn’t have clear documentation” on the subject.

Why, then, after making such grandiose and sweeping changes to the images on US currency would the US Treasury keep the portrait of a man who never really had a reason to be on money in the first place? A man who, single handedly, is responsible for the death of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee Indians. A man whose thousand-acre plantation, “relied completely on the labor of enslaved African American men, women, and children” and in total owned approximately 150 human beings when he died in 1845. This is the man that the US Treasury has bizarrely chosen to keep on the back of the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.

So in three years when the new $20 bills go into circulation, be sure to rejoice in the fresh portrait of one of the strongest women this nation has ever known, as it is a sign of the many strides our country has made. But be sure to flip the same piece of paper over to see the antithesis of everything Harriet Tubman stood for and realize how far there is still to go.

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