Last month, voters in an online poll conducted by the organization Women On 20s selected Harriet Tubman as their choice to be the first woman represented on the paper currency of the United States. Such a change is unlikely to occur anytime soon, if at all, although the campaign’s organizers have sent the poll results to the White House in the hope of building additional momentum and official support at the federal level for the switch. Still, Tubman is an inspired choice, and not only because of her extraordinary and heroic life during which she escaped from slavery, repeatedly risked being reenslaved or killed while ushering dozens of other enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad, worked as a nurse and a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and advocated for women’s suffrage. Harriet Tubman ought to be on the twenty-dollar bill because bestowing on her the particular honor of appearing on the nation’s currency would supplant the only instances in which people of African descent have ever appeared on any currency that might be construed as American.
The notion of replacing Andrew Jackson’s face on the twenty-dollar bill has been a live one for some time, and with good reason. Even putting aside Jackson’s legendary irascibility, his slaveholding, and his effectively genocidal policies that dispossessed tens of thousands of indigenous Indians from their land, Jackson disdained and distrusted paper money as a matter of principle and, considering his role in dissolving the Second National Bank, would surely have detested the idea of a single national currency. Given Jackson’s actual economic positions, placing him on paper money backed solely by the full faith and credit of the federal government is less an honor than a kind of ironic joke.
It might be argued, of course, that replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman would be an ironic joke of another sort, as at the time of her birth Tubman was herself considered property that could be bought and sold with impunity. Indeed, Tubman’s first attempt to escape slavery came after the man who held her in bondage died, raising the very real possibility that she might be sold during the settlement of his estate. Tubman’s was hardly an unusual situation, and in light of the central role played by the institution of slavery and the value of enslaved people in laying the foundations of nineteenth-century American capitalism, putting a person who once had been enslaved property on the money of the United States could be construed as either a sop, a pointless gesture, or a gratuitously sick insult to the lives of enslaved people and their descendants.
The idea that placing Harriet Tubman’s face on the twenty-dollar bill would repair the legacy of American slavery is obviously ludicrous. But the choices made by a nation about whom and what to highlight on its legal tender do matter, because those choices reflect its priorities and values. Take, for example, the choices made by those who seceded from the Union and created the Confederate States of America. They remain the only Americans ever to put black people on their money. Among the scores of banknotes produced by the Confederate government and its constituent states, dozens contain depictions of contented enslaved people, usually hard at work picking cotton in the fields, toting it in baskets, hauling it in wagons, ginning it, or loading bales of it onto ships.
The creators of these notes understood that doing so was neither a meaningless gesture, a perverse bit of fun, nor an effort to depict the nation they hoped to bring into being as quaintly bucolic. On the contrary, Confederates put enslaved people working cotton on their money because enslaved people and the cotton they produced were the very foundations of the southern economy – the rock on which white southerners intended to erect their independence and build their future. No one who held a bill depicting enslaved laborers could fail to be reminded of the economic power slavery had provided, and no one could miss the message that dedication to the Confederacy and dedication to the preservation of slavery were inextricably linked. Like many nations, the Confederacy told the story of itself in part through its currency, and central to that story was the institution of slavery.
Enshrining Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill is an opportunity for the United States to take a small but meaningful step toward changing the story it tells about itself. It neither changes nor fixes the past, of course, and critics who see ongoing and undeniable racial inequities embedded in American capitalism today as signs of an irredeemably corrupt nation are unlikely to be persuaded that such a step amounts to anything more than a weirdly sentimental form of racism in which Tubman is more mascot than heroine. For those still inclined to hope for a better future, however, paying homage to a woman who survived the horrors of slavery and fought for the freedom of her fellow Americans could be one small part of the effort to flip the Confederate script from which we seem sometimes to read, though we stand well over a century past the well-deserved demise of the movement that wrote it. To put Harriet Tubman on our currency is to refute the very idea that she ought ever to have been property. It is to affirm her position as a free woman and a citizen. And it is to allow her penetrating gaze to remind us every day of our nation’s sins and its promise alike.