Harriet Tubman to grace $20: What that says about America

Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. It's a change that represents the different story Americans want to tell about the search for universal liberty.  

Library of Congress/Reuters
Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken by photographer H.B. Lindsley between 1860 and 1870. The US Treasury has decided to replace former President Andrew Jackson with Tubman on the U.S. $20 bill.

The oft-hailed conductor of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman, will soon adorn the front of the $20 bill.

The decision by the United States Treasury to place a black woman – and escaped slave – on the nation's currency follows a popular Internet petition and illustrates a shift in how Americans want to tell the story of a nation's path to liberty.

"[Tubman] demonstrated that just liberating one person can change the world in her own struggle for freedom," says Catherine Clinton, a professor at the University of Texas and author of the biography "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom." "She showed that people are not granted freedom, but that they must grab their freedom." 

In that sense, Tubman represents the ideal of liberty championed by Americans from Alexander Hamilton – who kept his place on the $10 bill following pro-"Hamilton" outcry – to Eleanor Roosevelt, who lost the race to appear on the $20 bill in an online poll.

Tubman will replace the nation's seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who was beloved in his time as a war hero for wresting the nation's freedom from British forces, although now criticized for forcing the displacement of thousands of native Americans along the "Trail of Tears." 

If a nation's currency is a mirror for what they value, then Tubman today symbolizes victory over a very different kind of oppression – and indicates both the progress and the challenges still faced in American society. Her ability to establish freedom for African-Americans and others represents how Americans now want to remember the history of the Civil War, Dr. Clinton says.

"As Americans we want to continue our campaign for expanding freedoms, and I think that the Gettysburg address, the 13th Amendment, and many other watershed moments in the Civil War are very much reflected in our 21st-century movement toward expanding freedom," Clinton says. 

It's not a new role for Tubman.

Serving as a symbol for liberty was something Tubman learned to do even in her lifetime, says Jean Humez, a professor emerita of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of "Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories."

"The mythologized figure of Tubman has been repeatedly chosen since she arrived in the North in 1849 to 'do the cultural work' of liberalism in combating white racism and male sexism, both by white and black anti-slavery organizers in the mid-19th century, by African-American club women, suffragists, and educators in the earlier 20th century, and by other progressives and liberals in the latter 20th century," Dr. Humez says.

Three biographies of Tubman were written at the start of this millennium, the first adult biographies on the female figure in 60 years and a reflection of how Americans were changing their views on the Civil War. 

Clinton notes that even the process of selecting Harriet Tubman for the $20 bill was democratic, as the debate was opened up to the public in a way that increased public interest in the nation's history.

Treasury Secretary Jacob "Jack" Lew chose Tubman after an online poll from the nonprofit organization Women On 20s. Half a million voters selected their top choices from more than 100 women, narrowing down their favorites to a list that included Tubman, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller.

The fact that Tubman will replace an American who fought for a very different kind of freedom is also revealing of how American society has changed. Both Jackson's military successes and his actions as president expanded and solidified the influence of the cotton-focused, slavery-dependent South, yet in his time, he also fought for the underdog.

"They both represented freedom. Freedom for who is the question," says Edward Rugemer, a professor at Yale who specializes in antebellum US history, abolition, and slavery. "Jackson represented freedom for the poor white man."

Jackson's presidential campaign painted him as the counter to the elitist New England candidate, John Quincy Adams. Jackson rose to prominence just as state constitutions were abolishing the property requirement for voters, thus extending democracy to include all white men.

"There is an irony here," Dr. Rugemer says. "The United States is becoming more democratic under Jackson at the same time it is becoming more organized economically and politically under the perpetuation of racial slavery."

The irony is not altogether unfamiliar to Americans today. Communities around the country are engaged in debates and protests over judicial reform, police treatment of minorities, and even the appropriate role of Confederate flags and symbols. Tubman's selection may be a manifestation of that ferment. 

"Is this symbolic change going to do anything about the realities that many African-Americans face today?" Rugemer says. "That's a deeper question, because symbols only go so far." 

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