After delay on Harriet Tubman $20 bill, what makes a real American hero?

Why We Wrote This

The announcement that the Harriet Tubman $20 bill would be delayed until after President Trump leaves office raises age-old questions that linger: Who is a hero? Are heroes allowed to be human? What is greatness?

Library of Congress/Reuters
Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman, shown in a picture from the Library of Congress taken by photographer H.B. Lindsley between 1860 and 1870.

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The plan to make a heroic black woman the face of one of the most popular bills in the world suggests a deeper struggle for a polarized electorate to cede any ground on a common vision not just of country, but also of heroes, icons, and the definition of greatness itself.

“Where is the glue? It’s a good question,” says Tod Lindberg, author of “The Heroic Heart.”

For many, the Harriet Tubman $20 bill represents a chance to redefine America’s vision of heroism to the world.

A former slave, Tubman walked the woods soundless, embedded code in spirituals, and by some estimates led about 300 people to freedom, proudly telling fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass that she “never lost a single passenger.”

“For me, it is not about picking sides – about who is a hero and who isn’t – but more about making room for a broader definition of heroes to include women,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” “If we look historically at how our country has celebrated its patriots and heroes, it has always been a figure of a man who has fought for liberty and justice, freedom – and equality, too.”

When the mock-up image of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill popped up on a screen during a ceremony at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington in January 2017, many in the room started wiping away tears.

Dignified was the word that came to mind as a portrait of the American hero – the “black Moses” who helped conduct the Underground Railroad – emerged. Andrew Jackson – the war hero turned populist president – would move to the back of the bill.

The effect was striking: A black freedom fighter replacing a white slaveholder on 9.4 billion U.S. pocket monuments that travel the world’s wallets.

“The weight of history hit us at that moment,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author of “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.”

Last week’s announcement that the bill would be delayed until after President Donald Trump leaves office raises age-old questions that linger: Do heroes define their time, or do they emerge in response to the age? Which idols are false? Are heroes allowed to be human? What is greatness?

Defining heroism 

For 19th century philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who coined the term “hero worship,”  “heroism is never a finite quality,” nor can it be measured by wealth or political status, says David Sorensen, professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

“True heroes inspire by their example – they actually create heroes out of those who long to realize what Matthew Arnold once called their ‘best selves’ – but heroes rarely, if ever, experience enduring victories,” Professor Sorensen says. He cites Winston Churchill, whom he calls a “deeply flawed and exhausted politician” who became a transcendent force, and Abraham Lincoln, who was reviled in language that is still shocking today, as heroes in the tragic Carlyle mold.

Meantime, Americans recognize the heroic in sports, entertainment, and their own communities. In several recent school shootings, the United States valorized students who charged the shooters to save their classmates, dying in the process.

More broadly, for many, the Tubman $20 bill represents a chance to redefine America’s vision of heroism to the world.

“For me, it is not about picking sides – about who is a hero and who isn’t – but more about making room for a broader definition of heroes to include women,” says Ms. Larson. “If we look historically at how our country has celebrated its patriots and heroes, it has always been a figure of a man who has fought for liberty and justice, freedom – and equality, too. But there are a whole lot of women who personify those qualities better than many of the men who we have deemed heroes and patriots.”

A former slave, Tubman walked the woods soundless, embedded code in spirituals, and by some estimates led about 300 people to freedom, proudly telling fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass that she “never lost a single passenger.” “I wanted people to know that Tubman is saying, ‘I am American, too,’” Ms. Larson remembers the bill’s lead designer saying at the unveiling.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the House Committee on Financial Services in Washington, May 22, 2019. Mr. Mnuchin says the redesign of the $20 bill to feature 19th century abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman has been delayed.

Political tug of war

In announcing the Tubman bill’s postponement until 2026, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cited security issues. Earlier this year, Rep. John Katko, a New York Republican, introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which would force a 2020 reveal of the bill. Currently, Congress by law has only one override on currency: The Washington dollar bill cannot be changed without its consent.

To be sure, political scientists say it’s hard to not detect Mr. Trump’s thumbprint on the decision. He has special affinity for Mr. Jackson, a populist whose portrait hangs prominently at the White House.

But the plan to make a powerful black woman the face of one of the most popular bills in the world suggests a far deeper struggle for a polarized electorate to cede any ground on a common vision not just of country, but also of heroes, icons, and the definition of greatness itself.

“Where is the glue? It’s a good question,” says Tod Lindberg, author of “The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern.”

There was of course never a common pantheon of American heroes.

“The bill can be previewed next year, and everybody knows it,” says Ms. Larson. “They don’t want it. Trump wants to get elected again, and that is a very sad statement when a presidential candidate is playing to the racist hearts of a segment of our country.”

Instead, she says, the bill has become embroiled in a larger tug of war about race, gender politics, and political correctness.

After all, there are calls to rename John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County after the unearthing of a 1971 interview in which the actor said he supported white supremacy and disparaged the intelligence of black people. Mr. Trump questioned the heroism of the late Sen. John McCain, whose hero status as holding out in a concentration camp to win release for fellow soldiers was largely iconic. And the U.S. has endured a nearly two-decade fight over whether Confederate monuments are expressions of heritage or racist oppression.

Jackson has not been immune. Old Hickory’s heroic gleam has dulled, in large part due to the estimated 4,000 deaths during the forced relocation of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears. But in 2016, Mr. Trump called the bill replacement plan “pure political correctness.” His administration has elevated Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office.

Public trampling on the sacrosanct is almost a new sport, in part egged on by an American public historically resistant to worshipping heroes proclaimed from above. After all, autocratic governments establish the icons and force the populace to bow. Small-d democrats note that Socrates was forced to drink hemlock in part because he refused to bow to the local deities.

What is new, says Mr. Lindberg, is the ability for small groups to become “outrage machines” that scramble even the definition of hero. In 2012, he wrote that a “wiki-culture” has given way to hero specialization: “One need not be a hero to all to be a hero to many.”

“My view has since darkened” about that phenomenon, he notes this week, with seemingly every potential hero looked at through a political lens.

“You could solve this problem by not having any monuments to anybody, because eventually somebody will find something on them and you have to tear them down,” says Mr. Lindberg, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. “Is that a solution? Isn’t that just a way of saying ... that we are trying to be disconnected from the past that made us who we are and brought us to where we are?”

But he also acknowledges that hyperactive political trench-digging doesn’t necessarily reflect broader American concerns.

He recalls complaining to a friend about the 1998 redesign of the $20 bill. Mid-rant, his lunch companion began to fidget.

“He finally told me, ‘Tod, I don’t have a bug ... about the new $20 bill,’” says Mr. Lindberg. “It helped me realize I was getting a little too worked up about certain kinds of things. Some will think, ‘Yeah, it’s nice to have Harriet Tubman on it.’ Others will say, ‘I like Jackson, he was a colorful character, he’s not so bad.’ Instead, we get driven instantly to our extreme-most positions.”

Redesign goes underground 

When it comes to the $20 bill, no one knows why Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland in 1928 – the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has no records of the decision. Some think it could even have been a joke. After all, Jackson despised the idea of paper money.

But in Tubman’s case, there is a more distinct trail. Some 600,000 people voted in a referendum that listed a slew of other female heroes, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Tubman emerged the victor.

Originally, the $10 bill was the one scheduled to get a facelift. But then the musical “Hamilton,” about the “ten-dollar Founding Father,” became a worldwide phenomenon. Meanwhile, Susan Ades Stone, a journalist who was a producer at CNN in its early years, thought Tubman should grace the $20. Her group, Women on 20s, had been told by former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew that it would have to continue to pressure future administrations, suggesting that “political will” would ultimately determine the bill’s fate.

Under Mr. Trump, however, the group has maintained a low profile.

“In this presidency, it’s really just so easy for a tweet to completely reverse a popular decision that came out of the last administration, and we were very mindful of that,” says Ms. Ades Stone. “We decided to stay quiet and in the background so that maybe the process would get far enough along that it couldn’t be reversed.”

If Mr. Trump doesn’t want to be the president who replaced Jackson, Ms. Ades Stone notes, Mr. Mnuchin could yet emerge as the person who saved the $20 bill. At the very least, she says, he may not want to be known to history as the treasury secretary who struck Tubman from U.S. currency.

“The $20 bill redesign is very complicated and there is a lot going on behind the scenes, and when [Mr.] Mnuchin would make pronouncements and people would react, we knew that they were misreading him,” she says. “They would automatically say, ‘Oh, he’s killing it.’ But we knew that wasn’t what was going on. If anything, he was trying to protect it.”

Editor’s note: This article has been clarified to more accurately reflect Susan Ades Stone’s role at CNN.

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