Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced this week that Harriet Tubman will become the first woman in a century and first African American ever to grace America’s currency. One of the most inspirational and fearless figures in our history, Tubman rose from bondage, freed scores of slaves, aided the Union cause during the Civil War in numerous ways, and crusaded for women’s rights later in life.
Given all this, it’s difficult to quibble with the Treasury Department’s choice. The images on our currency, both notes and coins, are an extension of our nation’s identity and should reflect the people, places, and events that symbolize our values back to us and to the rest of the world. Tubman meets that criteria, as did Andrew Jackson, the man she will replace on the twenty dollar bill, though in another era. The process by which both their faces found their way on to our money, however, is worth pondering.
Lew originally unveiled plans to freshen up the country’s currency after a grassroots campaign to place a woman on the $20 caught mainstream media attention. His idea though, was to add a female face to the $10 bill rather than $20 by 2020. A number of dissenters pointed out, rightly, that it made little sense to remove Alexander Hamilton, the man who created America’s financial system, from the country’s money. Others were upset that putting a woman on the lesser-used $10 bill was insulting. Lew explained that it wasn’t personal, it was bureaucratic: the $10 bill just happened to be the next bill up for a redesign.
The Secretary has now appropriately exercised his congressionally granted authority to alter the $10 in addition to swapping Jackson for Tubman on the $20 bill. The $10 bill will retain Hamilton on the front but now feature five leaders of the suffrage movement (Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth) on the back.
This change of plans has caused many observers to rejoice. But in many ways it’s a lost opportunity. Instead of an unelected government official deciding for us all, this was a chance to involve the nation in a dialogue that would have advanced our national cultural literacy. The fact is, Secretary Lew had the ability to authorize a national contest to determine whose image should be on the refreshed note. Would it not be better to decide who comes, stays or goes from our currency with more input from the citizenry?
This was how the state quarter designs were determined. States appointed commissions, the commissions solicited proposals from their citizens, these where whittled down and final choices were made, better representing the will of the people. Unsurprisingly this produced the most successful coin program in U.S. history. Over 143 million Americans collected state quarters. As a result a whole generation learned about geography and state history, and the Treasury overflowed with $5.1 billion in profits.
Given Washington’s intentions to slip other new faces on the rest of the country’s currency, perhaps a more democratic approach would be preferable to government elites who seem to be strangely unaware of history – see Lew’s surprise when academics objected to the removal of Hamilton last year – making decisions about who and what will represent our collective identity based on the latest political whim – or hit Broadway show.
served as the 38th Director of the United States Mint from 2006-2011. Moy is the chief strategist for Fortress Gold Group, a provider of gold IRA rollovers and physical U.S. gold and silver bullion coins for direct delivery.
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