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Money Makes History: Harriet Tubman and the Face Value of U.S. Currency

Lauer_josh_may 2016

Josh Lauer is an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. His forthcoming book, a history of consumer credit surveillance in the United States, will be published by Columbia University Press.

“Who is Harriet Tubman?” This was the most popular Google search on April 20, 2016, the day the U.S. Treasury announced a series of new designs for the nation’s currency. The revamped notes will include significant changes to the backs of the $5 and $10 bills. The faces of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr., will appear opposite Abraham Lincoln on the $5, and marching suffragists and five feminist heroines will appear opposite Alexander Hamilton on the $10. However all of these flipside modifications were completely overshadowed by a frontstage coup. Andrew Jackson will be replaced by Harriet Tubman on the face of the $20. It was this news that sent thousands googling.

Tubman of course is the former slave and abolitionist whose heroism as a conductor of the Underground Railroad and Union spy is legendary. Her ascent to the $20 – and Jackson’s demotion to the back of the bill—has been hailed by many as a step toward rectifying historical wrongs. Sexism in particular. Since the first greenbacks came off the presses in 1861, the faces of U.S. currency have been overwhelmingly male. Indeed the nation’s paper money is a veritable pantheon of scowling, hirsute men – founding fathers, presidents, generals, senators, cabinet members, inventors (Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse), and even an Italian mercenary (Christopher Columbus). It was the absence of women that animated grassroots efforts to change the Treasury’s long-standing designs.

To say that women have never appeared on U.S. paper currency is not quite correct. Martha Washington graced the front of a late-nineteenth-century silver certificate, and Pocahontas appeared in vignettes on some of our earliest legal tender. These exceptions notwithstanding, it is more accurate, and also more insulting, to note that real women have been missing from the nation’s currency. Images of allegorical women—Freedom, Liberty, Victory, and Columbia—regularly appeared on U.S paper money prior to its standardization in 1929. These idealized nymphs, neither individuals nor even human, can be seen as a double exclusion of actual women. In this light, the redesigned $20 is even more remarkable. Tubman will be the first non-imaginary woman to appear on the nation’s currency in more than a century.


Tubman is not the first woman on the $20. An allegorical Liberty appears on the $20 denomination of the Demand Notes of 1861, the inaugural issue of U.S. national currency. Source: Wikipedia (public domain), attributed to National Museum of American History (Image by Godot13).

Though public reaction to the redesigned notes has been positive, not everyone is happy. Tubman after all is not just a woman; she is an African-American woman. At a moment in American history when racial discord has resurfaced with fresh intensity, this is no small detail. Defending the $20 status quo, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump condemned the Tubman redesign as “pure political correctness.” Going further, Fox News analyst Greta van Susteren accused the Obama administration of “dividing the country” with its “dumb” decision to replace Jackson. For all of Old Hickory’s military prowess and common-man appeal, his support for slavery and role in the genocidal deportation of native peoples merely underscores Tubman’s significance. What began as an effort to make women visible is now about the race of our money too.

Still, looking past the historical justifications and emotion evoked by the new designs, we might ask a more pointed question. Why do we even bother putting portraits on our paper money? Everyone knows that our currency is a fiction. It is not backed by gold or silver or any earthly commodity. The printed slips are inherently worthless – as in, they are literally worth nothing as material objects. Yet drop a $20 bill on the sidewalk and it will magically disappear. The real value is not in the paper or the visages that adorn it. It is in the official promise printed directly on all denominations of the thing itself: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Reduced to bare essentials, paper money is nothing more than a contract bearing the facsimile signatures of government bureaucrats.

Textbook definitions of money cite its three-fold function as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. However it also performs a fourth function as a medium of mass communication. Money—especially paper money—must declare its validity. Few Americans spend time examining the bills in their wallets, and many would probably have trouble naming the faces on each denomination. Yet most would immediately recognize an inexpert forgery. We know what U.S. money is supposed to look like. It must have decorative numbers and roundels, elaborate tracery and architectural scenes, totem animals and heraldic insignia. And it must have portraits.

National currencies, like national flags, are powerful symbols of national identity. As political scientist Eric Helleiner has shown, the images that embellish modern currencies are an embodiment the nation’s collective memory and shared economic fate. Our prosperity—indeed, our solvency—depends upon the legitimacy of our government’s mass-produced promissory notes. The faces of our national heroes remind us of that. They attest to the trustworthiness of the bill itself and give symbolic heft where actual heft—precious metal—is nonexistent. This is also why changes to the design of U.S. currency, or any currency, are controversial. Such changes ask us to reimagine our cultural heritage and to put our faith in a new and untested signifier of value. Who is Harriet Tubman?

Ultimately, the history of American currency design, up to and including the new Tubman $20, is not really about historical representation or even the development of anti-counterfeiting technologies (human faces, it has been said, are harder to forge than other images). It is the story of how modern nation-states, including the United States, make their paper promises real. “Money may be dirt,” as Karl Marx once remarked, “although dirt is not money.” The moneyness of paper money rests upon its visual displays—its noble faces, monuments, seals, and signatures, all of which gesture backward to the legitimizing conventions of ancient coinage and medieval documents. Changes to currency designs lift the veil on the entire fiction. They let us see the arbitrariness of our cherished traditions. Even with a woman’s face on the bill, our flimsy notes are still man-made. Tubman will be on the redesigned $20 because the current Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, said so.

The faces on our paper money thus serve a paradoxical double purpose. While memorializing our leading lights and great causes, they simultaneously help us to forget. As we remember the lives and deeds of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, and Franklin, we overlook the artifice of paper money itself. We forget that our sacred notes are profane, that our national currencies are mere political instruments of economic power, that there are no cabalistic rules for who or what appears on our currency.

Soon Tubman and her cohort of feminist and civil rights icons will also help us forget these less exalted truths. In the meantime we should celebrate the coming visibility of women and African-Americans on our national currency. It is long overdue. This is definitely not the time to ask “What is fiat money?” Don’t google it.