Harriet Tubman on the Currency

The Trump Administration has announced that the plans to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill will be delayed yet again, and may not appear until 2028. Since the early days of the Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill movement, this show (and the Buzzkill Institute) has been calling for, and supporting other efforts to increase the diversification of images on American currency.

And for the last couple of months, a new citizens movement, led by graphic designer Dano Wall, has come up with a stamp to imprint Tubman’s picture on top of Jackson’s portrait on $20 bills. It’s proving quite a hit, and the stamps sell out as quickly as he can make them. The website is tubmanstamp.com, and people have been repurposing their $20 bills at a furious rate. Buzzkill Institute lawyers assure us that it’s legal because, according to the US Code, “stamped currency is fit for circulation so long as its denomination remains legible.”

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, we’re going to offer another suggestion in this episode about how  to push for currency reform in these United States. And offer some suggestions about different possibilities.

First let me remind you of some of the background to these “controversies” over who is depicted on American paper money. In doing so, I’ll address the over-reaction, and the misuse of history implicit in the argument that US currency (or any currency) is set in stone and should never be changed. It is, you guessed it, a myth!

We’ll start with the $1 bill as the best example. The first $1 bills were issued in 1862 with a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, on it. George Washington’s picture first appeared in 1869. But other versions were issued throughout the 19th century. Portraits and pictures included: Martha Washington (1886), an allegorical image of “history instructing youth” (1896), and a drawing of the US Capitol building with images of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant below (1899). The bill we know now was first issued in 1929, and George Washington has been on it ever since.

I could go through every bill denomination, but that would be tedious. But they have all changed more or less constantly. In addition to what I’ve just mentioned, lots of different people and images have been used on US bills, including: Alexander Hamilton; Christopher Columbus; General Philip Sheridan; a Native American leader named Running Antelope; a pioneer with his wife, child, and dog; General Winfield Scott, William Windom (Treasury Secretary); an allegorical depiction of “science presenting steam and electricity to commerce and manufacture”; Robert “Steamboat” Fulton; Samuel “Telegraph” Morse; Thomas Jefferson; Albert Gallatin (Treasury Secretary); General George Meade; Robert Morris (a founding father); Daniel “Dictionary” Webster; Pocahontas; Vice-President Thomas Hendricks; Lewis and Clark; Michael Hillegas (Treasury Secretary); an allegorical figure of “loyalty”; Henry Clay; Benjamin Franklin; Edward Everett (19th C politician); General William H. Seward; General Winfield Scott; a bald eagle; Thomas Hart Benton (famous senator); James Monroe; and David Farragut (an admiral).

The designs of US currency and the depictions on it have changed almost constantly in US history. The $20 bill has been around since 1862 and has undergone major changes, by my estimation, no fewer than 16 times since.

Changes in US coins over the years include:

  • Penny: 13 different designs on the front. Lady Liberty 7 times, a Flying Eagle 1 time, the famous Indian Head penny for 50 years, and Abe Lincoln since 1909. There have also been half-cent and two cents coins in the past.
  • Nickel (5 cent piece): 8 different designs on the front. Lady Liberty 6 times. An American Indian on the obverse and a Buffalo on the back (1913-1938). And Thomas Jefferson since 1938.
  • Dime (10 cent piece): 7 different designs on the front. Lady Liberty 6 times. The famous “mercury head” dime of 1916-1945 was actually a depiction of liberty wearing a winged Phrygian cap that made her look like the Roman god Mercury. President Franklin Roosevelt was put on the dime in 1946 and has remained there.
  • Quarter (25 cents): 6 different designs. Lady Liberty 5 times. George Washington since 1932.
  • Half Dollar (50 cents): 8 different designs. Lady Liberty 6 times. Ben Franklin once, and JFK since 1964 — within my lifetime. Not a very long time ago, Buzzkillers, I’m happy to say.
  • Dollar Coin: 14 different designs. Liberty depicted 9 different times. Eisenhower from 1971-78. Susan B. Anthony briefly. 3 different designs currently in circulation: Silver Eagle (since 1986), Sacagewa (since 2000), and US Presidents (since 2007).

This represent only 6 different coin denominations, but 56 different designs over the years! Even if you go back to 1776 (when the only coins we had were half-pennies, pennies, and two-penny pieces), the country is only 236 years old. That means that coin designs have changed, on average, every 4.27 years.

If that’s not pretty constant change, I don’t know what is. In fact, the tradition in the United States is to change the currency all the time.

So why in the world does anyone oppose a change to the $20 bill? It’s certainly not because of a knowledgeable yearning for tradition. We just busted that idea.

And that’s not the half of it, Buzzkillers. American currency is about as traditional and unchanging as a politician’s principles. Each denomination, especially paper bills, began life at different times, sometimes went totally out of circulation and then came back in, and has had its design changed dozens of times. The scientists at our Institute have calculated that, if you include coins, American currency has changed, on average, every 4.27 of the 243 years of our country’s existence. Pretty often, wouldn’t you say?

Of course the Harriet Tubman change is a very important one, and I, for one, can’t wait for more. Proposals to change the currency present a fantastic opportunity to discuss history, to garner more attention for our show, and for yours truly to cash in. Hence, I have some proposals to make.

First, let’s look at what some other countries do with their currency.

I admire the European Union, Britain, Australia and New Zealand for the ways they have designed their currency after World War II. The Euro banknotes are perhaps the most impressive because they depict ideals, although in very concrete forms. The European Central Bank describes them this way: “On the front of euro banknotes, windows and doorways are shown. They symbolise the European spirit of openness and cooperation. The bridges on the back symbolise communication between the people of Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world. the windows, doorways and bridges shown on the banknotes are stylised illustrations of different architectural style across Europe, not images of, or from, actual constructions.”

Ideals, not specific people. Not only does this, generally speaking, avoid controversy, it reminds people to keep their eyes on the prize — greater European openness, cooperation, and peace. All of these are the goals of the European Union.

Britain is not part of the Euro and may not be part of the EU at all in a short time, so their pound sterling banknotes represent British history and culture. British currency has always featured the monarch either in a portrait or by a royal seal or crest. Queen Elizabeth II, therefore, appears on the front of all British banknotes. Sometimes she is the central image, sometimes she’s in profile on the left or right of the note. So the British have that consistency on all their currency.

Because they always have the Queen, and because sometimes she’s represented as a small profile on the side, the British have given themselves room to celebrate other notable Britons from history. These include JMW Turner (the artist), Elizabeth Fry, (an important 19th century prison reformer), and Charles Darwin (scientist and notable Buzzkiller).

Australians also use the Queen as their consistent image, because she is their head of state as well, but they’ve gone even further. They normally use a small-ish profile of the Queen off to one side on the front of their bills. When it comes to the main image, the Australians have placed lots of different illustrations on their dollar notes. These include Aboriginal peoples and art, Edith Cowan (the first woman elected to the Australian parliament), Nellie Melba (the popular opera singer), and AB “Banjo” Paterson (poet and author of “Waltzing Mathilda”), and many more. The Australians keep the consistency of a symbol of their head of state, but celebrate the diversity and accomplishments of all kinds of Australian people on the rest of the money.

New Zealanders do the same. New Zealand banknotes include depictions of Sir Apirana Ngata (prominent Maori statesman and cultural revivalist), Ernest Rutherford (the “father of the atom,” and nuclear physics), and Kate Sheppard (the 19th century women’s rights campaigner who helped drive New Zealand to become the first sovereign state to grant women the right to vote).

OK, Professor, enough of your nerdy, coin collector talk about foreign currency, I hear you saying. What are going to propose for further American currency reform?

It’s a mixture of depicting important Americans from all walks of life with what I think of as the overarching American ideal — liberty. Specifically, the image I would make consistent across all currency is that of Lady Liberty, who has been the most common “person” on our currency historically. Why chose a idealized person rather than a real person? Specifically because she’s an ideal, the best of ideals. Liberty is freedom. Americans value freedom in many different ways: freedom from oppressive government, and freedom from arbitrary laws and capricious implementation of existing laws. Right wingers and libertarians want liberty from excessive taxation and government interference. Left wingers and social democrats want freedom from poverty and freedom from the abuses of runaway capitalism. “Liberty” covers the whole political and social spectrum.

The US Mint has released a $100 gold coin in 2017, showing Lady Liberty as an African American woman. There are plans to release a new such coin every two years. In the near term, Lady Liberty is to be depicted as an Asian American, and then a Latin American woman. But this is on a more-or-less commemorative coin. I hope Liberty can reappear on everyday currency more frequently again.

But, Professor, you say, that’s not consistent if liberty can mean anything. No, liberty means freedom. There’s the consistency. The application and implementation of liberty to specific political and social needs is what we debate. And that’s what I think is so important — it should be debatable, and more we openly acknowledge that our ideals can be applied in so many different ways, the better off we’ll be. Having Lady Liberty as a constant image on our currency will help keep the ideal of liberty (however we apply it) in mind.

We can put Lady Liberty as the central image on paper currency, or we can have her as a slightly smaller image to the left or right of center, like the British and Australians do with the monarch. That would free up space to include other images on the front. That brings me to the second part of my new proposal — lots of other images to use on the currency.

As we’ve already established, it’s a myth that only presidents have been on the money. Eagles, and idealized images of anonymous Americans have been common on the currency. Let’s keep that tradition going, and broaden it if we can. Buzzkill Institute researchers have determined that depictions of all sorts of different people and events would be popular and appropriate on the currency.

Native Americans should appear in great numbers. Chief Seattle is an obvious choice to add to the Native Americans who already grace our currency. Path-breaking sports icons like Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, and Billie Jean King are good choices, as well as traditional white male sports legends such as Babe Ruth. Musicians and composers such as Stephen Foster and the Gershwin brothers should be celebrated. Famous artists, astronauts, architects, educators, engineers, scientists, technological visionaries, and people from many different walks of life can and should be depicted. Perhaps Norman Rockwell’s famous Four Freedoms paintings (or more modern artistic depictions of the similar things).

And, of course, the images of politicians and social leaders such as Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the founding fathers, Frederick Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others should be used.

Notable architecture and depictions of great natural features – Half Dome in Yosemite, the Rockies, Niagara Falls, and some of our marvelous coastlines – should also appear.

I could go on and on. But my main point is that having one consistent image, Lady Liberty, in some place on the currency, frees us up to celebrate lots of different aspects of American life on that same currency. The goal here should be more images of more important people. More, more, more. Why limit ourselves to a narrow range of worthies?

In this episode, I’ve shown you how American it is for the currency to change. And I’ve proposed a great way to honor our ideals and our heroes. If we implement the Buzzkill proposals, our currency will truly reflect our enduring values, and celebrate all the people who represent them best. It won’t be a tearing down of “history and tradition,” it’ll be an exciting innovation in keeping with the best aspects of American dynamism. Help me get Lady Liberty and a wider range of people on our currency.

Get the new Harriet Tubman stamp if you’d like, but also contact the Treasury Department and your Representatives in Congress and ask for more representative images on the currency. If the EU, the British, Australians, and New Zealanders (and countless other countries) can do it, so can we.

I’m showing you the way, Buzzkillers. As the Statue of Liberty famously says, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Talk to you next week.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Harriet Tubman Rubber Stamp – Perfect for Stamping Over Andrew Jackson on Twenty Dollar Bills

A large, high quality, real red rubber stamp, with carefully trimmed foam backing – so you can stamp crisp, finely detailed images. Wood mount is custom cut, carefully hand sanded, and given two coats of genuine Zinsser shellac – Hourglass edge contour makes it comfortable to hold. Perfect size for stamping over Andrew Jackson on US Twenty Dollar bills.

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