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Out of the fold

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Harriet Tubman


Out of the fold

The debate over faces on U.S. currency reflects newly chosen national heroes

When U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced last summer the government would place a woman on the $10 bill in 2020, he couldn’t have imagined the brouhaha awaiting him. Complaints began rolling in almost immediately. Some of the loudest howls came from women’s groups he surely expected to applaud the announcement: The change, after all, is intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Leading the charge was Women On 20s, a group that strongly supports adding a woman to our paper currency. (The last woman on U.S. paper money was Martha Washington, who adorned the $1 silver certificate at the end of the 19th century.) Anticipating Lew’s plan, the group had conducted an online poll that attracted 600,000 votes, the plurality of which were cast for Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame.

Women On 20s activists felt cheated because they thought that a woman would debut on the $20 bill, not the $10. Of the major bills, the $10 is the least widely circulated. Somewhat surprisingly for those of us who don’t carry large amounts of cash overseas, the $100 (featuring Benjamin Franklin) is the most popular. The $20 is also in active use. The $10 is not, comprising only 5 percent of the bills in circulation.

Not only is the $20 bill more widely circulated, its current resident—Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president—has fallen from favor. Once a progressive hero for destroying the national bank, the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson’s reputation has plummeted in recent decades. He is now remembered for his campaigns to eradicate or displace Native Americans and as a slaveholder. Jackson also hated paper money, which always made his presence on the $20 bill ironic. He would have been a sensible candidate for replacement.

Alexander Hamilton, who graces the $10, is not. Thanks to a superb biography by Ron Chernow that has inspired a hit musical on Broadway (tickets are so scarce that each now costs 35 or 40 Hamiltons), Hamilton has become an American hero. And rightly so. As our first treasury secretary, he stabilized the economy and put in place many of the principles (such as repayment of government debt) that helped fuel the nation’s rise in the 19th century.

Lew has insisted he had little choice which bill to pick: The $10 was the next bill up for renovation. He also said Hamilton might share the bill with whichever woman is chosen—Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, or one or more others that have been proposed.

These debates are important because they demonstrate how a nation rethinks its values, as an earlier generation did by putting Jackson on the $20 bill in place of Grover Cleveland in 1928.

Long ago, Jesus stepped into a similar debate when he responded to a question about whether his disciples should pay taxes to Rome. The question was a trap: If Jesus said no, he might have been arrested for flouting Roman authority. If he said yes, he would have seemed like a sellout. After borrowing a coin and pointing out Caesar’s face on one side, Jesus said: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

It was a brilliant answer and a revolutionary statement. Romans were expected to acknowledge Caesar as their lord. Jesus’ statement made clear that Caesar was entitled to his taxes, but only God is entitled to our worship. That’s worth pondering in our own money debates: We can debate heroes on bills without fretting, because while those faces may come and go, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.