Goodbye, Andrew Jackson. Hello, Harriet Tubman. The U.S. Treasury has announced plans to replace the seventh president on the $20 bill with the runaway slave who became one of the most fearless leaders of the Underground Railroad. Hard to argue with that decision.
Not that people won’t. But Jackson is one of those figures in American history who just look worse and worse with the passage of time. If he had only been a slaveholder, he might have fared better. After all, if you start removing the portraits of slaveholders from paper currency, you’ll wind up with an embarrassing amount of vacant space.
But Jackson was also an intemperate, polarizing, trigger-happy populist (a sort of 19th-century Trump, if you will, who at his inauguration enraged polite Washington society by inviting his supporters to party in the executive mansion, which they then proceeded to trash). But the tipping point with Old Hickory was his deep-dyed racism: among American politicians, he has become the unofficial poster boy for systematic genocide against Native Americans.
Heck, even his legend—the backstory that won him the presidency—is squishy: The celebrated victor at the Battle of New Orleans against the British in the War of 1812, Jackson won a battle that didn’t matter: The war was over when the battle was fought.
In contrast, by virtue of her sex, her race, and her unswerving dedication to helping other slaves gain their freedom—she ventured back to the South some 13 times to help as many as 70 fugitive slaves escape and during the Civil War served as a Union spy—Tubman makes an ideal candidate. In the bargain, her presence on the $20 bill serves to remind us of the issue of slavery, our nation’s original sin, and of the price paid to right that wrong every time we see a note.
Tubman will be the first African-American on U.S. paper currency, though not the first woman. (She was preceded by Martha Washington and Pocahontas).
As for Alexander Hamilton, whose place on the $10 bill was at risk for a few months, he seems safe for now, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. At some point, apparently, Hamilton will share space on the bill with a woman to be named later.
Does all of this qualify as revisionism? Of course it does, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. There are all kinds of revisionists, from the Stalinists who rewrote history by airbrushing discredited apparatchiks out of official photos to the historians who point out that George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree. In other words, there are those who tailor history according to an agenda, and there are those whose only aim is to set the record straight.
In the case of Jackson v. Tubman, the revisionism is of a slightly different order. No one is erasing Andy Jackson from American history. He’s still there. But traditionally, the people we put on our money are people we admire. It’s a question of symbolism, and in that sense replacing a fanatical Indian hater with a freedom fighter would seem to be a decision guided by the better angels of our nature.
And in case you’re worrying that we’re setting some sort of troubling precedent here, remember that Jackson himself was a sub: In 1928, he replaced Grover Cleveland on the $20 bill.
Oh, one more thing: Jackson hated paper money.