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Treasury Will Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

Alexander Hamilton finally won a duel.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is set to announce that the face of Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, will remain on the face of the $10 bill, according to a report in Politico.

Instead, Lew will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with the African-American abolitionist and former slave, Harriet Tubman.

Back in June of last year, Lew announced that he would replace Hamilton on the $10 bill, which was the next bill in line to be redesigned in the course of the Treasury Department’s normal efforts to deter counterfeiting. But many observers felt that Hamilton was a particularly bad choice to be replaced given his unique role as the father of the American financial and banking system we know today.

Hamilton fought hard for a vigorous financial system underwritten by the federal government. He advocated for the federal assumption of state debts following the American Revolution, and argued forcefully for the creation of the First National Bank of the United States, actions that helped bind the nation together and establish American creditworthiness abroad.

Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, was the inheritor of a Jeffersonian suspicion of national banks and the east coast-financiers who advocated for them. Historians speculate that Jackson’s antipathy for banks, and the paper money they issued, was the result of a land deal that went wrong. But whatever the reason for Jackson’s views on monetary policy, his opposition to central banking was a central philosophy of his presidency. He fought hard to eradicate the Second National Bank of the United States, and was successful when its charter expired in 1836.

The results of closing the Second National Bank were devastating. The elimination of the bank helped plunge the nation into the financial panic of 1837, which the Lehrman Institute has called “the most serious economic upheaval to face the United States until the Great Depression.” The United States would go without a central bank for more than 75 years after Jackson killed the Second Bank of the United States, until the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. This period would be marked by a series of severe financial crises, with no central authority to step in and mitigate the effects. In fact, the United States often had to rely on the beneficence of private actors, as it did when financier J.P. Morgan stepped in to shore up the banking system after the panic of 1907.

 

But there were likely different reasons than financial history that motivated Lew’s decision. Months before Lew announced that Hamilton would be replaced, a group called “Women on 20s” had begun a campaign to replace Andrew Jackson with a woman, both because of the desire to see a woman on U.S. currency, but also because of progressive opposition to such Jacksonian blunders as the Trail of Tears.

Unfortunately, for central banking buffs like me, what likely put the save-Hamilton campaign over the finish line was not the plain fact that person most responsible for the birth of our modern monetary system should be featured on our currency, but Broadway. Certainly, adding to the desire to save Hamilton’s place on the $10 was the unexpected success of a musical that debuted off-Broadway in February about the life of the first treasury secretary, and which features a diverse cast and a hip-hop score. The musical focused on some of aspects of his biography, like his bastard and immigrant pedigree, which make particularly sympathetic compared with other founding fathers.