The US Treasury’s move this week to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill is significant for a number of reasons, although some, including Donald Trump, have disagreed. First, a woman is replacing a man. Second, a black person is replacing a white person. Third, an abolitionist and anti-slavery activist is replacing a former slaveholder. But there is a fourth and ultimately even more important rationale.
With change afoot in the US currency, it is not difficult to see why Jackson would inspire little loyalty. Though he was a war hero who served as the nation’s seventh president and fought successfully to kill the national bank, he also owned hundreds of slaves, supported the forced relocation of Indian tribes, and helped to install the spoils system in US politics.
Tubman presents a remarkable contrast that makes her seem, at first glance, an unlikely replacement. She was born into slavery and lived in poverty for much of her life. She never learned to read or write. She never commanded an army or won election to any public office. She even suffered from seizures, perhaps as a result of a head injury.
In short, in an age when Americans seem particularly enamored of the rich, powerful, and glamorous, Tubman represents an extraordinary anachronism. She was no Donald Trump billionaire, who said on the Today Show on Thursday that he thinks Tubman is “fantastic” — but added the move to have her replace Jackson is “pure political correctness.”
Tubman also did not aspire to the high political offices of Hillary Clinton, who on Wednesday tweeted: “A woman, a leader, and a freedom fighter. I can’t think of a better choice for the $20 bill than Harriet Tubman.”
And no one tried to keep up with Tubman in the manner of the Kardashians.
Yet in other ways, she was a remarkable human being. An escaped slave, she fought to free other slaves and became one of the nation’s leading abolitionists. At great personal risk, she served as a key figure in the Underground Railroad, helping to lead many to freedom. Testifying to her importance as an opponent of slavery, a fellow abolitionist once dubbed her “Moses.”
She also became one of the leading figures in the nation’s women’s suffrage movement. She pointed to countless acts of selfless courage by women during the Civil War and throughout history as evidence that women could prove just as noble as men. She believed that race and gender revealed nothing about a human being’s worth.
Such contributions shine even more brightly when we recall the many disadvantages and setbacks in life she had to overcome to play her leadership role in US history. In recounting her feelings as she moved from slavery to freedom, she offered one of the most inspiring accounts of the impulse to serve ever uttered by an American:
I had crossed the line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in the old cabin quarter, with the old folks, and my brothers and sisters. But to this solemn resolution I came; I was free, and they should be free also; I would make a home for them in the North, and the Lord helping me, I would bring them all there.
After serving as a Union Spy, becoming the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War, and working tirelessly to liberate and support former slaves, Tubman was headed home to New York when she was told by a train conductor to move to another car. When she refused, the conductor and other passengers forcibly removed her, breaking her arm in the process.
Here we come to the fourth reason Tubman is a great choice: too many government representatives grace US currencies. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Grant were all US presidents. Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, though not, each played huge roles as government leaders – Hamilton as first secretary of the treasury, and Franklin as a diplomat and elder statesman.
There is a natural tendency for the US government to memorialize its own, but many people who never served in any official capacity have played equally important roles in shaping American culture and charting the history of the United States. Consider, for example, Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Edison, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The likes of Tubman remind us that wealth, power, and fame are not essential ingredients in the recipe for a life of significance, the kind that enriches and inspires the lives of others. Many Americans will never be chronicled in the pages of Fortune, but each of us can aspire to lead a life that leaves the world a better place.
The most compelling reason Harriet Tubman belongs on US currency is this: She reminds us that an ordinary person – someone with little money, who holds no lofty political office, commands no army, and lacks natural gifts such as musical talent, and athletic ability – can, through moral imagination and courage, make a difference in the lives of others, even changing the course of history.
Richard Gunderman is chancellor’s professor in the schools of medicine, liberal arts, and philanthropy at Indiana University.