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Harriet Tubman’s Future on the $20 Bill Was Just Thrown Into Doubt

August 31, 2017, 5:30 PM UTC

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may find himself dragged into the debate about America’s racial history after declining to commit to Obama administration plans to feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman on redesigned currency notes.

Asked in a CNBC interview on Thursday whether he supports his predecessor’s decision to put Tubman on $20 bills, he said, “ultimately we will be looking at this issue. It’s not something that I’m focused on at the moment.” The top issue to consider when redesigning notes is security against counterfeiting, he said.

Tubman, a former slave who helped others to freedom, was to become the first woman and first minority to appear on U.S. paper currency. Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, is currently on $20 bills. “Right now we have a lot more important issues to focus on,” Mnuchin said.

“People have been on the bills for a long period of time,” Mnuchin said. “This is something we will consider.”

A decision to drop plans to replace Jackson, a slaveholder who advocated the removal of Native Americans from the U.S., with Tubman would be certain to prompt criticism that likely would be amplified by the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s statements following violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia, protest earlier this month. The president said “both sides” of the clashes between white supremacist protesters and opposition demonstrators were to blame, and defended those who marched alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in opposition to the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Mnuchin subsequently defended Trump for his Charlottesville response, saying in an open letter that “the president in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”

Jackson Fan

Trump is known to be a fan of Jackson; he hung a portrait of the populist president in the Oval Office and visited The Hermitage, his home, in Tennessee. During his campaign, he said the movement to replace Jackson with Tubman was “pure political correctness.”

“Andrew Jackson had a great history, and I think it’s very rough when you take someone off the bill,” Trump told NBC News. “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic. I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can come up with another denomination. Maybe we can do the $2 bill?”

Efforts to change images on U.S. paper currency have proven controversial. Former Obama Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew originally attempted to address the gender imbalance on U.S. currency notes by removing former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton from the front of the $10 bill, but that plan drew protests from fans of the hit Broadway musical depicting the life of the founding father.

Lew’s final plan called for Hamilton to remain on the front of that bill, with suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul added to the back of the note. Jackson would have been moved to the back of the $20 note, along with an image of the White House.