UT Experts Discuss Significance of Harriet Tubman on New Twenty-Dollar Bill

The US Treasury has announced that Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who helped many slaves to freedom, will replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill—a decision prompted by the desire to recognize others who have played a significant role in American history, according to a UT expert.

Dan Feller150

Dan Feller

“All of the faces on American currency for a long time now have all been major political figures, which in practice has meant white men, and we’re moving away from that,” said Dan Feller, history professor and director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson project.

Until now women—Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea—have appeared only on dollar coins.

The twenty is the most commonly used bill now.

“I think part of the idea is put a woman where people are actually going to see her,” Feller said. “Putting women on the one monetary unit that nobody uses was kind of reinforcing their second-class status, whether intentional or not.”

Replacing Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, with Harriet Tubman signifies a greater recognition of the role slavery has played in this country. It also underscores the significance of White-Indian relations in America since it was under Jackson’s presidency that Indian Removal—the forcible removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the eastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River—occurred.

Richard Pacelle

Richard Pacelle

“I wouldn’t argue with the principle behind either of those,” he said. “If we’re going to use currency to make political statements about what we think is important or worth honoring, then there is a good justification for putting someone who represents the anti-slavery movement on a bill.”

Changes to US currency don’t happen frequently, said Rich Pacelle, head of the UT Department of Political Science. The last time the government made major changes in the currency was just before World War I in 1914. They made a number of changes to the front of the bills. The backs of the bills have been changed periodically since. Coins are changed more in the short term to reflect a memorial to a fallen leader.

The recent Treasury announcement is an attempt to be more inclusive, he said.

“I understand they are also going to change the backs of currency to relate to a more diverse segment of society,” Pacelle said.

When currency is changed, “it is typically tied to shifts in society and usually decades after they have occurred,” he said.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Dan Feller (865-974-7077, dfeller@utk.edu)

Rich Pacelle (865-974-2845 or rpacelle@utk.edu)