The United States Treasury Department announced on April 20 that President Andrew Jackson would be removed from the $20 dollar bill to be replaced by escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The choice, after a year of activism by Women on 20s.org, knocks out two birds with one stone, by relegating a slavery-supporting populist to the back of the bill in favor of a black woman who helped hundreds of slaves run away to freedom.
One of the consequences of American activists’ successful Women on 20s campaign last year, which was ultimately successful in convincing the U.S. Treasury Department to replace controversial seventh president Andrew Jackson with escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, is that it has given Americans pause to consider the meaning and purpose of the national symbols our government chooses to put on our currency.
At the most simplistic level, it has exercised reactionary conservatives like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to denounce a “politically correct” choice of replacing a white male president with a black woman. Reactionary liberals like Feminista Jones and Danielle Paquette have denounced what they see as the commodification of a black revolutionary on a symbol of capitalism. Ideological conservatives, however, have mostly celebrated Tubman as a god-believing, gun-wielding, freedom-fighting Lincoln-era Republican.
Currency is the national symbol that residents of a country have the closest connection to. They carry it with them everywhere they go, hold it in their hands, and spend most of their waking hours working to earn it. As such it has been the subject of research papers on the construction of national identity. Scholars and columnists have pointed to how the Confederate States of America featured slaves on its currency as a depiction of its national identity.
As John Majewski wrote in Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation,
Embodying the new nation’s sense of self, Confederate currency often depicted idealized visions of past heroes, contented slaves, and stately plantations. Confederate notes also featured representations of a modern slaveholding economy. The popular $100 note issued in Richmond in 1862 shows a larger-than-life locomotive that dwarfs the human figures standing beside it (Illustration 5, top). Modern, powerful, and dynamic, the locomotive aptly symbolized how Confederates imagined their economic future.
Since Americans have began thinking more and more about affording greater social prominence, not just legal rights, to minorities and historically oppressed groups, it is fitting that a president, Jackson, who is now infamous for his support for slavery and unconstitutional forced migration (the Trail of Tears) of American Indians from the Southern United States is being replaced by Tubman, an underground railroad conductor who helped lead hundreds of slaves to freedom and served as a spy for the Union army.
When the campaign to replace Jackson got started, I got thinking, too, about China and Chinese currency. It also have a depicts a controversial populist who was responsible for untold deaths on its currency—and one who, for that matter, very well might be offended at seeing his image “commodified” and used to purchase bourgesouie items of luxury from foreign companies.