It’s hard to believe Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin understood the controversy he would ignite when he answered a CNBC reporter’s question about whether he replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill with the hero of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman. “Ultimately we will be looking at this issue,” he said. “It’s not something I’m focused on at the moment.”
“People have been on the bills for a long period of time,” he continued. “And this is something we will consider. Right now, we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.”
Given the Trump administration’s revisionist infatuation with Jackson—the controversial populist, law-breaking resettler of Native Americans, and founder of the modern Democratic Party—fears that Mnuchin might scrap Obama-era plans for the $20 are justified. Because his comments followed Donald Trump’s inexplicable refusal to offer an emphatic condemnation of the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville, it’s equally understandable that some saw Mnuchin’s tepid words as indicative of this White House’s racial insensitivities. But the hostility that greeted his remarks hardly seems warranted.
A series of outlets reported erroneously that Mnuchin previewed his intention to scrap existing plans to print a new set of $20s, which he did not. “The Trump administration is so threatened by the existence of women [and] people of color, they can’t even acknowledge Harriet Tubman on the $20,” the pro-choice activist group NARAL tweeted. “U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may find himself dragged into the debate about America’s racial history,” Bloomberg reported. “The Trump administration and its supporters are waging a war on America’s fact-based history, so one would be naïve to expect Mnuchin to break ranks,” Daily Beast contributor Barrett Holmes Pitner wrote. Pitner then launched into an informative history of the evolution of American currency, antebellum political affinities, and the nexus of imagery and race in America—most of which seemed divorced from what Mnuchin had actually said.
The Trump administration deserves skeptical inquiry relating to its friendliness toward Jackson. That should be tempered, however, by the fact that the Treasury Secretary inherited this debate from the Obama administration and a full accounting of the last administration’s records on the matter is a complicated one.
The effort to consign Jackson’s portrait to history predates 2015, but the crusade received new life in the wake of a racist terrorist attack on African-American parishioners in Charlotte, South Carolina. That event prompted a backlash against symbols of reverence toward slave owners in American history, including Jackson. The effort to outs Jackson from the $20 culminated in an online campaign drum up support for “Women on 20s.” Over a period of 10 weeks and 600,000 votes later, Harriet Tubman emerged the victor.
Within weeks, Barack Obama Treasury Secretary Jack Lew revealed that Alexander Hamilton was to be banished from the $10 while consultations continued about the fate of the new $20. In 2013, his department determined that the $10 was the next bill slated for redesign and that plan wouldn’t be upended just because public opinion had mobilized against Jackson.
Lew appeased those who were upset by insisting that Treasury would select a woman to grace the face of the new currency note. What woman? Someone “who was a champion for our inclusive democracy,” Lew said. Rather than seem imperious or dismissive of public sentiment, Treasury began soliciting opinions and promoting the hashtag #TheNew10. Suddenly, the compelling cases against Jackson’s place of reverence disappeared. The “Woman on 20s” campaign slouched into the shadows. The activist class had been appeased. Perhaps this movement wasn’t so much about Jackson after all?
Lew could not have known that, within a handful of months, history would intervene in the form of an elite love affair with a Broadway musical “Hamilton” became a sensation, and its creators credited Barack Obama with inspiring its completion. Michelle Obama said it was the greatest piece of art she’d ever seen. Treasury backed off its intention to relegate Hamilton’s portrait to a humble place on the back of the $10. Suddenly, Jackson was a problem again.
Jackson doesn’t deserve his perch on the nation’s most widely circulated currency note. He should be removed, and Tubman is as good a figure as any to replace him. A bipartisan bill introduced by Republican Rep. John Katko and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings would compel Mnuchin to move the $20’s redesign up ahead of the $10 and ensure Tubman notes are circulating by 2020. It would be a worthy measure. Let’s not pretend the activist class has had its eye on the prize, that Jackson and Tubman have always been the focus of their efforts, or that the mob cannot be sated by any nod in the direction of socially desirable identity politics.