Paper Money

2016 Top 10: Big changes for Federal Reserve notes

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, pressured by a massive and long-running social media effort by Women on 20s and others, ordered that abolitionist Harriet Tubman be depicted on the next generation of $20 Federal Reserve note.

Image in the public domain.

One of the biggest hobby stories of 2016 made headlines in the mainstream media for weeks. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, pressured by a massive and long-running social media effort by Women on 20s and others, ordered that abolitionist Harriet Tubman be depicted on the next generation of $20 Federal Reserve note. 

Replacing the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the current $20 note is not the only step Lew took. He exceeded the expectations of the Women on 20s group by ordering changes to the back designs of the $5 and $10 notes that, when implemented, will bring greater diversity to American paper money than ever before and reintroduce historical vignettes to the notes.

A repeat from 2015

This story also made our Top 10 list for 2015, though that year ended with Treasury officials saying they needed more time to consider the results of a public poll calling for the replacement of the portrait of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 Federal Reserve note. By modern standards, Jackson is considered by many to be unworthy of his prominent position on the note; he was a slave owner and he also ordered the forcible relocation of southeastern Native American tribes westward so their original lands could be appropriated by white Americans; and he caused a nationwide economic crisis because of his actions taken against the banking system.

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The movement to replace Jackson with a woman gained strength and widespread support with the 2014 founding of the group Women on 20s. In 2015, the group conducted a public poll that revealed 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman as the favored candidate. By the summer, Treasury Secretary Jacob announced that a woman would be depicted on a note — the $10 note and not the recommended $20 note — and invited public comment on what the new $10 note should look like. The reason cited for the $10 note was that it was next in line for redesign, with a rollout anticipated about 2020, the centennial of the granting women the right to vote nationwide. The decision not to use the $20 note did not sit well with many and, in 2015, Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury secretary and the topic of the $10 note, gained renewed celebrity thanks to a Broadway hit musical.

The power of music

The musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, became the breakout hit of 2015 and 2016, earning a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations and catapulting Alexander Hamilton into the limelight. A movement spurred by the success of the musical focused on saving Hamilton’s position on the $10 note. By the summer of 2015, it was increasingly apparent that removing the architect of the American financial system would become a very unpopular move. Still, months would pass before the Treasury Department would announce its plans.

On April 20, 2016, the Treasury Department issued a press release on the behalf of Treasury Secretary Lew, revealing plans more wide-ranging than many anticipated. As Coin World reported then, Lew ordered that Harriet Tubman replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 Federal Reserve note (Jackson will be moved to the back); the back of the $10 note, showing the Treasury Building, will be revised to show an image of the historic March 3, 1913, march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the Treasury Department and will honor the leaders of the suffrage movement — Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul; while the back of the $5 note, retaining the Lincoln Memorial, will be redesigned to honor events held there that helped to shape American history and democracy, and depict such figures as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson.

The Federal Reserve and Bureau of Engraving and Printing are already working on the changes.

In October 2016, BEP Director Leonard R. Olijar offered an update on the redesign process, saying the BEP and Federal Reserve were working together to speed up the usual time line so all three notes could enter circulation as quickly as possible while still satisfying security requirements. As Coin World reported, he said a priority was having the new $10 note ready for production by Aug. 18, 2020, along with final design concepts for the $5 and $20 notes. The target date is the centennial of the signing of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

Some backlash

Lew’s decision to place Tubman on the $20 note and to depict historical scenes on the $5 and $10 notes (resurrecting the lost concept of historical vignettes once common on U.S. paper money), was not universally praised. Some opponents called the decision an act of “political correctness” and some commentators voiced their objections in racist terms. 

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was one of the opponents and he acted in Congress by introducing an amendment to the law that prohibits the government from redesigning the $1 note by ex­panding the prohibition to cover all Federal Reserve notes. That measure did not pass, however.

With the Trump administration taking over the executive branch on Jan. 20, some have wondered if there is any possibility that his Treasury secretary could reverse Lew’s decision. While technically that could happen, the redesign process is far enough advance that stopping the current efforts would be seen as detrimental to the security of the nation’s paper currency and in violation of a federal court order to make the notes accessible to the visually impaired. All of the new notes are to have enhanced anti-counterfeiting technology and features that will enable the blind to identify a note’s denomination by touch.

Will the redesign effort become one of 2017’s top stories? We may know in the months ahead.

Read all of our Coin World Top 10 of 2016 series:

U.S. Mint issues gold Centennial coins
Pogue IV auction tops $16 million
Rare English gold coin found in toy box
Boutique bullion trend catches on worldwide
Langbord 1933 double eagle case rolls on
1974-D aluminum cent returned to U.S. Mint
Treasury announces new Federal Reserve note designs
1964 Morgan dollar tooling uncovered
American Liberty silver medal released
U.S. Mint plans yearlong 225th anniversary party

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