Paper Money

It's always controversial: Replacing Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson has appeared on all small-size $20 notes. An organization that polled individuals on a woman to replace him is recommending Harriet Tubman.

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Here’s a guaranteed controversial topic: 

Should we remove President Andrew Jackson from the face of the $20 Federal Reserve note and replace him with someone else not so white, someone who didn’t initiate the Trail of Tears and maybe is even a woman?

Jackson is the perennial favorite among the men depicted on U.S. paper money as ripe for replacement. Opponents cite his efforts in the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans in what is called the Trail of Tears as prominent among the reasons he is undeserving of being depicted on federal notes.

Jackson was first depicted on federal paper money in 1863, on the $10,000 gold certificate. Jackson would also appear on many denominations, series and types of federal paper money, most prominently on every one of the billions of $20 Federal Reserve notes issued since Series 1928.


And that ubiquitousness is the problem in the eyes of some.

The fact that every person depicted on a small-size note is a white male is troubling, according to Huffington Post blogger Soraya Chemaly, who in a March 9 blog wrote, “Money designed in 1929 doesn’t meet the needs of today’s pluralistic society.”

Chemaly added: “Visible currency is part of daily life. Children see it, use it, need it, play with it, earn it, save it, spend it, worry about it and hear adults talk about it. The erasure of women from this media is one of the ways that we cultivate visual gender biases that make it possible for the absence of women in the public sphere to be ‘normal.’ ”

She added: “Money, like statues, holidays and postage stamps, is a form of public media that speaks particularly to what we, as a culture, think is important to note and admire. As is the case with most media, women and their contributions remain either hugely underrepresented or, in the case of paper money, totally erased.”

Chemaly was writing in March about the Women on 20s campaign, now just closed. The sponsors provided a list of 15 candidates to choose from, all women who made a difference in a particular way. Candidates included women’s vote advocates Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony; anti-slavery leaders Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth; and Eleanor Roosevelt (the only woman depicted on federal paper money, in portrait form, is another first lady, Martha Washington); among several others.

The polling has now closed. Tubman, the abolitionist and Underground Railroad pioneer, was selected by Women on 20s voters to become the focus of the campaign's push. 

But the proposal is private and is not binding on the federal government, which has been highly resistent to change for the sake of change for decades.

Some changes made, but not to themes

While the designs of the $5 through $100 Federal Reserve notes have been changed since 1929, the persons and themes depicted on the notes remain the same, as they do on the $1 and $2 notes (whose designs are unchanged). Significant design changes have only been made because of the need to upgrade anti-counterfeiting properties of the notes, and not for aesthetic reasons. 

Officials have been particularly reluctant to change the central design themes. When new designs and features have been incorporated into the notes, such as color on the $50 denomination, officials have stated, “Despite the addition of color, the redesigned notes preserve the distinct size, look and feel of the traditional American currency — the world’s most familiar and circulated currency.” In simple terms, stability has been seen as important.

Even if change were to occur, proponents should not expect to see them soon. The $10 note, and not the $20 note, is the next denomination already selected to receive a design upgrade (the addition of a tactile feature that identifies the denomination), with a release goal of 2020. That plan would conflict with the private proposal by Women on 20s now that polling is completed, as Coin World's Joe O'Donnell reports.

The pace of design change is evident in that the 2020 release for the $10 note is a response to a judicial decision in 2008 ordering U.S. paper money be identifiable by denomination to the blind and vision impaired, in a lawsuit filed against the government in 2002. That’s 18 years from the first public efforts to make a change until its planned implementation, and only with a long legal battle. 

In addition, three agencies are involved in redesign efforts for U.S. paper money, each of which has to approve the changes: the Secret Service, which enforces counterfeiting laws in the United States and thus has a say in which anti-counterfeiting devices are used on a particular note; the Federal Reserve, which issues the notes; and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which designs and prints the notes.

And then there is the unforseen. Release of the latest generation of $100 notes into circulation was delayed for well over a year when printing problems arose once mass production had begun. It took months before the problems were resolved and printing for circulation could be resumed. There is no guarantee similar problems would not occur with any new $20 note.

While removing Jackson from the $20 note may face a lower hurdle than in the past, given the stength of support for a change, implementing any such change is still likely to take a long time. 

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