Paper Money

Will Mnuchin reverse Tubman portrait decision on note

Harriet Tubman was selected to appear on the next $20 Federal Reserve note by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, but his replacement, Steven Mnuchin, has not publicly committed to supporting that decision.

Original photo courtesy of Swann Galleries.

The anticipated changes to Federal Reserve notes that have been the focus of so much public interest for two years, including placement of abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the $20 note, may not be such a sure thing after all. 

In an Aug. 31 interview on CNBC, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared to distance himself from the idea with a series of vague comments, such as “Ultimately we will be looking at this issue. It’s not something I’m focused on at the moment,” and “People have been on the bills for a long period of time. And this is something we will consider. Right now, we’ve got a lot more important issues to focus on.” 

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The original plan was revealed by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on April 20, 2016, when he surprised nearly everyone by announcing greater-than-anticipated plans for new $20, $10 and $5 notes. Officials had long been working on improvements to the anti-counterfeiting technology on the notes, but Lew’s announcement included plans to change portraits and vignettes on the notes.

By Lew’s decision, Alexander Hamilton would remain on the face of the new $10 note, but with a back portraying the March 3, 1913, march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the Treasury Building (the note currently depicts a static view of the building). It would also honor the leaders of the suffrage movement — Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. 

The face of the $5 note was to retain Abraham Lincoln’s image, but with a representation, on the other side, of some of the civil rights events that have occurred at the Lincoln Memorial, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and Marian Anderson’s famous 1939 open-air concert.

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Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was Lew’s idea for face of the new $20, with the back showing images of the White House and Andrew Jackson. The announcement about Tubman generated more publicity for United States paper money than any event in recent memory. Tubman was the choice of the public in a widely publicized online Women on 20s campaign.

Lew’s timetable would have the new $10 note ready for production by Aug. 18, 2020, along with final design concepts for the $5 and $20 notes.

In his interview with CNBC, Mnuchin confirmed long-standing policy in reminding people that “The No. 1 issue why we change the currency is to stop counterfeiting. So the issues of what we change will be primarily related to what we need to do for security purposes. I’ve received classified briefings on that. And that’s what I’m focused on for the most part.” 

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (the Treasury agency that prints U.S. paper money) told Coin World Aug. 31, “Currency is primarily redesigned for security purposes and the Secretary of the Treasury makes the final decisions on all currency designs.” 

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