US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for July 31, 2023: Tubman on coins first

These designs were adopted for the 2024 Tubman silver dollars.

Images courtesy of the United States Mint.

The unveiling of the designs for the 2024 commemorative coins honoring the life of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman was welcomed by many. However, will we ever see designs for the long-discussed $20 Federal Reserve note with a portrait of the former slave replacing the portrait of slave owner Andrew Jackson?

Public support for the creation of a new Federal Reserve note depicting a woman arose during the Obama administration. The organization Women on 20s conducted a public poll to select a woman to replace Jackson on the $20 note, with Tubman winning the public vote. The Obama White House supported the idea, with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announcing plans in April 2016 to place Tubman’s portrait on the $20 note as a replacement for the current portrait of Jackson. Also announced were changes to the $5 and $10 notes intended to present a more diverse look at American history. Lew’s announcement then ran into obstacles: the sheer bureaucratic inertia that delays design changes to U.S. paper money for years, even decades; and then indifference and outright hostility to the proposed portrait change in the Trump administration. Officials in the Biden administration renewed government support for a Tubman note; however, it will be 2030 at the earliest before such notes are released — 14 years after the Treasury Department theoretically began the process for the design change.

Design changes to Federal Reserve notes require cooperation and approval from the Federal Reserve, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Secret Service, and the Treasury Department. New anti-counterfeiting technology to be added to future notes must be identified and tested, and new design features have to be created and worked into the overall redesign. That takes time ... lots of time.

Commemorative coinage in contrast requires passage of legislation in the House and Senate, after which it becomes law if signed or not specifically vetoed. Legislation introduced in 2021 achieved passage and presidential signature in 2023. Less than a year later, we know how the Tubman coins will look.

I suspect their release will be timed to celebrate Black History Month in February 2024.

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