Teaching the Twenty

It has been several months since the news broke that despite a long-running public campaign to remove Andrew Jackson from the twenty dollar bill, the treasury department would instead combine Alexander Hamilton and a yet to be determined woman on the ten. The treasury cited counterfeiting risks as the reason for the choice. Just before the announcement, the organization, Women on 20s, ran a national poll in which Harriet Tubman was selected, with Eleanor Roosevelt as the runner up. Building on their efforts, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire also brought the issue to Congress in the spring, presenting a “Women on the Twenty Act.” Commenting on the July decision, Shaheen stated, “While it might not be the $20 bill, make no mistake: This is a historic announcement.”

While is it undoubtedly significant that a woman is being included for the first time in over a century on American paper money and iminitely reasonable to guard against fraud, there are two enormous pedagogical problems with this choice. First, it completely misunderstands the history of the figures involved, and second, it completely misunderstands the present-day ramifications of their history. It’s a dangerous precedent for a classroom. Compare the immediate economic context of Jackson and Hamilton. Hamilton’s financial plan and tenure as Secretary of the Treasury established one of – if not the – most comprehensive program of economic planning and regulatory intervention before Reconstruction. Jackson despised centralized banking and paper currency, dismantling the national bank and setting off the Panic of 1837. Unless the goal is to make Jackson roll around in his grave, it is baffling that he is on any money, given his perspective.

And then there is the added dimension of commemoration. Especially when teaching, historians have to strike a balance between explaining people’s actions by the standards of their time while also recognizing behaviors or views that were expressly anomalous or in the minority opinion. Slavery and Indian removal, for example, are two of the most tremendous blights on the national narrative, the consequences of which we still live with today. They were divisive in their day and they are divisive now. Teachers have a professional obligation to convey the realities of such an institution and policy without, as EP Thompson warned, falling prey to “the enormous condescension of posterity.” But no one is entitled to be on a federally dictated (and such, implicitly condoned) piece of currency. If this place, ostensibly one of honor and recognition for important contributions to American history, allows an aggressive (or genocidal) proponent of Indian removal to stay on the currency, then how is that the anti-slavery (if not abolitionist) figure should be demoted?

One thing about commemoration is that it sends a potent message. Circulated currency is visible with every grocery store trip, every doctor’s visit, every bill paid, every exchange made. (Yes, a lot of people use credit cards but the point still stands). So what message is being sent when a woman, especially an abolitionist woman of color like Harriet Tubman, is relegated to half a bill, with the only mixed-race, immigrant, single-mother raised founding father? Are women and immigrants, especially those of color, some how less deserving of individualized commemoration? Historical and current events are not the same thing and I do not mean to imply otherwise. But the notion that our past and present can somehow be separated undermines the very point of putting prominent figures on money in the first place.

One thought on “Teaching the Twenty

  1. I love this argument! I’ve brought up the vote that was conducted online in my classes, and thought it was exciting to change the $20 bill. I think it would be great to have Alexander Hamilton on a bill, he certainly helped the country accomplish more than Jackson did. But at the thought of being replaced by a black woman on the $20, Jackson would be rolling over in his grave!

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