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Less than a week after taking office, the Biden administration announced it would restart Obama-era plans to redesign the $20 bill, replacing the portrait of President Andrew Jackson with that of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, after more than four years of uncertainty about the note’s future. The decision has revived a fervent debate about who belongs on our currency, and whether the change is just another example of so-called cancel culture at its worst.
It’s not hard to understand why some Americans might see the redesign as a radical break from tradition. For the past century, U.S. banknotes have featured a static set of Founding Fathers and presidents, government buildings and national memorials. This 20th-century consistency created the illusion that significant design alterations would sever our currency’s ties to its past.
But this is a misperception. In the 1800s, currency redesigns were not at all uncommon. In fact, banknotes changed regularly, and featured a vibrant range of people, scenes and symbols. The United States did not have standardized designs depicting only a handful of political figures until the 1920s.
What this history suggests is that we should not shy away from rethinking our currency today. Instead, the new $20 bill should be merely a starting point, encouraging us to think more expansively and creatively about the images that appear on our money—as we have in our past and as other nations do today.
Money, after all, is a powerful means of communication. It is a missive we send around the world—an ambassador of sorts. It is also part of our national identity and can help to remind us of our common purpose. Our money should not only reflect our country’s origins, but also who we have become over the past 250 years—as well as who we aspire to be.
Our founders knew that monetary designs could help to inspire a sense of unity. Some of the first notes issued by the Continental Congress in 1775 featured a striking design with 13 interlocking rings (representing the 13 colonies) surrounding the message “WE ARE ONE.” The founders also shied away from including potentially divisive political and military leaders on our national coins, instead choosing symbols of freedom and a burgeoning national identity. The first coins made by the U.S. Mint in 1792 featured Lady Liberty, and she regularly appeared on U.S. coins throughout the 19th century. It was not until 1909 that Abraham Lincoln became the first historic American figure to appear on a U.S. coin, 44 years after the end of the Civil War.
Historic figures began to appear on circulating banknotes in the early 1800s, but they were far from the standard or dominant imagery. Early American banknotes featured a dizzying array of allegorical and historic figures, scenes and messages. This remarkable diversity is a reflection of the wide range of institutions that issued currency. At the time, it was not the federal government that produced these bills, but more than 8,000 private banks and businesses, which had the freedom to determine what and whom to depict.
The resulting images display the breadth of early American life, including scenes of agriculture, transportation and industry. One striking $2 bill made in 1861 by the Sanford Bank of Maine shows women weaving cloth in a textile mill. Private banknotes also featured scenes of domestic life, with vignettes featuring children and dogs—some inspired by bank owners’ own families. A touching scene on a $1 bill issued in 1856 by the Planters and Mechanics Bank of Dalton, Georgia, depicts a child cuddling a family of bunnies. While some engravings are beautiful and whimsical, others contain disturbing and painful reminders of America’s past. Images of slavery on these notes, as well as on notes produced by the Confederacy during the Civil War, remain the only depictions of Black Americans on U.S.-made banknotes to date (a pattern Tubman, of course, would break).
When political figures were featured on private banknotes, they did not exclusively appear in stoic portraits as they do today. For example, a $3 banknote produced for the National Bank of New York City in the 19th-century showed a muscular George Washington wearing a toga, looking more like a mythological deity than a president or retired general.
The outbreak of the Civil War prompted the federal government to begin making its own banknotes, snuffing out the earlier private system and creating America’s first “greenbacks.” The next half-century was the pinnacle of American banknote design. The government produced many different types of banknotes—legal tender notes, silver certificates and gold certificates, to name a few. Each type and denomination had a distinct design that often changed with a new series. Varied and often beautiful, the notes of this era were part of a post-Civil War effort to create a shared national identity underpinned by democratic ideals. One of the most stunning banknotes of this era is a $1 silver certificate from 1896. It features an allegorical scene in which a female figure cradles a young boy in her arm and points toward the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in the distance. The design, named “History Instructing Youth,” was part of a set of banknotes called the Educational Series, intended to teach the public about democracy and national history, with an eye toward the future of the young nation.
Political figures were a major design element of this era, but they were not fixed on particular bills. When the government released a new design, the public did not interpret the move as someone getting “kicked off” the previous version of the note. And at any given time, circulating $20 notes featured many different historical figures, including Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton and Pocahontas (depicted kneeling during her likely forced baptism), but not Jackson. He didn’t show up on a $20 federal banknote until the late 1920s. And he arrived just as the U.S. Treasury moved to standardize banknote design and size for security and cost-saving reasons. Today, all seven circulating banknote denominations feature portraits of political figures—five presidents plus Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. (Circulating American coins also largely feature presidents, though coin imagery is a bit more varied because the U.S. Mint can redesign them more rapidly and creates special coin programs, such as the “America the Beautiful” quarters.)
If the Biden administration proceeds with the full scope of redesign plans laid out by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in 2016 (before it was tabled by the Trump administration), we will see not only a change to the $20 note, but also the addition of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul to the back of the $10 bill, and civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson on the back of the $5 bill. These three new notes would break the century-old exclusion of women from being depicted on American banknotes—the last and only woman to appear in a portrait on a federal banknote was Martha Washington, more than a century ago—and would feature Black historical figures on federal banknotes for the first time. Beyond expanding representation, the new designs would reflect some of the major social movements of the past 200 years that have helped to move the United States toward its founding ideals of freedom, equality and justice.
Still, the history of American currency suggests that this might be only a start. We can and should go further in rethinking U.S. currency, resuming the national practice of using banknotes as a canvas for the breadth of American life and democratic values.
Banknotes already are redesigned at regular intervals in order to improve their security features, a process that requires years of testing. Future designs will also make banknotes easier to use for people who are blind or have low vision. Since security features and imagery are typically developed in tandem, this means we will be presented with more opportunities to continue to rethink and revise. We need not recreate the frequency of change in the 19th century or the diversity of banknote designs for change to be worthwhile
For inspiration, we can look to our own historic banknotes and coins, as well as to currency designs from other countries. Our money could celebrate American achievements in the arts and sciences and reflect our diverse cultural heritage. It could also display the natural beauty of the American landscape. Nature designs depicting plants and animals are a common theme around the world and have been used as an alternative to divisive political figures. South Africa chose this strategy for its new note designs in 1992, following the end of Apartheid. The United States could also honor the everyday, often nameless, heroes who care for our health and educate our children—people whose contributions the coronavirus pandemic has underscored over the past year. Childhood educator Maria Montessori has been honored on Italian banknotes. Imagine if we put teachers or health care workers on American currency, too.
With the proliferation of digital payment technologies, some have argued that we are moving toward a cashless society and that banknote designs are not worthy of significant investment or careful thought. While new payment systems have undoubtedly changed what some transactions look like, circulation of both coins and banknotes remains high. That might change in the future, but it is unlikely that the United States will cease issuing currency for the foreseeable future. Money is, after all, more than something we use to make payments. It is an important symbol of national sovereignty, and U.S. dollars play a major role in global exchange. American banknotes remain desirable, and in some places essential, to commerce.
But our banknotes can do even more. They can help us better understand our national history and reflect the nation we are today. American banknotes are not statues or monuments. They are dynamic objects that have undergone change many times before. Thinking more broadly about them now and in the future would help to strengthen our ties to our past and to one another.