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Essay: The first woman on American currency
By Justin Latterell | Emory Law | Apr 26, 2016 10:04:00 AM

To listen to this op-ed as a podcast, go here and choose #13, Harriet Tubman.

The Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that Harriet Tubman – the famed African-American abolitionist and leader of the Underground Railroad – will replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Politicians are using the occasion to garner attention and gin up votes. Donald Trump called the move “pure political correctness.” Allen West hailed Tubman as a “pro-gun Republican.” Activists on the left have taken to calling Jackson a genocidal overlord who never deserved the honor in the first place.  

But Harriet Tubman is no political football. Nor is she the first woman to be portrayed on American currency. For over a century after the nation was founded, American currency only had images of women. One woman, in particular.

When Congress took up legislation to establish a national mint in 1792, a motley collection of native- and foreign-struck coins was already in circulation. These coins depicted everything from sunrises to ploughs to horse-heads to thirteen-link chains. Their inscriptions were also diverse. For all of their differences, however, most native-struck coins differed from their British counterparts in one key respect: British currency was a tribute to the divine reign of the current monarch. One side of British coins usually depicted a royal coat of arms. The other side showed a bust of the king or queen, with the ruler’s name inscribed next to the Latin phrase, Dei Gratia Rex, King by God’s Grace.

In a report to Congress, Alexander Hamilton described coins as “vehicles of useful impressions” that should express American ideals. He proposed that the new nation’s coins should depict the image and name of the sitting president, starting with Washington, along with the year, the denomination of the coin, and the words, United States of America.

But Congress revolted, comparing Hamilton’s proposal to the “ignorant ages” in which monarchs put their faces on coins “to show to whom the coin belonged.” John Page of Virginia led the charge against Hamilton’s design, arguing that American coins should be stamped with something “more emblematic of Liberty.” Would it really honor the president, he mocked, to give him the same tribute that infamous Roman emperors like Nero, Caligula, Heliogabulus and Trajan had received? Page acknowledged that Washington was a great American. But a presidential coin reeked of monarchy. Page appealed to Washington’s personal honor, arguing that, if he were in the President’s shoes, “I would cut off my hand rather than it should sign the act as it now stands.” Washington didn’t have to choose between his hand and his honor. After a series of heated debates, Congress concluded that American coins should depict a woman: the goddess of liberty.

Lady Liberty thereafter held a monopoly on American coins. In God We Trust wasn’t added until 1863. No president was stamped on American currency until 1909, when Victor David Brenner’s Lincoln penny was put into circulation. Since then, our currency has changed hands and heads many times. Susan B. Anthony, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt…the list goes on.

Sadly, what’s lost in all the political jockeying surrounding the new twenty-dollar bill is the real legacy of Harriet Tubman, who worked against impossible odds to save and empower the victims of American slavery. I have no idea whom she would vote for in the upcoming election. But I do know that there are few historical figures who better represent the promise of hard-earned liberty that guides this nation’s progress, and the ideal of liberty of which we so often fall short.

Justin Latterell, PhD, is the Alonzo L. McDonald Senior Fellow of Law and Religion at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.