Harriet Tubman

By Ben White and Nolan D. McCaskill
Published: 04/20/16 – 11:56 AM EDT
Updated: 04/20/16 – 08:05 PM EDT

  • Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reverses a plan to bump Hamilton after receiving fierce blowback.

Harriet Tubman will bump Andrew Jackson from the front of the $20 bill while Alexander Hamilton will stay put on the $10 — a historic move that gives a woman prime placement on U.S. currency and quells a controversy kicked up by Hamilton super-fans.

“Today, I’m excited to announce that for the first time in more than a century, the front of our currency will feature the portrait of a woman, Harriet Tubman, on the $20 note,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embody the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we’ll continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency.”

Lew rolled out sweeping changes that will put a new cast of historic figures onto various bills that have remained largely static for decades. Leaders of the women’s suffrage movement will make their way onto the back of the $10 bill, while civil rights era leaders and other important moments in American history will be incorporated into the $5 bill. Jackson will be kicked to the back of the $20 bill.

The plan is a major reversal for Lew, who appeared taken aback by the swift rebukes Treasury received last summer when he announced that he was considering replacing Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman.

While he explained that Hamilton was on the chopping block as a matter of practicality – the $10 bill was the next one up for a redesign – Lew still got an earful from fans of Hamilton, who helped create the Treasury Department and the modern American financial system.

Critics immediately called for Lew to take Jackson off the $20 bill instead, given the former president’s role in moving Native Americans off their land.

Lew told POLITICO last July that Treasury was exploring ways to respond to critics. “There are a number of options of how we can resolve this,” Lew said. “We’re not taking Alexander Hamilton off our currency.”

But supporters of putting a woman on the $10 bill have complained that it will take too long for the $20 bill to come up for a redesign. Lew has predicted that the new bills will be unveiled in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

On the call on Wednesday, Lew said he would try and make the changes quickly. “The two things most important are the security of our money and getting this process to move as quickly as possible,” he said.

“Due to security needs, the redesigned $10 note is scheduled to go into circulation next,” Lew said. “I’ve directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to work closely with the Federal Reserve to accelerate work on the new $20 and $5 notes. Our goal is to have all three new notes go into circulation as quickly as possible, while ensuring that we protect against counterfeiting through effective and sophisticated production.”

The movement to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill was fueled by academics but gathered strength after the Broadway musical named after the former Treasury secretary and founding father became a smash hit.

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda even directly lobbied Lew last month on Hamilton’s behalf, after which Miranda said Lew told him “you’re going to be very happy” with the redesign plan.

Reaction to Tubman, a Civil War-era abolitionist, replacing Jackson on the front of the $20 was widely positive, with Democratic presidential candidates quickly hailing Treasury’s decision.

“A woman, a leader, and a freedom fighter,” Hillary Clinton tweeted. “I can’t think of a better choice for the $20 bill than Harriet Tubman.”

Bernie Sanders concurred, tweeting roughly 30 minutes later that he “cannot think of an American hero more deserving of this honor than Harriet Tubman.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) tweeted that it was “great news!” “Tubman on $20 is the right call,” she added. “The redesign needs to happen as soon as possible. Women have waited long enough.”

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who introduced the “Put a Woman on the Twenty Act in Congress” last year in the House (Shaheen introduced a similar bill in the Senate), also commended the decision Wednesday.

“There has been a lot of talk about putting a woman’s portrait on our money, but finally it sounds like Secretary Lew is putting our money where his mouth is,” Gutiérrez said in a prepared statement. “It is crazy that women have been mostly absent from our money up until now, with only a few exceptions.”

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