This week, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire introduced the Women on the Twenty Act, legislation aimed at putting an American woman on the $20 bill. Shaheen's efforts nod to an initiative by Women on 20s, a group that is lobbying to change the $20 by 2020. That year Americans will mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. (The $20 is also overdue for a redesign to thwart counterfeiters.)
For Andrew Jackson, current face of the $20 bill, this is the latest assault on the paper perch he has occupied since 1928. Last June, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf argued that Martin Luther King, Jr., who is listed as the most-admired American of the 20th century, deserves the spot held by Jackson. He noted that while many young American children only have memory of life with a black president, "these same kids are still growing up in a country where the faces celebrated on the paper currency are all white." Friedersdorf continues:
I don't want to overstate the importance of that. There is a long list of suboptimal policies that are vastly more urgent to remedy. Still, the lack of diversity in this highly symbolic realm is objectionable, and improving matters would seem to be very easy.
So why does Andrew Jackson get the boot, and not, say, Ulysses Grant ($50) or Benjamin Franklin ($100)? Women on 20s contends that while Jackson may have had the common touch and impressive skills as a military leader, his record is far from wholly admirable:
But as the seventh president of the United States, he also helped gain Congressional passage of the "Indian Removal Act of 1830" that drove Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States off their resource-rich land and into Oklahoma to make room for white European settlers. Commonly known as the Trail of Tears, the mass relocation of Indians resulted in the deaths of thousands from exposure, disease and starvation during the westward migration. Not okay.
"Andrew Jackson engineered a genocide," Jillian Keenan more bluntly wrote in Slate last March. "He shouldn’t be on our currency." Keenan suggests Harriet Tubman, whose ascendence to the $20 bill would represent a double-shattering of the Green Ceiling. Friedersdorf, Kennan, and Women on 20s all also pointed out Jackson's historic disdain for paper money.
Of course, Jackson's still got his defenders. But as long we're gesturing toward noble and highly symbolic changes to American currency, we may want to tackle some practical matters as well. Like the ditching the penny, which would save the country tens of millions of dollars.