THE BLOG
04/21/2016 02:47 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2017

Why the New $20 Bill Matters

Wednesday's announcement by the United States Treasury Department that Harriet Tubman, escaped slave and abolitionist, would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill has garnered a lot of attention. Tubman will not only be the first African American to appear on U.S. currency, she also will be the first woman to do so in more than a century (Martha Washington and Pocahontas made cameos in the late-19th century). Meanwhile, Jackson will be demoted to the backside of the $20. Predictably, conservatives and traditionalists filled the Twittersphere and other forms of social media with outrage against what they see as the latest affront by the forces of so-called "political correctness."

While this response is understandable - people often see change as a form of loss - it's also misguided. To begin with, the faces adorning our currency have changed many times in the past (Jackson, for example, replaced President Grover Cleveland). And it's likely that in coming decades presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton will be considered for the currency.

But the negative reaction to the new $20 bill also reflects a shallow understanding of the purpose of civic symbols. Choosing names for public schools, establishing holidays, and building monuments to people or events are ways a society proclaims and affirms certain values. The selection of particular people to adorn U.S. currency performs a similar function. It says, in so many words, these people and what they stood for and what they did are worthy of our admiration. Their examples from the past should inspire us as we go about living our present and building our future.

This understanding explains the decision to demote Andrew Jackson from his place of honor on the $20 bill. Simply put, American values have changed a lot since his presidency (1829-1837) and since his placement on the $20 bill in 1928. In his day and for decades thereafter, Jackson was hailed as a man who expanded American democracy and defended the rights of the "common man" against the predations of the rich and politically connected.

This reputation is largely accurate, but it's also incomplete. It obscures the fact that in Jackson's understanding, democracy and equal rights only applied to white men. And it ignores the fact that Jackson advanced the cause of white men by promoting the expansion of slavery. Key to this policy was the opening of vast stretches of the American southeast to whites for cotton cultivation by enslaved labor. Jackson achieved this goal by forcibly expelling - in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court - tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the American southeast. Their deadly march to Oklahoma killed thousands and became known as the "Trail of Tears."

These disturbing facts regarding Jackson's presidency are not politically correct; they are simply correct and worthy of our attention. Jackson's heroic status in the nineteenth century reflected the values of an antebellum America that was committed to territorial expansion and slavery. Similarly, the placement of Jackson on the $20 bill likewise reflected the values of a 1920s America that was dedicated to upholding a Jim Crow system of segregation and racial oppression.

A lot of history has unfolded since 1928 and with it has come an expansive notion of American citizenship that includes women, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. This transformation has been accompanied by an increased willingness to confront the darker chapters of American history like slavery and Japanese internment.

In light of this development, the choice of Harriet Tubman to replace Jackson is a laudable one. Symbolically, as a woman, an African American, and a former slave, Tubman stands for the Americans left out of Jackson's vaunted "common man" constituency.

What's more, Tubman embodied an essential and often undervalued American tradition of civil disobedience. Every chapter in the unfolding story of American freedom, democracy, and justice has been written by people who were willing to defy unjust laws, despite the attendant risks to their lives, reputations, and property. Tubman escaped slavery and then willingly risked her life innumerable times by returning to the South to guide others to freedom in the North along the Underground Railroad. Like later activists fighting for labor rights, women's rights, civil rights, and gay rights (just to name a few), she broke laws to expose their unjust character and gain their repeal. What could be more American than that?

Placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill reflects an broadened notion of what sort of Americans and what kinds of actions are worthy of our collective admiration and commemoration. It's no mere coincidence that this has occurred at a time when public sentiment has demanded the removal of pro-Confederate symbols from the public square. And this fact should caution us against reading too much into the new $20 bill. Symbols are important. But they are not ends in themselves. The best ones call to our attention what we value and why.

In 2016 the United States is beset by serious problems concerning poverty, inequality, and racism. Harriet Tubman's arrival on the $20 bill will not solve these problems. Its purpose is to stand as a vivid and powerful symbol of freedom, equality, and inclusion. It's up to us citizens to make use of it.