In 2020 the United States Treasury will begin issuing new $20 bills, and on 20 April 2016 Jacob L. Lew, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, announced that Harriet Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of these new notes. Jackson’s image will be relegated to the reverse side of the new currency. Tubman will be the first American woman to appear on U.S. paper currency in more than a century (Martha Washington and Pocahontas appeared on American paper currency in the late nineteenth century).
It is a momentous decision, for a runaway slave woman will be replacing a slave-holding president. Jackson was a planter who owned hundreds of slaves, and when one of these slaves ran away in 1804 Jackson was clearly angered that his human property had eloped. Approximately thirty years-old and over six feet tall, the man had contrived to secure forged papers which would enable him to pass as a free man. Angrily Jackson promised that any person who captured the runaway outside of Tennessee would receive not only the reward of fifty dollars, but a further reward of ‘ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.’
If Jackson was angry at his own eloped slave, a runaway like Harriet Tubman would have enraged him. Born into slavery in Maryland in about 1822, Tubman was beaten and whipped as a child and young woman, and one of these injuries impaired her with seizures for the rest of her life. In 1849 when her owner’s death threatened the sale and break-up of her family, Tubman decided to escape. A first attempt prompted her master to place his own advertisement in a local newspaper, eager to reclaim this valuable woman. She soon tried again, and this time made it the almost hundred miles to Pennsylvania, and she recalled that on crossing onto free soil ‘I felt like I was in Heaven.’
Having secured her own freedom, Tubman chose to return to Maryland at least ten times, acting as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, and guiding approximately three hundred enslaved men, women and children to freedom, including members of her own family. This was incredibly dangerous work, and had she been captured Tubman would quite likely have lost her life. Frederick Douglass, another runaway slave who was campaigning against slavery throughout the American North and the British Isles, had nothing but admiration for Tubman. He wrote to her acknowledging that he had ‘wrought in the day – you in the night’. While Douglass had been campaigning, Tubman had been risking her life to rescue people from slavery. ‘I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have,’ Douglass concluded. Small wonder that Tubman was affectionately known as ‘Moses.’
The Federal Reserve website reports that in 2015 there were more than 8.6 billion $20 bills in circulation. In a few year’s time Harriet Tubman’s face will be on all of those twenty dollar bills, and her’s will have become one of the most widely printed, disseminated and recognized female faces in the United States. A runaway slave will have become one of the foremost faces of America.
(1) Current US $20 note
(2) Runaway Slave Advertisement placed by Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee Gazette, and Mero District Advertiser (Nashville), 26 September 1804. The advertisement was reprinted at least four and perhaps as many as seven times over the following two months. See Robert P. Hay, ‘“And Ten Dollars Extra, for Every Hundred Lashes Any Person Will Give Him, to the Amount of Three Hundred,”’ Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 36, 4 (1977), 468-78.
(3) Runaway slave advertisement for Harriet Tubman (named as Minty), Cambridge Democrat (Dorchester, Maryland), 3 October 1849.
(4) Harriet Tubman (photograph by H.B. Lindsley, ca. 1860-75, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-7816