Let's Put Harriet Tubman's Face On the $20 Bill

A U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing employee looks over a sheet of partially printed bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington October 23, 2006. A campaign is advocating for anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Jim Young/Reuters

Washington's latest symbolic battle is looming. America's money celebrates its early political leaders, all white males. There's now a campaign to add a woman. A recent poll named antislavery activist Harriet Tubman the favorite, ahead of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of course, it wouldn't be the first time that a woman appeared on America's money. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony and Native American Sacagawea graced ill-fated dollar coins which were little used and quickly forgotten.

President Barack Obama indicated his interest in showcasing more women. Republican legislators should take up the challenge and introduce a resolution urging the Treasury to add Tubman.

There's nothing sacred about the present currency line-up. After all, America was created by many more people than presidents and other politicians. Indeed, replacing Andrew Jackson makes a certain sense since he resolutely opposed a federal central bank.

Moreover, Tubman would be a great choice to replace him. She was born between 1820 and 1822 in Maryland to slave parents. Tubman was hired out and often beaten. After her owner's death in 1849, which led his widow to begin selling their slaves, she escaped through the Underground Railroad to Philadelphia.

However, a year later she returned to Maryland to rescue her niece and the latter's two children, beginning a career of leading slaves to freedom. She was daring and creative; her plans were sophisticated. Although she trusted God she also saw value in arming herself. She directed her last rescue in December 1860.

Tubman also was an active abolitionist and lecturer, friendly with New York Senator William Seward. She aided John Brown, though she played no direct role in his raid on Harper's Ferry. During the Civil War she pressed abolition on the Lincoln administration.

With greater effect she aided slave refugees, served as a nurse and acted as a scout for the federal army. Long after the war she aided the cause of women's suffrage, working with Susan Anthony, among others. Despite manifold health problems she lived past 90, dying in 1913.

As I point out in American Spectator online: "Tubman fought enormous injustice and promoted human liberty. She advocated genuine equality of opportunity, allowing women to vote, rather than the sort of PC notions of equality popular today. She exhibited courage in fighting and breaking unjust laws. Never did she wait for bureaucrats, politicians, judges, lawyers and others to act. Instead, she acted to rescue the oppressed."

In short, she represented the common women and men across the country who contributed much to make America. Until slavery ended the nation could not be considered either truly good or free.

Equally important, putting Tubman on America's money would make no political statement. For President Obama to place Eleanor Roosevelt on a banknote would look like an attempt to gain partisan advantage. Not so using Tubman's image.

True, writer Feminista Jones made an uncommonly silly argument against adding Tubman or any woman to U.S. currency: "Her legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism. Tubman didn't respect America's economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting."

In fact, capitalism rests on a foundation of economic liberty, which is violated by the institution of human slavery. The original industrial state, Great Britain, ended slavery decades before America. The northern states, where industrial capitalism was strongest in the U.S., also rejected slavery early.

One suspects that Tubman did not see herself as spiriting the enslaved away to freedom to save them from "capitalism" but to allow them, like whites, to take advantage of the manifold opportunities of a free economy. Given her experience with government oppression, it is unlikely she would have advocated turning the economy over to the very same politicians who proved willing to institutionalize human bondage.

America's current currency line-up is not sacrosanct. Andrew Jackson has had a fine run on the $20 bill. It's time to give someone else a chance. Why not Harriet Tubman?

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. This article first appeared on the Cato Institute website.