U.S. Paper Money Redesign: Security, Aesthetics and Political Factors

U.S. Paper Money Redesign: Security, Aesthetics and Political Factors

On May 22, before a hearing of the House Financial Services committee, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin revealed during questioning from members of the House of Representatives that a $20 note with Harriet Tubman on the front and Andrew Jackson on the back is unlikely to be issued before 2028 – well after a possible second Trump presidential term.

In 2016, then-presidential candidate Trump said that putting Tubman on the $20 would be “pure political correctness” and instead suggested she should appear on the $2 bill, which is rarely seen in circulation.

In addition to an abolitionist and political activist, Tubman (who was born a Maryland slave and lived from 1822 to 1913) is best known for her work for the Underground Railroad, which safely led hundreds of slaves to freedom in numerous risky clandestine raids. After the Civil War, she worked with Susan B. Anthony to promote enfranchising women, making her a key figure in both the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements.   

Sec. Mnuchin said that his focus is on improving security and anti-counterfeiting features on our paper currency -- for the $10 and $50 bills, which he said would appear with new security features long before any aesthetic changes to the $20 bill.

In 1996 the Treasury began redesigning each of our bills except the $1 by altering aspects of the designs such as removing the artwork on borders and adding special anti-counterfeiting measures to our currency, and those efforts have continued since then.

Lydia Washington, lead public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, explained in an e-mail that “the redesign timeline is on schedule and there never was a delay.  The redesign sequence for denominations and the timeline is driven by current and potential security threats, not aesthetics.  In 2013, the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee indicated that the $10 note would be the first denomination to be redesigned.  The estimated redesign of the $50 (2028), $5 (2032-2035), and $100 (2034-2038) notes will follow, pending any new developments in counterfeiting threats or technology issues.”

Washington added: “The 2020 timeline mentioned by former Secretary Lew and others in numerous 2016 media interviews, referred to proposed design ideas (concepts), not the final designs and indicated the $20 note would be released in approximately 2030.  Presently, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s redesign efforts remain focused on the security of the next two notes to be redesigned, the $10 and the $50.”

This news from Secretary Mnuchin was received with disappointment by many members of the congress and the public, who were anticipating the Tubman $20 would be released in 2020 to coincide with the centennial of ratification of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote. In a 2015 poll conducted by the non-profit advocacy group, Women on 20s, Harriet Tubman received the most votes to appear on a redesigned $20 bill.

Tributes to Tubman and the Suffragists

In March of 2019, Senator Jean Shaheen (D- NH) introduced the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, which if enacted, would compel the Treasury to issue $20 bills with Tubman as soon as 2021. A companion House bill was introduced in February by Rep. John Katko (R- NY). So far neither bill has much support. 

Then, on April 30, a bill was introduced by Senator Marsha Blackburn (R- TN) that calls for the issuance in 2020 of coins to mark the centennial of the ratification of 19th Amendment with designs that would “be emblematic of the women who played a vital role in rallying support for the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” 

The Senate bill currently has 82 co-sponsors as of May 31. To be considered for a vote, commemorative coin legislation requires that two-thirds of the members of Senate and House to co-sponsor it first.  While that threshold was met for the effort within weeks in the Senate, in the House it has a long way to go.

In March 2018, similar legislation was proposed for a quarter dollar series on prominent American women that would have started in 2020, but that effort failed to move forward in the Congress, garnering only a couple of co-sponsors. That may have been at least in part because few collectors expressed enthusiasm for another 56-coin quarter series – with many feeling exhausted after the state quarters and territories series and then the America the Beautiful coins, which together will have run for 22 years when the ATB series end in early 2021. 

When he made his announcement in April 2016 about a new $20 bill with Tubman on it, then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew also announced other changes. The $10 bill would retain the portrait of Alexander Hamilton on its face, but with a new reverse that would depict several leaders of the suffragist movement, including Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. There would also be changes to the back of the $5 note on the same theme. It is unclear whether these aesthetic changes will still occur as part of the redesign of these bills.

Currency Redesign

Currency redesign is typically a long process. For example, the new version of the $100 bill rolled out in 2013 took 15 years to develop. However, it is also the case that the timeline for currency changes is driven not only by technical and security features but also by the priorities and political will of different administrations. As CoinWeek editor Charles Morgan told USA Today: “There is no doubt the Trump administration could have fast-tracked the Tubman redesign to make the 2020 deadline if it wanted to.”

A couple of aspects about the history of U.S. paper currency designs are especially relevant in this context. The first is that the portraits that have appeared on our currency change very rarely with the last time a change was made being 90 years ago in 1929. At that time Hamilton replaced Jackson on the $10 bill. In 1928 Jackson replaced Grover Cleveland on the $20 bill. Moreover, George Washington has been on the $1 bill for 150 years since 1869. 

The other point is that while real historical women (as opposed to allegorical depictions) have appeared on some U.S. circulating and commemorative coins such as the $1 coins for Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony and the $10 First Spouse gold coins, among others, only two women have ever appeared on U.S. federal currency. The first was Pocahontas, who was on the back of the $20 bill from 1865 to 1869 and the $20 bill in 1875. The second was Martha Washington, who was on the front of the 1886 and 1891 $1 silver certificates and with her husband George on the back of 1896 $1 silver certificate.

Changes to our paper currency designs proposed by the Obama administration to pay tribute to Tubman and other suffragists appear unlikely to be rolled out for many years. The trajectory of these developments will be determined as much by the outcome of presidential elections and developments in Congress as by ongoing efforts to enhance the security features on our currency.

Sources:

Adam Clark Estes, “An Illustrated History of American Money Design,” www.gizmodo.com, April 20, 2016

Arthur L. Friedberg, “Next $20 note delayed to 2028,” Coin World, June 10, 2019

Maya Salam, “What might it take to get Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, New York Times, May 24, 2019

Nicholas Wu, Ledyard King and Deborah Barfield Berry, “Should the Harriet Tubman $20 bill be delayed? The currency process, explained,” USA Today, May 28, 2019

“Who was the first woman depicted on American currency?,” The Conversation (www.theconversation.com), April 22, 2016

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