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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Coming Soon to an ATM Near You

Big news in the world of paper money here in the States this week. They're going to put a black woman, Harriet Tubman, on the twenty dollar bill, evacuating the current guy, Andrew Jackson, who will be put on the back. This is huge news, not only because it's the first change in paper money since 1928, but because it is the first time a person of color or a woman will be featured on paper money.

Of course this has set off a firestorm, and the back story of this is quite interesting. There had long been pressure to put a woman on paper money, especially since the two tries on coins, Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea, had been failures (ironically, Antony's one dollar coin became useful at peep show parlors in Times Square). This time they will not be creating a unit of currency, they will be using an existing one, and not only that, a very common one. Twenties are the common bill that is issued by ATMs.

But until the recent announcement, it was thought that a woman would be placed on the ten dollar bill, which is currently the domain of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary. Hamilton had slipped into obscurity, and was not a president, so he was going to go. But then Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a hip-hop musical called Hamilton, which has become the hottest ticket on Broadway and just won a Pulitzer Prize. Booting Hamilton at this time seemed wrong, so Jackson became the fall guy.

Jackson is actually a better candidate for removal. Hamilton was an important figure in the founding of the nation, and wrote The Federalist Papers. Jackson was a backwoods soldier who owned slaves (granted, so did Washington and Jefferson) but was responsible for the deaths of countless Indians, including being responsible for The Trail of Tears, one of the most shameless episodes in American history. Ironically, he was against paper money in the first place.

Tubman, on the other hand, saved lives, on the Underground Railway and during the Civil War. Born into slavery (we're not sure of her birthdate), she is as good as any to be on the twenty, a selfless person who fought for her rights and others, but not with a gun.

Of course this has kicked up dust among reactionaries. The lunatic fringe has been heard from, calling her a "black gorilla" and saying that people won't carry twenties with her picture on it, as if people have been choosing their denominations based on who was on the picture before. Money is money. But even supposedly clear thinking people have made asinine statements, like why not put her on the two-dollar bill. I found a meme on Facebook that is really stupid--only presidents should be on money. Apparently they don't know that Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, who is on the hundred, were not presidents.

In addition to Tubman, women will be featured on other bills, including a reappearance of Anthony, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They will be on the back of bills, though, which leaves a poor taste in the mouth. Also, these designs won't be seen until 2020, to commemorate the centennial of the women's right to vote. Fair enough, but why will it take until 2030 for the bills to circulate? We sent a man to the moon in less time.

I like what England does--they just don't have statesman on their bills, they have people from the arts and sciences, like Shakespeare, Darwin, and J.M.W. Turner. I think we should do that, too--why not Ernest Hemingway, Jonas Salk, or Winslow Homer on money? And why not change it up every generation or so? Why the insistence on making a home on currency something permanent?

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