By Robert Cavalier and Wayne Homren …..
The proposed Harriet Tubman $20 bill would not be the first time the famed abolitionist and women’s suffragist “appeared’ on a United States banknote. The fascinating tale begins in the early 1990s, when the “Money Artist” J.S.G. Boggs came to Pittsburgh, invited by Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics (CAAE).
He spent the first month or so at the home of Robert Cavalier, a member of CAAE specializing in interactive multimedia. While there, he made a number of phone calls to England costing about $90. Boggs reimbursed Cavalier with a newly drawn $100 bill featuring a young Harriet Tubman. Therein lies a tale – one involving artists, historians, philosophers, and numismatists along with the US Treasury.
The Center advanced the field of ethics and, in the late 1980s, aesthetics as well. These were the days when new computer technologies like videodiscs and CD-ROMs could enhance the educational experience by presenting full-color pictures and motion videos. And Carnegie Mellon was at the forefront. Researchers at the Center saw the advantages of bringing students “up close” to the moral reality behind many case studies in ethics as well as the potential to supplement the traditional slide projector in the arts.
“A Right to Die? The Case of Dax Cowart” became the first project in the field of ethics. It portrayed the conflicts inherent in cases where a patient’s wish to cease treatment runs against a doctor’s duty to help patients and not to harm them.
“Art or Forgery? The Strange Case of Han Van Meegeren” followed the notorious forger of Vermeer paintings. Feeling slighted by art critics he sought revenge by carefully ‘creating’ Vermeer paintings that fooled the critics and won praise as great works of the master. At bottom, the philosophical question focused on what kind of difference it would make if a work praised by the art world were discovered to be a fake. How is it that its value decreases?
A 1989 profile of Boggs by The New Yorker’s Lawrence Weschler piqued the Center’s interest in approaching Boggs and using his work in a new project.
Boggs was an extremely intelligent and charming man whose work had evolved from abstract renditions of numbers to a kind of ‘money art’ that challenged the nature of money and the very idea of value. Boggs would carefully and with great artistic skill craft a paper currency design that might a first appear to be, say, a £50 Bank of England note. But this was not an attempt to counterfeit. The back of these bills would be blank save a handwritten note by the artist or his fingerprint. And the front would have whimsical and sometimes serious playful additions such as ‘Secret of the Treasury” instead of “Secretary of the Treasury” and “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL ART FOR ALL THOSE WHO AGREE, SEE?”
What separated Boggs from previous money artists was his challenge to complete strangers to accept his bills as Art and value them according to the currency he drew (20 Dollars, 1,000 Dollars, 50 Pounds, etc.). In a Socratic manner, individual waiters, hotel managers, motorcycle salespeople, etc., would be asked to consider the value of his bill as a kind of art purchase in exchange for a meal or a hotel stay, and so forth. It could be a dizzying experience. No one knew when they woke up that day that they would be confronted by basic questions of value and an awareness that our own currency is on one level simply accepted at face value though it is only a drawing on paper.
The confrontation was real. If a waiter was intrigued by the possibility of accepting three 20 dollar Boggs Bills for a $57 tab, that waiter would need to reimburse the restaurant for the actual cost of the meal. In Pittsburgh, a restaurant manager came to the table and chose to take him up on the offer. The receipt and change were left with Boggs. Part of the brilliance of Boggs’ work is that it would only achieve value if it were used in an actual transaction. In this sense it was a kind of performance art and to fully appreciate it, you would need to see the process of the performance. This is what made Boggs’s work so pertinent to our mission. With the new medium of interactive multimedia, viewers could have access to high-resolution images of his work and see that work acquire value in the filming of these transactions.
For Boggs, the successful transaction was part of a multi-stage performance. Since you couldn’t simply purchase a Boggs Bill, a collector of Boggs’ work would need to tie the entire scope of the transaction together. Boggs would notify some of his collectors that he made a transaction, say at a restaurant called Rosebud in Pittsburgh. The collector would pay Boggs for the receipt and change. He then would go to the restaurant and offer the manager perhaps as much as $500 for the Boggs bills used in the transaction. Once again, another complexity enters the scene. The question of value doubles down – would the manager be willing to sell these bills for more than five times their worth at the exchange? In this case, he did and now the collector has all the elements of a complete Boggs transaction. Combining the three bills, the receipt and change would turn the final product into a museum-quality display worth thousands of dollars.
This is where things stood when the first comprehensive exhibition of Boggs’s work came to Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery in the early 1990s.
The Center’s Director, Preston Covey, figured out a way to hire him as a scholar-in-residence. Boggs liked the honorific offering and jumped at the opportunity to use the Center’s new imaging technologies. He was just getting into using color and Photoshop and produced the first version of ‘coloured money’. This is how Boggs came to ‘reimburse’ Cavalier with his Tubman bill (creatively choosing “a younger image of her”).
That Boggs honored Harriet Tubman was certainly appropriate.
She was recognized in her own time as she is today as a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement and as a proponent of equal rights more generally. Slight in stature and scarred by her treatment as a young slave during the 1830s and ’40s along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she rose to prominence by the sheer tenacity of her will. Though she lacked the eloquence of a Frederick Douglass, her bravery in securing the freedom of fellow slaves and her commitment to the cause of justice led her to be seen as a modern “Moses” and, in the words of the abolitionist John Brown, “General Tubman.”
Her common appearance and simplicity of manner enabled her to slip inconspicuously into border slave states during the period of the Underground Railroad and later, in the Civil War, behind enemy lines on covert missions to free slaves and disrupt the plantations of South Carolina.
After the war, on a train from Philadelphia to New York, she was accosted by a white conductor who refused to accept her ticket. She was violently thrown into another train car, being injured in the process. This incident brought home the fact that emancipation from slavery did not prevent social and economic bias from systematically discriminating against people of color. Her experience became the subject of a number of newspaper articles and letters submitted to anti-slavery journals.
From her home in Auburn, New York, Tubman became a sought-after speaker and an honored guest at newly formed suffragette meetings. Now she was at another inflection point.
The fight against slavery began to dovetail with the fight for women’s rights. Her friend and fellow former slave Frederick Douglass argued that if we claim to have a government ordered by the free consent of the governed, then women’s votes need to be counted equally alongside everyone else.
Boggs was not a political activist except when it came to the freedom to express himself through his art. But he could certainly be characterized as a liberal in many matters. This was most probably the reason that he selected Harriett Tubman for his first piece in color, using the British spelling “coloured art”. He also wanted to show an imagined “young Harriet Tubman”, one not scarred by the life of an American slave.
While in Pittsburgh, Boggs also came to the attention of the local numismatic community – collectors of coins and paper money. Articles in the national, local, and numismatic newspapers highlighted his work and art. After learning that Boggs was living locally, collector Wayne Homren reached out to invite him to speak at a banquet of the state organization, the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN). Boggs agreed. Their annual show was being held at the convention center downtown. Homren met Boggs at the show and gave him a book he thought he would like – it was about the history of proposed “specimen” designs for U.S. paper money.
Boggs spoke at the banquet and was quite a hit. He and Homren became friends and stayed in touch, later meeting for lunches or dinners and visiting each other’s homes.
They would also get together when Boggs set up a table at national coin or paper money shows. Homren attended gallery openings in Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. and became a collector of Boggs’ work.
Too polite to suggest it, Homren secretly hoped for the opportunity to participate in a Boggs transaction himself. One day Boggs brought up the topic, and they worked out a deal that was consummated in March 1994. Homren operated a side business called Rebellion Numismatics, which bought and sold books about coins, medals, tokens, and paper money. He offered Boggs four books relating to paper money and counterfeiting totaling $146. He was paid in three $50 Boggs bills and provided four $1 bills in change.
He documented the transaction by filling out a standard receipt form torn from a tablet, listing the title of each book. Boggs added a note listing the serial numbers of his three bills and the serial numbers of the change notes as well. He signed it and affixed his thumbprint in green ink, titling the transaction “After the Hunt”, the name of one of the four books – which happened to be on the life of artist William Harnett, who like Boggs had his money-themed artwork targeted by the U.S. Secret Service a century before.
Homren also paid Boggs in advance to subscribe to his planned “Women’s Series”. It would be a set of six “specimen notes” in different denominations proposing new designs for U.S. currency, all featuring a woman’s portrait. One note would be a $100 Harriett Tubman piece. These were part of a limited edition of 10. Homren’s set is numbered 4/10, uniformly framed for display. The $1 bill, following in the tradition of George Washington, depicts an anonymous young girl as “First Female President.”
Art is often a vehicle for expressing political thought. With his Women’s Series, Boggs sought to bring attention to the gallery of “old white men” depicted on our currency, opening the door to future honorees of different eras, races, and genders.
In the mid-teens, a grassroots organization called Women on 20s ran a series of public input polls on female candidates for representation on the US 20 Dollar Bill. Some 250,000 votes were cast in a “primary” selection of 15 with 360,000 votes cast for the finalists. In all cases, Harriet Tubman garnered the most votes.
In June of 2015, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced S.1508 “To require the Secretary of the Treasury to redesign $20 Federal Reserve Notes so as to include a likeness of Harriet Tubman…” On April 20, 2016, the United States Treasury, with the blessing of the Obama Administration, announced that Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the 20 dollar bill.
This decision comes at a time when many are trying to come to terms with our racial past. And the case of Jackson is a particularly troubling one.
Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829-1837. He is one of six presidents who grace the front of US currency today.
In his time, he was a complicated figure, credited with defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans as well as founding the Democratic Party along populist lines. His military and political entanglements with Native American tribes, however, involved the deeply egregious Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Back in his home state of Tennessee, he presided over a plantation known as The Hermitage. The land, purchased in 1804, grew to a thousand acres. He used slave labor to produce its cash crop cotton and bring it to market. Jackson was adept at managing his ‘property’. As was common practice in the South, male and female slaves were encouraged to engage in ‘plantation marriages’ for the purpose of increasing their numbers and discouraging slaves from abandoning their families by escaping. For those slaves who did escape, Jackson offered rewards for their capture and punishment. In one advertisement, he offered an extra 10 dollars for 100 lashes up to a total of 300 lashes if the slave escaped the state.
From this historical perspective, it would be the ultimate in poetic justice should Harriet Tubman become the person to replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the new 20 dollar bill.
The initial timeline for the production of the new 20 dollar bill would begin with the release of the new design in 2019. This would feature Harriet Tubman on the front and some presence of Jackson, perhaps a statue, on the back. The timing was intended to correspond to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right for women to vote.
Those hoping for a revised timeline with the Biden Administration will be disappointed. The need for powerful new security features will take years, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), a division of the Treasury Department.
Senator Shaheen has wondered how “we can put a helicopter on Mars,” yet not be able “to design a $20 bill in less than 20 years.” Still, it might be a while before we can see anything like the prototype of the Harriet Tubman 20 Dollar Bill developed under Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, who publicly announced in 2016 that Tubman would go on the $20. For now, all we have is the 100 Dollar Harriet Tubman Bill by Boggs.
Was Boggs a seer or trailblazer? He certainly visualized a new world in which our nation’s money is more inclusive and reflective of the actual populace. But bringing that vision to fruition is a lengthy, fraught, and frustrating start/stop process. Boggs, who died in 2017, would not live to see Tubman on a U.S. Federal Reserve Note.
But he saw the first step toward what he had envisioned so many years before. Certainly Boggs, for one, would appreciate the re-valuation taking place here.
* * *
About the Authors
Robert J Cavalier, Ph.D., is Teaching Professor, Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Wayne Homren is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN). He is also the editor of The E-Sylum, the weekly electronic newsletter of the Numismatic Bibliomanis Society (NBS).