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Political Back and Forth as Harriet Tubman $20 Note Design Work Possibly Confirmed

Tubman $20

By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
On Friday, June 14, in an article by Alan Rappeport, the New York Times presented evidence that design work on the Series 2020 Harriet Tubman $20 Federal Reserve Note had begun as early as 2016 – which runs contrary to recent statements made by Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

At a May 22 hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, Mnuchin, in response to a question from Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA7), stated that any work on a redesign of the $20 bill would not take place prior to its anti-counterfeiting update in 2028. The only bills that would see new designs before that time, Mnuchin said, would be the $10 and $50 notes, per the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Committee’s‘s 2013 recommendations.

Mnuchin Contradicted

Nevertheless, the New York Times article reproduced an image of a preliminary design that the newspaper obtained from an anonymous source. This source, a former Treasury Department official, stated that the Tubman design had been created in 2016 under the Obama Administration and could have served as the basis of a $20 note released in time for the 2020 centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that guaranteed the rights of women to vote in federal elections. Celebrating this anniversary with a redesigned $20 bill was the focus of the non-profit grassroots organization Women on 20s, which held the online vote that chose Harriet Tubman as the woman to feature on the new design.

The Times article also quoted an unnamed current employee of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) who claimed to have seen both a digital image of a Tubman $20 and a metal plate already engraved with the design in May 2018. The unnamed employee, who got a glimpse at the prototypes during a review by the Secret Service and BEP engravers, said that the matter “appeared far along in the process” and that the BEP was “excited” and “proud” about their work on the new note.

Further contradicting Mnuchin’s statement, other former and current officials go as far as to say that Mnuchin’s delay of the $20 redesign and reluctance to address the administration’s stance on the note had less to do with anti-counterfeiting security features and more to do with Mnuchin’s desire to proactively help President Donald Trump avoid the potential controversy and political fallout from rejecting the design change outright.

Mnuchin denied this allegation in an interview at the G-20 summit in Japan in early June. But according to Larry E. Rolfus, Director of the BEP from 1995-97, the security features involved are embedded in the note’s imagery from the start as both are designed simultaneously.

Democratic Reaction

Meanwhile, the controversy continues to elicit increasingly serious reactions from national Democrats.

On June 11, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (D) wrote an open letter (Link: PDF) to the Treasury Secretary urging Mnuchin to reconsider his decision regarding the Tubman note. Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland in 1820 or ’21, Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 and immediately began helping other people escape from slavery, risking her own life time and time again. In his letter to Mnuchin, Hogan emphasized how the $20 bill honoring the famed abolitionist and suffragette would coincide with the state’s “Year of the Maryland Woman” celebrations.

Other Democrats were less conciliatory.

Democrats in the House of Representatives were already seeking information about the security concerns that Mnuchin claims were the motivation for the delay when the New York Times article was published, but on June 19, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York–where Harriet Tubman lived after the Civil War until her death in 1913–requested in his own open letter that Eric M. Thorson, the former inspector general (Link: PDF) of the Treasury Department, open an investigation into the decision. Schumer’s letter cites Mnuchin’s May 22 statements, as well as Trump’s public description of the Tubman redesign as “pure political correctness” as reasons for the investigation. Rich Delmar, the Treasury Department’s acting inspector general, said in an email to the Times that he would review the request.

Delmar responded to Schumer’s letter on June 21 (Link: PDF). In his response, Delmar states that such an investigation can be incorporated into an upcoming Treasury Department audit of the BEP that had already been scheduled. The audit already on the calendar is meant to check whether security and accessibility features on our nation’s currency are being properly implemented, and Delmar said that a review of the $20 redesign process can be “specifically included”. He does, however, say that the review will take 10 months to complete and will focus on “employee misconduct”.

At the time of this article’s publication, it remains to be seen whether this will be satisfactory to the Democrats in Congress or not.

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Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker has served as the Assistant Editor of CoinWeek.com since 2015. Along with co-author Charles Morgan, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the monthly column "Market Whimsy" for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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  1. At least given what’s known at this point, it’s difficult to see such a long delay as anything but pure spite on the part of the administration. While I personally would have preferred a different subject, Ms. Tubman was chosen by a national poll and her portrait should be placed on the bill following a normal schedule for such changes. There’s no rational reason for a DECADE-long delay, and no single politician should be allowed to nullify a currency choice made by many citizens and endorsed by previous officials.

    That said, maybe we need to get away from the contentious practice of trying to select particular individuals to appear on our banknotes. Some other countries display images of their natural wonders, scientific achievements, or economic success. Perhaps we could honor things like the Grand Canyon, the moon landing, our agricultural bounty, or other less-charged symbols.


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