The yearlong attempt by the U.S. Treasury Department to select a woman whose face will appear on future American banknotes came to a close on Wednesday, with the news that the Treasury Department plans to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton will retain his central position on the $10 bill.
When the Treasury initially announced that they were seeking suggestions for women who could receive this honor, the reaction was just one more piece of evidence that there are countless women from American history whose deeds deserve recognition. Had another frontrunner been selected—Susan B. Anthony, for example—few could have argued that she did not merit the selection. But the choice of Tubman comes with an extra layer of meaning. It’s not just that Tubman’s achievements were notable for the multiple obstacles she faced, as a woman of color in 19th century America, but also that she had a special relationship with money.
Harriet Tubman knew that money mattered. She knew she deserved it. She fought hard for it.
In fact, there’s probably only one other figure on American currency whose life had as much to do with money than Tubman’s did—and that’s Alexander Hamilton.
There’s an anecdote from Tubman’s 1869 biography, Sarah H. Bradford’s Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, that began to make the rounds on social media on Wednesday after the news broke: according to the story, Tubman marched into the office of a New York abolitionist to demand funds to deliver her parents to Canada. The amount she demanded was, appropriately, $20, and she planned to hunger strike until she got it. That amount, the value of the bill that will bear her face, was how much it would cost to “bring her old parents from the land of bondage.”
It’s an illustrative story of her persistence and her willingness to place others’ needs above her own, and of course there’s a poetic justice to it in light of new developments. It’s also just one of many in that book that demonstrates how crucial money was to her life.
Tubman was acutely aware of the economic side of slavery, inseparable from its inhumanity. As a slave, she worked without pay. In fact, during her years as a slave, when she hired out her time as a laborer she owed her master money for the privilege. As Bradford describes it, her initial impetus to flee for freedom came from the knowledge that she might be sold away from her home, the knowledge that her life and body had a dollar value, that if she did escape there would be monetary reward for anyone who caught her. (While it cost her $20 to undertake a mission, that reward could be in the range of hundreds or thousands of dollars.) When she arrived in the free North, she realized that she could not enjoy her freedom without helping others earn theirs—but also that she could not do that without money.
She did not turn right around and go back for her family. Instead, she took jobs working in hotels in Philadelphia and Cape May, and, as Bradford writes, “whenever she had raised enough money to pay expenses, she would make her way back, hide herself, and in various ways give notice to those who were ready to strike for freedom.”
Popular imagery of Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad may summon images of escapes by night and hidden compartments in the houses that served as stations along the way. But an equally accurate picture would include the work she did to raise money to support those ventures. It could take her months to amass enough to make another trip south. Bradford writes that Tubman never spent this money on herself, instead always saving it for the next journey to the region she called “Egypt,” where her people were held.
As her work went on, she fundraised among abolitionists in cities like Philadelphia and Boston, telling and retelling her story in order to encourage donations. She was straightforward with her requests—sometimes saying that God had told her whom to ask—and, as later biographer Kate Clifford Larson has pointed out, she was “frustrated” by abolitionists who said that they wanted to help the cause of national freedom but were unwilling to hand over the cash she needed to make that freedom a reality for individuals. Tubman’s awareness that she deserved to be paid did not end after the Civil War, as she continued to fundraise relentlessly to help freedmen.
Later in her life, she received an $8 monthly pension as a veteran’s widow—her second husband, Nelson Davis, fought in the Civil War—she petitioned in the 1890s to have her own war work as a nurse, cook and scout recognized as worthy of payment. She succeeded in 1899 in having her pension of $12 added to her monthly income. That meant a total of, appropriately again, $20.
Money can get a bad reputation. Wanting it too much is shameful. Talking about it is impolite. But the things we value more than money can accomplish little without it. The dollar value placed on Tubman’s body was degrading, but that was an indictment of the system and the people who called humanity property, not of money itself.
She knew that people could do great things with money—and her face on our money will be a fitting reminder to try.