This isn't a real $20 bill.

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Battle of the $20 Bill: Time for Harriet Tubman

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The campaign is revving up again: Should Andrew Jackson be kicked off the $20 bill and replaced by Harriet Tubman?

Even if it's mainly an idea pushed by one activist group, it has received enough attention to have generated a question at Tuesday's White House press briefing (spokesman Josh Earnest was noncommittal).

Jackson, who has been on the 20 since replacing Grover Cleveland in 1928, is the natural target if there’s going to be a change. No other leader on a U.S. bill -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Ulysses Grant and Benjamin Franklin -- is as dispensable or as controversial as Old Hickory is today.

Tubman is as reasonable a replacement as any. And choosing a woman is a good impulse, as Barack Obama hinted at recently.

The key is to keep the tradition of honoring greatness in public affairs. As wonderful as they are, let's keep Ella Fitzgerald or Katharine Hepburn or other brilliant cultural figures off our currency. The people we choose don’t have to have been presidents, or even elected officials, but their importance should be based in politics, broadly speaking.

Why? The U.S. was founded largely so those who wanted to could collectively create a “public thing” -- a res publica, or “republic” -- to allow them to choose their own destiny. The rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” was less about unhappiness over sending money to the king as it was about pursuing the opportunity for “public happiness” -- the phrase the founders used to describe the pleasure people find through involvement in politics.

In making decisions on whom to memoralize, we consider the virtues and flaws of national leaders, and argue about what counts as greatness (or not) in public affairs. And we do it informed by, but a bit removed from, our current electoral and government battles.  

  1. Want to complain about Grant? You’re going to have to go through Ta-Nehisi Coates -- and you’re going to have to accept that a lot of what you think you know about Grant is wrong.

  2. On my pedestal of under-appreciated heroes in U.S. history, James Madison occupies the central spot. There's also Congress: We celebrate presidents at the expense of great legislators. But this isn't a fight I’m going to win, even if we double the number of images on the bills, by putting one on both sides.

  3. There are many places and ways to honor greatness in the arts, business, science and other fields. But the priority in the formal actions of the U.S. should remain politics.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katherine Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net