Treasury Secretary Jack Lew expounded on his decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill during a screening of “Hamilton’s America” in D.C. earlier this month, saying that the country’s currency should be more inclusive and represent more of its history.
“We can’t change our history,” Lew said Wednesday, Oct. 5 during the film screening at the Newseum in Northwest. “But I am proud to say as we unveil the newest designs of our currency, it’s going to tell the story of more of America.”
Lew announced in April that the new $20 note will feature a portrait of Harriet Tubman on one side and the White House and President Andrew Jackson on the other.
“It’s been over 100 years since a woman was on our currency and that was Martha Washington,” Lew said. “I made the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. She was a person who against all odds, fought her way to freedom, lead a trail for others and she was a founder of the woman’s suffragist movement.”
The push to put Tubman’s face on U.S. currency initially began with the idea to have her replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, but that plan was abandoned after outcry from Hamilton backers.
Hamilton, the Founding Father behind America’s economic system, became a pop culture fixture when Lin-Manuel Miranda brought the “Hamilton” musical to Broadway in 2015.
“Hamilton’s America,” a film that shows the process of making the mega-hit musical from the beginning, sparked the conversation of influential history-makers and how they are honored.
The story of Hamilton’s rise became so popular because of how unlikely it was, many historians say.
Born out of wedlock in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitt and Nevis and considered an illegitimate child, Hamilton wasn’t a part of an aristocracy like many of his future counterparts. In his teens, with the help of a few wealthy men, he left the West Indies to attend college in New York City.
“Part of the reason the story has power is because it is such a real story,” said Joanne Freeman, professor at Yale University. “I teach history at Yale and all I have to do is say Hamilton and everyone goes up.
“The idea all along was to take these men and bring them closer to the stage and remove the barrier that exist between you and the statue,” she said.
Christopher Jackson, who portrays George Washington in the film, marveled at the fact that Hamilton “came from nothing” but became a Founding Father of the most powerful nation in the world.
“His story is perfectly American, but not perfect,” he said.
In July 1804, Hamilton died after being fatally shot by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel.
The documentary and musical explores the events that led to his death and other scandals that made Hamilton peculiar.
“History is about people making choices,” Jackson said. “His story is inspiring and American. Anytime you have a piece of art that inspires you to sit up and do something better, than that art has done its job.”