Momentum for the “Tubman Twenty” comes at a time when Americans are reexamining foundational values of equality and democracy. President Joe Biden’s inaugural address urged national unity to heal political and social rifts, and his push to get the project—in the works since 2015 to replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait with Harriet Tubman’s on the $20 bill—back on track supposedly helps do just that.
This is not the first attempt to use currency to forge a national identity by commemorating a shared heritage. An earlier experiment 125 years ago attempted to do the same. But—spoiler alert—it failed in every sense.
The United States introduced silver certificates in 1878, at a time when the meaning of money was up for grabs. In the late 1890s, the nation was in the early process of transforming from a rural agrarian society into an industrialized, urbanized empire teeming with immigrants. But growing pains brought an identity crisis; new peoples, cultures, technologies, and work habits challenged the status quo, exposing political, social, and class conflicts that came to a head in the 1896 presidential election.
The free silver movement—to allow for unfettered silver coinage alongside the gold standard—reflected these divides. Proponents, many of whom were Western farmers and miners, believed free silver would expand the money supply for the poor. But gold supporters—often situated in Eastern metropolises—saw free silver as an attack on the country’s financial lifeblood, their own fortunes, and their class standing as sophisticated, urbane elites. The Secretary of the Treasury at the time, John G. Carlisle, supported gold, but recognized silver as “poor man’s money” and, with enthusiastic support from the Chief of the Bureau of Engraving, Claude M. Johnson, authorized a prestigious, artistic, “educational” series of silver certificates as a form of celebratory nationalism.