WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew on Wednesday announced the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of American currency in a century, proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, and to add women and civil rights leaders to the $5 and $10 notes.
Mr. Lew may have reneged on a commitment he made last year to make a woman the face of the $10 bill, opting instead to keep Alexander Hamilton, to the delight of a fan base swollen with enthusiasm over a Broadway rap musical named after and based on the life of the first Treasury secretary.
But the broader remaking of the nation’s paper currency may well have captured a historical moment for a multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial nation moving contentiously through the early years of a new century.
Tubman, an African-American and a Union spy during the Civil War, would bump Jackson — a white man known as much for his persecution of Native Americans as for his war heroics and advocacy for the common man — to the backof the $20, in some reduced image. Tubman would be the first woman so honored on paper currency since Martha Washington’s portrait briefly graced the $1 silver certificate in the late 19th century.
Credit From left: Hulton Archive, via Getty Images; via Library of Congress: via Library of Congress; Hulton Archive, via Getty Images; Associated Press
While Hamilton would remain on the $10, and Abraham Lincoln on the $5s, images of women would be added to the back of both — in keeping with Mr. Lew’s intent “to bring to life” the national monuments depicted there.
The picture of the Treasury building on the back of the $10 bill would be replaced with a depiction of a 1913 march in support of women’s right to vote that ended at the building, along with portraits of five suffrage leaders: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony, who in more recent years was on an unpopular $1 coin until minting ceased.
On the flip side of the $5 bill, the Lincoln Memorial would remain, but as the backdrop for the 1939 performance there of Marian Anderson, the African-American classical singer, after she was barred from singing at the segregated Constitution Hall nearby. Sharing space on the rear would be images of Eleanor Roosevelt, who arranged Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial performance, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1963 delivered his “I have a dream” speech from its steps.
The final redesigns will be unveiled in 2020, the centennial of the 19th Amendment establishing women’s suffrage, and will not go into wide circulation until later in the decade, starting with the new $10 note. The unexpectedly ambitious proposals reflect Mr. Lew’s tortuous attempt to expedite the process and win over critics who have lodged conflicting demands, pitting mainly women’s advocates against Hamiltonians newly empowered by the unlikely success of their hero’s story on Broadway.
Mr. Lew’s design proposals are the culmination of 10 months of often-heated public commentary that began almost immediately after he invited Americans last June to help him decide which woman from history to honor on the $10 bill. That feel-good initiative proved to be hardly as simple as he first imagined.
Immediately an online group called Women on 20s insisted that the woman to be honored — Tubman was its choice — had to go on the more common $20 note, displacing not the popular Hamilton but Jackson, whose place in history has suffered lately with attention to his record of forcibly relocating Native Americans, supporting slavery and — despite his prominence on currency — opposing a national banking system and paper money. But the $10 was next in line for redesign, based on federal officials’ assessment of counterfeiting threats.
Yet other women mobilized by the Girls’ Lounge, a networking organization for female corporate leaders, demanded that a woman go on the $10 note, as Mr. Lew first proposed, because they did not want to wait years for a new $20 bill. Within the administration, Rosie Rios, who as treasurer of the United States oversees the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was also pushing for a woman on the $10 bill.
But nothing so roiled the debate as the phenomenon of the musical “Hamilton.”
Weighing in for his place on the $10 bill were well-to-do theater patrons and teenagers rapping to the soundtrack, as well as the show’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. When Mr. Lew and his wife caught a performance last August, the Treasury secretary hinted to Mr. Miranda that Hamilton would stay. Just this week, the show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
By July, in fact, Mr. Lew already had decided to keep his long-ago predecessor on the $10 note, and put a vignette of suffragists on the back, with Tubman scheduled for the $20 bill and changes to the $5 note as well.
“I had a kind of ‘aha’ moment where I said we’re thinking too small,” Mr. Lew said on Wednesday.
He decided to redesign all three notes to accommodate the various views, and sooner. As for the choice of Tubman, he said that in the public comments he reviewed each night, “the pattern became clear that Harriet Tubman struck a chord with people in all parts of the country, of all ages.”
“This is a good solution,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who wrote to the secretary “strongly suggesting he not remove Hamilton” from the bill.
Mr. Lew directed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to hasten the redesign of the $20 and $5 notes at the same time. Subsequent production of the $10 bill would take precedence, though Mr. Lew said all three notes could be in wallets before 2030. The final decision on release is up to the Fed.
One wild card is that Mr. Lew and President Obama have just months left in office. But Mr. Lew expressed confidence that his successors would not veto the currency makeovers.
“I don’t think somebody’s going to probably want to do that — to take the image of Harriet Tubman off of our money? To take the image of the suffragists off?” he said.
Not since 1929 has American currency undergone such a far-reaching change. That year all paper money changed, with more standard designs and smaller size to save costs.
In advance of Mr. Lew’s decision, the emotion that the Treasury initiative had prompted was captured in a letter to the Treasury secretary on Tuesday evening. More than three dozen women including actors, feminists, corporate executives and journalists objected to preliminary news reports that he was planning to renege on putting a woman on the $10 face, calling it, if true, “a major blow to the advancement of women.”
They admonished the Treasury secretary, saying: “ Could there be a better metaphor for second-class status that continues to limit our girls?”
The signers included the actresses Ellen DeGeneres, Geena Davis, Jane Lynch and Sophia Bush; the former soccer star Abby Wambach; former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who became a gun-safety advocate after an assassination attempt; the news media figures Katie Couric and Arianna Huffington; the feminist leader Gloria Steinem; and the photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Whether Mr. Lew’s compromise satisfies many will soon be clear. But, he told reporters just before his announcement went public: “I said we were going to listen. We really did listen.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of slaves escorted to freedom by Harriet Tubman. It was hundreds, not thousands.