All About The Harriets

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s postponement of the Obama administration's plan to re-issue the $20 bill with the face of Harriet Tubman, not Andrew Jackson, converted what many viewed as a shrewd, political feint into a simple design challenge.

It’s shattering some long-standing norms of citizenry to boot. And it's a strange example of unintentional bipartisan cooperation.

The challenge was solved easily enough. Not by the treasury secretary or any government employee for that matter. But by a citizen designer and a 3-D Harriet Tubman rubber stamp now available on for the dollar amount reflected on the very banknote for which it is designed.

How did Mnuchin inspire such simple yet profound creativity among citizens who can’t wait ‘til 2028 for The Harriets? By introducing into the conversation a Limit, nothing more than a design constraint, really.

In fact, he imposed one of the most common Limits of all: Time.  

No sooner did Secretary Mnuchin extend the due date for The Harriets did Ms. Tubman start appearing on the $20 bill as promised — well ahead of her scheduled 2020 debut.

Credit is due to Dano Wall's 3-D rubber stamp, which is now inspiring folks all over the country to “help out” the treasury department and superimpose Ms. Tubman's face over Andy Jackson’s mug on that legal-est of legal tender.

It’s a textbook deviation from the norms of citizenry too; of standing around and waiting for representatives and their appointees to do everything for We, the people, simply because that’s what we’re expected to do.

Originally, it was Alexander Hamilton's three-quarter profile, with its relaxed yet resigned smile and a flicker of Federalist gloom in the eyes, that was due to be replaced on the sawbuck by the image of a great American woman. But that all changed in 2015 when a musical based on Hamilton's life and death hit the stage, and made the least known figure of common currency suddenly the most popular name and face on any U.S. note.

Jacob J. Lew, Obama's treasury secretary, decided to let the singing and dancing star of a runaway Broadway smash remain on the front of the $10 bill, and proposed another plan for a suffragist tableau to grace the back of newly issued ten dollar bills...and for the image of an esteemed American female to replace Jackson’s picaresque likeness on the front of the double sawbuck instead.

That female was supposed to be Harriet Tubman: a former slave turned abolitionist. She is also revered as a "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, a network of women and men, black and white, who helped Southern slaves escape to free American states in the North during the first half of the 19th century.

Seasons pass. Administrations change.

"The [new] $20 bill will now not come out until 2028," said Mnuchin recently in a congressional hearing in response to a question about whether The Harriets would be issued, as originally promised by his predecessor, in 2020. He added that he is more interested in focusing on redesign related to anti-counterfeiting security not aesthetics.

If we take him at his word, this really has nothing to do with politics; just a shifting of priorities. Fair enough.

“It is my responsibility now to focus on what is the issue of counterfeiting and the security features," he said at the hearing, according to the New York Times. "The ultimate decision on the redesign will most likely be another secretary down the road.” another Actor who wasn't even on Mnuchin's radar: a designer named Dano Wall.

While consideration of Actors outside the conventional framing of any challenge should be standard operating procedure for those who are serious about tackling strategy and innovation, certainly in addition to those traditionally labeled as mere “stakeholders, it was the Limit of time — that is, officially postponing the redesign of the $20 bill for another seven or eight years  — that helped Mr. Wall solve for the challenge of getting The Harriets’ back on schedule.

Make that one year ahead of schedule.

Again, this postponement was driven by a purely practical, not political, motive if we take Mnuchin’s remarks at face value. By the same measure, then, speeding up the process of getting The Harriets into circulation could also be seen as an equally practical solution — one that does not seem to violate any of the laws related to the defacement or counterfeiting of banknotes.

Upon closer examination, it’s a textbook deviation from the norms of citizenry too; of standing around and waiting for representatives and their appointees to do everything for We, the people, simply because that’s what we’re expected to do.

When a sufficient number of Americans begin to emulate Mr. Wall’s active citizenry, and give their time and talents in creative, legal ways in service of their country, we will have a new norm of civic engagement that goes well beyond the expectations of voting candidates in or out of office...and impotently tweeting our outrage if and when the folks we voted for lose.

Even without a gauzy, Quixotic filter, these stamp acts can be viewed as the first demonstration of bipartisan cooperation between the government and its citizens in a long, long time: While the treasury department focuses on the anti-counterfeiting measures, an army of eager, newly activated volunteers equipped with a $20 stamper and a pad of ink can work on that new, promised design.

If this isn’t asking what one can do for one’s country, and doing it, I don’t know what is. :: :: ::