President Trump, who as a candidate in 2016 derided as “pure political correctness” the plan to honor Harriet Tubman by featuring the Underground Railroad’s most celebrated conductor’s image on the front of the $20 bill, can rest easy: Thanks to the intervention of his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, only likenesses of white men will appear on U.S. paper money for the duration of his presidency.
Mr. Mnuchin’s far-fetched pretext for the delay — that eight more years of technical planning were required to prevent counterfeiting issues in the bill’s new design — is now exposed as risible. As the New York Times reported, the design of the new bill, featuring Tubman, was already quite advanced when Mr. Mnuchin announced the move, apparently fearing an even greater backlash should Mr. Trump cancel the project outright. The treasury secretary’s postponement means the new note will not be complete until after Mr. Trump leaves office, even if he serves a second term.
The Trump administration’s stock in trade is divisiveness, particularly where it concerns race and ethnicity. As usual, though, Mr. Trump underestimates the American people: Many Americans of every race despaired that the plan to honor Tubman was derailed, and that includes some Republicans. Among them is Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland (where Tubman was born), who wrote to Mr. Mnuchin expressing his disappointment. The famed abolitionist, Mr. Hogan wrote, “more than earned her rightful place among our nation’s most pivotal leaders.”
Not that the Trump administration appears to care. A spokeswoman for Mr. Mnuchin, whose department oversees the Bureau of Engraving, told the Times that the timetable for printing a new $20 is on schedule; it should be in circulation by 2030. However, she made no mention of whether Tubman’s likeness would appear on it, perhaps for fear of provoking that tireless sentry in the White House in his vigilant lookout for political correctness.
In fact, political correctness has nothing to do with the impulse to honor Tubman, a woman of astonishing valor. As a child slave on the Eastern Shore, she was beaten and tortured before escaping, in her 20s, to Philadelphia. Whereupon she returned to slave-holding territory, again and again, to rescue relatives and dozens of other African Americans in bondage, guiding them northward to freedom and helping them find work once they arrived. They called her Moses. She was a Union Army scout and spy in the Civil War and an early activist in the suffrage movement after that; hence the original plan, devised in the Obama administration by then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, to unveil the new note’s design next year, on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, by which women gained the right to vote.
Harriet Tubman is an American hero, not a wedge issue. As Mr. Hogan said, she deserves to be recognized by having her image enshrined on U.S. currency, much as her name adorns parks and monuments in Maryland.