Conservatives should be delighted that Harriet Tubman’s likeness will grace the $20 bill. She was a Republican, after all, and a pious Christian. And she routinely exercised her Second Amendment right to carry a gun, which she was ready to use against anyone who stood in her way – or any fugitive slave having second thoughts. On her long road to freedom, there was no turning back.
Instead, we’ve had mostly silence from the right. Donald Trump did mouth off, of course, opining that slated-to-be-displaced Andrew Jackson “had a great history” and that substituting Tubman – who, he allowed, was “fantastic” – amounts to “pure political correctness.” Ben Carson defended Jackson as “a tremendous president” who balanced the federal budget.
Both men suggested that Tubman instead be put on the $2 bill, which nobody uses. That would be a great recipe for tokenism. I’m glad that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew made a bolder and more meaningful choice.
It matters who’s on the money. Since the ancient Greeks began stamping coins with images of their gods, nations have used currency to define a pantheon of heroes. Tubman was a great hero not because of who she was but what she did: bravely fight to expand the Constitution’s promise of freedom and justice to all Americans.
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Critics who polluted social media with invective following Lew’s announcement seemed to look past Tubman’s deeds and focus on her identity. Yes, she was a black woman. If anyone can’t deal with that fact, and doesn’t want to use the new bills when they finally come out, feel free to send them to me.
Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1822. She escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 but returned to the South more than a dozen times, risking life and liberty, to lead runaway slaves to freedom. Slave owners reportedly offered bounties of thousands of dollars for capturing the diminutive woman known on the grapevine as “Moses.”
“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years,” she said later in life, “and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
But that was just the beginning of Tubman’s heroic service. During the Civil War, she guided a team of Union scouts operating in the marshlands near present-day Beaufort, S.C. In 1863, she led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River that freed more than 750 slaves – becoming, apparently, the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed assault. Later in life, she worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and others in the crusade for women’s suffrage. She died in 1913, frail yet still unbowed, having lived one of the greatest of American lives.
Is it political correctness or historical revisionism to put her defiant likeness in our pockets? Of course – and high time, too.
Unceasing struggle has expanded the meaning of “we the people,” once reserved for white men only. As our understanding of freedom and equality has changed, so has our reading of the nation’s history. In fighting for the rights of African Americans and women, Tubman risked her life for the highest of American ideals. Her example ennobles us all.
By definition, the study of history requires interpretation and assessment. The many vital contributions made by black people, women and other “outsiders” were long overlooked or undervalued. We are now able to see Tubman through a sharper lens, and she was magnificent.
As for Jackson, history has been less kind. He was a major slave owner, of course, like so many of our early presidents. If that alone were enough to get a president booted from our money, we’d have no dollar bills, no nickels and no quarters. Of course we should keep George Washington and Thomas Jefferson around, understanding their flaws while celebrating their greatness.
But Jackson also initiated the forced migration of thousands of Native Americans from the Southeast to the West, an exodus called the “Trail of Tears” that can only be described as genocidal. He knew that many Indians would die along the way – just as Southern plantation owners, New York financiers and other supporters of slavery knew that keeping human beings in bondage was wrong.
Still, Jackson did win the Battle of New Orleans; if he hadn’t, the young nation might not have survived the War of 1812. I say let’s put him on the $2 bill, if anybody can find one.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.