Harriet Tubman on the $20

by Fred Ray on April 27, 2016 · 8 comments

As you’ve probably heard, Harriet Tubman is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has led to a sort-of debate. I say sort-of, since the issue was decided by the Washington bureaucrats and not the people, whom no one thought to ask. Liberals have hailed the inclusion of a black woman, while some conservatives have praised her as a “gun-totin’ Republican woman.” While I certainly respect Tubman’s achievements, I do have some objections to her place on the currency, which I suppose come from the old-fashioned idea that the bills ought to honor historically important people.

While it’s certainly true that Tubman, as a conductor on the Underground Railway, did free a number of slaves (she claimed “thousands,” the actual number has been put at about 70), functioned effectively as a Union spy, and even led a raid to free slaves, she was at best a minor figure in the Civil War, American history, and even in the history of abolition. She certainly put her life and freedom on the line numerous times – but so did a lot of other people. Thus it’s hard to escape the idea that this is simply an exercise in identity politics. There were many others who did the same thing, and more effectively. For example, the most effective African-American spy was probably Mary Bowser, a former slave of Richmond socialite and Union spy Elizabeth van Lew. Bowser, who has been almost forgotten, operated in the heart of the Confederacy as the housekeeper for Jefferson Davis. As part of van Lew’s extensive spy ring, she and her spymaster furnished invaluable information to the Union.

Andrew Jackson, however, was (and is) a giant of American history. He was a successful general who defeated the world’s best army at New Orleans with a greatly inferior rag-tag force, and someone who as president changed the body politic forever by wresting power from the Eastern elite and giving it to the people. Not only that, he forced South Carolina to back down in the 1832 Nullification crisis. He is the only president who has an “age” named after him, and the United States was a different place after him.

Alas, Old Hickory has come under a cloud lately, for in the age of identity he has a number of things going against him. For starters, he is white, male, and a Southerner. As if that weren’t enough, he was a slaveowner. What seems to be the biggest strike against him, though, is the Indian removals. He has been reviled as an Indian hater and even a practitioner of genocide. If he did hate Indians, however, he had a rather strange way of showing it. Jackson adopted an orphaned Creek Indian boy, Lyncoya, and treated him as his own son. He removed the Indians not because he hated them, because he honestly thought it was the best solution to a difficult problem.

All this is of a piece with the ideas of the radical historians of the 60s and 70s, which have entered the mainstream. It is one thing to recognize people in American history who have been forgotten and overlooked, especially women and persons of color, who often got written out of it. However the new historians went much further and instead placed these marginal figures at center stage to the virtual exclusion of traditional figures. This has resulted in a very skewed history where people like Tubman have in effect displaced genuine epoch makers like Jackson.

Probably the best example is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which treats our history entirely as one of the poor, dispossessed, and marginalized. Naturally the US does not come out very well when looked at this way, but nevertheless it’s often used as a textbook and reference. Thus do we have students who think that Crispus Attucks was one of the central figures of the American Revolution, but can’t name any of the Founding Fathers; and who know all about Harriet Tubman and Soujourner Truth but have no idea who Lee and Grant were, although they might have a vague idea that some guy named Lincoln had something to do with it, but didn’t he own slaves?

You get the idea. Unfortunately you can expect to see more of it.


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dick Stanley April 28, 2016 at 7:45 am

Good points all, but this sort of thing was inevitable in the current climate. Could have been worse.

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Bob Ruth April 28, 2016 at 10:01 am

Fred: I agree with almost all of what you wrote in your insightful post, with a few exceptions.

I graduated public high school many decades ago, but I have gleaned some knowledge of today’s high school curriculums from my grandchildren. You’re correct that history is not taught as intensely as it once was. That’s shameful and harmful to our democracy. Also, the tendency by some to lambaste past presidents and other historical figures because they weren’t saints is ridiculous.

But there have been a few significant improvements. The evils of slavery and the contributions of African Americans now are taught to all school children. In my years in public school in suburban Washington, D.C., slavery and the contributions of African Americans were hardly mentioned.

Also, wars, generals and the outcomes of battles today seem to be de-emphasized today, in favor of teaching about grass-roots political, labor, social and cultural movements. That also is a step forward, I believe..

Finally, maybe Frederick Douglass would have been a better choice for the $20 bill. Also, I found Howard Zinn’s work useful, if for no other reason than it gives an alternate perspective to American history.

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John Fox April 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

The mainstreaming of social and cultural movements goes back to the 1960s. Frankly, the idea that LGBT studies, women’s studies, Hispanic studies, civil rights studies etc., have taken the place of Constitutional studies, Revolutionary War studies, Civil War studies [yes, strategy, tactics & leadership] WWI and WWII studies is a travesty. The latter studies are all linchpins in the fabric of this country and are what makes the United States of America a shining light in this world. However, the current focus on the former studies is a major reason that too many high school and college students are clueless about why this country, warts and all, is a unique and fantastic place to live. I will agree that Frederick Douglass would have been a better selection than Tubman on the $20 bill.

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Bob Ruth April 29, 2016 at 9:55 am

John:

I agree with much of what you wrote.

However, I think too many of we history buffs take its importance for granted. Lots of our fellow Americans could care less. That is true today, and it was true when I was in public school in the 1950s and ’60s. We must find ways to make history interesting and relevant for everyone.

I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert on today’s public education. But I get the impression that one of the newer trends is to emphasize that many positive changes in our nation came from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. Examples: Abolition, workers’ rights, conservation and the environment, women’s suffrage, consumer protection, civil rights for African-Americans, women and gays, etc.

By including a bottom-up approach to American history, educators also reenforce students’ faith in our democracy, i.e. it’s important for grass-roots folks to get involved in the political process, whether they’re liberal, conservative or somewhere in between.

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James F. Epperson May 23, 2016 at 11:29 am

My apologies for coming late to the party, but I did not see this post when it first came out. (My laptop had a Windows 10-induced meltdown—don’t do the upgrade!)

There certainly is an element of identity politics in the selection of Tubman, but it was hardly done arbitrarily. There was an online petition circulating that asked people to vote for a number of women who might be put on currency. I believe Tubman won that vote, reflecting a desire to see a person of color as well as a woman. (I voted for Eleanor Roosevelt, but then we named our daughter after her.)

Jackson’s place on any piece of currency is problematic if only because he disapproved of paper money. Tubman is a good choice (IMO) because of her value as a symbol of black resistance to slavery. The original plan was to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill, but that became A Bad Idea after the play, “Hamilton,” won a Pulitzer Prize.

JFE

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Bob Ruth May 23, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Jim:
I enjoy your posts here and in Emerging Civil War.

I have one serious issue with you, however.

Is that a Wolverine jersey you’re wearing? i live in Ohio and, of course, am a dyed-in-the-wool Buckeye fan. How dare you mar Brett’s otherwise fine blog with such a lewd photo.

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James F. Epperson May 23, 2016 at 5:30 pm

Of course that is a Wolverine jersey! What else do expect from someone who graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan College of Engineering in 1975? (Brett doesn’t mind, and he’s an Illini grad … )

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Bob Ruth May 24, 2016 at 9:09 am

Jim:
At least you (and Brett) will agree with me on one issue, I think: The Big Ten is the best conference in college football.

The wife and I vacation during the winter in South Carolina. I have even more debates there about the Big Ten vs. the SEC than I do about the Civil War.

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