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.
Leave a Reply