Harriet Tubman was literally a freedom fighter. The “Moses” of the Underground Railroad liberated herself and dozens of others from slavery over the years in a biopic-worthy life of bravery and idealism.
She has now been selected to eventually replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, bumping him to the back in the worst defeat for Old Hickory since John Quincy Adams “stole” the presidency from him in 1824.
The political imperative at work here is obvious — find a woman, preferably a minority, to downgrade one of the dead white males dominating the currency. But the images on the nation’s currency aren’t set in stone, and tastes change. Surely some fans of Grover Cleveland were rubbed the wrong way when Jackson supplanted him on the $20 in 1928 (Cleveland himself, improbably, replaced George Washington). And Tubman is inarguably an exemplary figure.
She escaped from a Maryland plantation in 1849, walking some 90 miles to her freedom. Tubman’s story has been repeated to generations of schoolchildren and is so well-worn — she was guided by the North Star and aided by the Underground Railroad — that it is easy to forget the terror and pathos of it.
Tubman knew the brutality of slavery. As a young woman, she had been grievously injured by a metal weight thrown by an overseer. She left her family behind when she set out for the North, and arrived, as she put it, “a stranger in a strange land.” What should have been her natural birthright struck her as revelation: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Then she repeatedly returned in trips to save family members and others. The missions were hazardous (she carried a pistol) and sometimes involved near escapes. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse and a scout, and in later years, she was a suffragist. HBO is reportedly developing a movie, and it won’t lack for material.
That said, Tubman is obviously no match for the Founders and presidents on the currency now. But if power and influence are the only metric, how do you recognize the contribution of all those who were made deliberately powerless? Tubman is properly understood as a symbol of all the nameless persons held in bondage in early America and of our country’s greatest reform movement, abolitionism. (If gender weren’t an issue, Frederick Douglass would be a natural — besides his own extraordinary personal story and contributions to abolitionism, his image of prophetic fierceness was seemingly made for the currency.)
Andrew Jackson is getting downgraded, but shouldn’t be relegated to the ash heap of history. Despite his flaws (he was a slave owner who causally disregarded the humanity of American Indians), he is a formidable American figure who, as a general, won the War of 1812 and, as president, firmly defended the Union from nascent Southern secessionism. If the standards of the 21st century are to be retroactively applied to every significant figure of our past, few will pass the test.
One of the ironies of American slavery is that it made clear — self-evident, one might say — to those suffering under it the deep truth of the natural rights that undergird the American experiment (and were honored in the breach for so long). Tubman recalled thinking prior to her escape, “There’s two things I’ve got a right to, and these are, Death or Liberty — one or the other I mean to have.”
Is it possible to utter a more American sentiment? In an era of ethnic and gender bean counting, everyone wants to keep score, but Harriet Tubman belongs to all of us. She won’t just appear on the twenty, but grace it.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.