Go Down, Moses

When the Secretary of the Treasury announced that Andrew Jackson would be replaced on the face of the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman, responses from conservatives were lively. Especially so was that of the redoubtable Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.

Robby posted to his Facebook page:

Wow! Andrew Jackson, a racist populist who has for generations been honored as a founding father of the Democratic Party, will be replaced on the Twenty Dollar Bill by Harriet Tubman, a black, gun-toting, evangelical Christian, Republican woman. There is some justice in the world after all!

He was joking, but his serious implication was that the move was ironically one that Democrats, the party of Jackson and Jefferson, should oppose rather than support. The truth is that Tubman (c.1822-1913) is a very complicated historical figure, and she resists categorization by contemporary ideology or party identification.

Anyone attending American schools since the 1970s has learned of Tubman’s escape from slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, her leadership within the Underground Railroad, and her advocacy of women’s suffrage after the Civil War.

Yes, she adhered to a variant of Protestant Christianity, but her faith was highly syncretistic, infused with a traditionally West African emphasis on dreams, visions, and a guiding spirit. Tubman indeed toted a gun, but she often pointed that gun at the slaves she wanted to emancipate.

Fleeing the South was hard, and some in her charge would inevitably want to abandon the trek north. She would level the pistol at the would-be defectors and explain to them the danger a defection posed to the entire group effort.

And unlike tonier abolitionists, Tubman was comfortable with violence against slaveholders. She revered John Brown, who had hoped to arm slaves and inspire them to revolt against the planters. The only reason she did not help him in his attack on Harper’s Ferry was that she had had a dream that the mission would fail. To her great dismay, Harper’s Ferry went as she had foreseen.

Like most African Americans born into slavery, Tubman had a master who forbade her to be educated; she could not read or write. We come by our knowledge of Tubman—like that of Jesus and Socrates—from second-hand sources. These sources complicate an already complicated figure. The first major record of her life came out in 1869, and provided the core of the Tubman mythology. It was Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Bradford, an author with a strongly bourgeois sentimental bent, and it sold enough to help Tubman make mortgage payments on a small piece of property she bought from William Henry Seward.

Bradford published an expanded version of the volume in 1886, and, as Lois E. Horton among others has pointed out, the changes indicated how much white Americans had changed their views on racial justice for African Americans. The edition after the 1886 edition would be relatively straightforward, bringing the stories Tubman had to tell into a single narrative. The 1886 volume, however, included odd and deeply racist insertions. Its opening featured a wince-inducing account of toddler Tubman, “with a more decided wooliness in the hair,” sleeping on a fence post while other “merry little darkies” wrestled in the dirt.

In the time that had passed, a new generation of Americans had grown up unaware of or uninterested in the travails of the Underground Railroad, the abolitionist cause, or the deteriorating conditions African Americans faced in the old Confederacy. They had become avid readers of the Southern “local color” genre of Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris. Bradford’s 1886 embellishments, presumably intended to put in local color so as to attract contemporary audiences, were entirely at the expense of Tubman.

Moreover, Bradford retitled the book Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Tubman’s nickname in the Underground Railroad was “Moses,” and Bradford stressed that, no doubt because the analogy moved from a male founder-prophet to a female outlaw-seer in a way that supported the growing calls for women’s suffrage.

The African American sociologist Butler A. Jones wrote, in a 1961 Corinth Books reprint of the 1886 edition’s introduction, that Tubman was not a Moses but an “American Joan of Arc.” Jones admired how Tubman, like Joan of Arc, was

born among the dispossessed, denied the rudiments of a formal education, reared in a harsh social environment, early enveloped by a simple albeit compulsive religious faith, was actively sought by the minions of the law because of the price on their head.

Were one to read between the lines, one might suspect Butler was also thinking of Joan of Arc’s trial, in which details of her life were altered for political reasons.

If Sarah Bradford was patronizing, it is unfair to single her out in that respect. One of Tubman’s great supporters, William Lloyd Garrison, gave Tubman the chance to recount her exploits as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. A newspaper advertisement spoke of her “quaint charm” in storytelling. Runaway slave narratives, in print and in speeches, were a core part of the abolitionist movement, but the tendency was to treat the slaves as objects of white charity and less as persons due equal respect.

Frederick Douglass famously split with Garrison over this very issue. Tubman, perhaps because of her financial precariousness, avoided any such dramatic move, keeping on the best terms she could with anyone who might help her support her household. As a result, any discussion of Tubman always seems to come with an eye toward the broader political message her example is meant to serve. Unlike the self-taught Frederick Douglass, who asserted control over his own story, Tubman remains a symbol, and one prone to political exploitation—even if with the best of intentions, as was the case with Garrison.

One of the stranger arguments against Tubman’s presence on the $20 bill was that raised by an activist named Feminista Jones, who said she opposed American capitalism because of its roots in the Southern slave economy. The argument appears simple enough on the surface, even if it is wrong. Tubman spent much of her long life in the North a few dollars away from poverty. An illiterate black woman, to say nothing of her status as a runaway, could only hope to find menial work in the North, and this labor was much the same as the kind she performed as a slave in Maryland.

No doubt also displeasing to the likes of Ms. Jones is that Tubman, for much of her life, depended on the charity of white Northerners. She would then devote their charity to the work of the Underground Railroad at the expense of keeping up her own expenses. During the war, she refused to eat from Union army supplies out of solidarity with underpaid African American soldiers; instead, she spent her rations on baking pies and gingerbread to sell for a profit, which she in turn rededicated to the war effort.

After the war, however, she sought a pension as a veteran to support her elderly parents and her husband, whose tuberculosis kept him from earning a living. As Danielle Paquette explained in the Washington Post, Tubman and her friends sought to secure her monthly pension as a war veteran, which was, coincidentally, $20 a month (originally $25 as accorded to regular veterans,  but reduced in her case because the rationale came not on the basis of her service as a spy but as a nurse; nurses’ pensions were $20). In her view, the pension was payment for services rendered in the war to end slavery.

Another point to be made about this iconic figure’s complicated and interesting relationship to money: One of the few legal ways slaves could get out of bondage was to buy their way out. Often, slaves acquired valuable skills, and masters would rent out their slaves, who would receive a portion of the wages. Slaves would save these wages to buy their freedom and then the freedom of their families. In addition, many owners manumitted slaves into freedom, creating large communities of free African Americans, who then devoted themselves to trades that could support a local economy, even though they suffered second-class status in slave states. Along with the Quakers, these communities of free, black families were the backbone of the Underground Railroad. Black families would use their earnings as blacksmiths, carpenters, bakers, bricklayers, and farmers to support Tubman’s efforts, as well as those of the many other conductors.

Tubman knew that the money planters earned on the backs of slaves could also be spent to free those slaves. In other words, the relationship between African American history and American currency is too intricate for simple, ideologically neat narratives.

One of Tubman’s best stories told of how she once came to an Anti-Slavery Society office and notified the man there that God had told her the Society would give her—you guessed it—$20. The man, though sympathetic, said he had no money. Tubman refused to move. She remained seated and promptly went to sleep. (Because of a head injury she had sustained while still a slave, she was capable of falling asleep at a moment’s notice.) After waking only to refuse food and drink, she drifted off again, only to awaken once more—but with $60 in actual money awaiting her.

She left the office and went South, armed with her pistol and a strong sense of the moral purposes money could serve if sacrificed to the God she served.


William L. Garrison statue, Commonwealth Ave. , Back Bay, Boston, MA, USA

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