the real reason we should put Harriet Tubman on the twenty

The group Women on 20s has recently gotten some pretty good press for the idea that Harriet Tubman should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Personally I always favored John Ross for the twenty, just to really stick it in Ol’ Hickory’s eye, but the voters (well, internet voters) have spoken, and I approve of their choice. And anyway, Tubman has a distinct advantage over other historical figures whose names have been bandied about to replace Jackson: she is a legitimate badass.

So was Jackson, of course. But Jackson is best known for driving Indians off their land, helping to annex Florida, and for fighting the British (who were supporting the Indians) in a dumb war that did little to accomplish its ostensible goals but did, again, screw the Indians. Jackson’s military adventures are one face of American courage, but not its best face — rather, the face of America the Expansionist and Belligerent.

Tubman, on the other hand, represents a different kind of physical courage. It’s well-known, of course, that she put her life on the line again and again by returning to Maryland to help others escape slavery after her own daring escape. Less well-known, but at least as dramatic, is this spectacular episode from the Civil War in which she masterminded a Union raid into Southern territory to free slaves to join the fight:

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Combahee raid was unique in American history. All Union operations in slave territory, especially as the Emancipation Proclamation become well known, yielded the self-liberated by the hundreds. But the Combahee raid was planned and executed primarily as a liberation raid, to find and free those who were unable or unwilling to take the enormous risks to reach Union lines on their own. That’s how Tubman conceived of it. That, too, is unique – because for the first and only time in the Civil War, or for that matter any American conflict before this century, a woman (and a civilian at that) played a decisive role in planning and carrying out a military operation….

Tubman did not speak Gullah, a language common among coastal slaves. As Tubman herself says of a crucial moment in the raid: “They wasn’t my people … because I didn’t know any more about them than [a white officer] did.” And these were slaves who worked mostly in the fields, men and women who trusted “house” slaves as little as they trusted whites, even white Yankees.

In other words, the amazing thing about Tubman’s role during the raid was not that she was in her element, but that she was so far outside it.

Yet it’s clear that it was Tubman who visited the camps of liberated slaves along the coast and recruited the 10 scouts named in Union records, 9 of whom had escaped from nearby plantations. Lieutenant George Garrison, posted to one of the Northern-raised black regiments, said, “She has made it a business to see all contrabands escaping from the rebels, and is able to get more intelligence than anybody else….”

The Second South Carolina was not made up of veterans. The men had far more in common with Tubman than with their own officers. That’s why she went with them on the raid. Yet Tubman wasn’t a passenger. The intelligence she gathered, the soldiers she recruited, indicate that she actually planned the raid with Hunter and Montgomery: three landings on the right, one on the left….

As the troops finished their demolition work, the fleeing slaves started to reach the boats, many more slaves than there was space available. “When they got to the shore,” Tubman recalled later, “they’d get in the rowboat, and they’d start for the gunboat; but the others would run and hold on so they couldn’t leave the shore. They wasn’t coming and they wouldn’t let any body else come.”

That’s when a white officer told Tubman to sing to “your people.” Even decades later, when she would regale white audiences with the Combahee story, she said she resented that – a surprisingly modern sensitivity. But she did sing. And it worked. “Then they throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout, glory! And the rowboats would push off.”

It’s hard to understand how the song Tubman recalled singing – about how “Uncle Sam is rich enough to buy you all a farm” – could have persuaded those left behind to let the boats go. Did she intentionally omit the fact that she threatened to shoot anyone who tried to back out from escaping? Meanwhile, the Confederates set upon those on shore with dogs and guns; at least one young girl was killed. But hundreds escaped.


The difference I’m getting at is not about nonviolence, per se. The Combahee raid was an act of war and involved fighting. But Tubman replacing Jackson on the twenty could symbolically represent a shift in American thinking about honor and courage — away from the kind of courage it takes to take things from a weaker people, or to dominate those you define as “enemies,” and toward the kind of courage it takes to put yourself at risk so that people can be free.

I say this without personal critique. Jackson was a certain kind of violent, aggressive man, of which there will always be some among us, and that is fine. People are as they are, and Jackson had his good points: he was apparently a loyal friend and a large-hearted husband and father. (In one of those perversities that are forever wrinkling up neat historical narratives, Jackson even adopted an Indian son — after massacring most of his village.) He also took a more expansive view of suffrage and popular democracy than the prior generation of (largely well-to-do) revolutionary-era leaders had. But Jackson was a duellist, literally and otherwise, an irascible man who made enemies easily and held long grudges. Perhaps his natural tendencies toward conflict were brought to full flower by a bellicose Southern culture of honor. I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s not about a judgment of the man as an individual — something I care about less and less in these matters. It’s much more about the cultural forces that selected such a man, put him at the head of various armies and then at the head of the country, and gave him the power and authority to do some measure of evil.


We love stories of physical, direct heroism. And I think they do more than just scratch the itch we have for vicarious adventure. They provide models for thinking about, and feeling drawn to, acts of less concrete heroism. That’s a good thing. But this country has matured quite a bit in two hundred years. If Jackson — symbol of courage in the name of acquisitiveness and terrorizing your enemies — was one model of American badassery in our nation’s youth, he needn’t be the only one we ever have. Tubman’s model — courage as the taking of personal risks in pursuit of a truer, deeper, more equal liberty — could take a turn in the front for a while.

Jacksonian courage is the sort of courage that fueled investment banking and business culture for decades. That culture — intensely macho, fratty, willing to substitute bluster for facts and understanding, and determined to see the world as zero sum — set the stage for the financial crisis.

Maybe that’s not what we need so much of these days. Maybe what we need are politicians who buck their leadership, even at cost to themselves, when the really important things are on the line. Maybe what we need are public defenders and civil rights lawyers keeping the justice system honest, even if doing so more-or-less shuts them out of the legal profession’s positions of power. Maybe we need more whistleblowers. Maybe we need more citizen journalists. Maybe that’s the kind of courage we should celebrate.

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