We Cannot Put a Slaveholder on Harriet Tubman's Back

Macro shot of a pile of US$20 bills, showing the face of President Andrew Jackson
Macro shot of a pile of US$20 bills, showing the face of President Andrew Jackson

In the vanishing discussion over Harriet Tubman's presence on the new $20 bill, Americans cannot lose site of the looming tragedy.

Tubman spent most of her adult life with Maryland slaveholders on her back, at her back--tracking her and those passengers she was steering in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. And now, the Treasury Department is gearing up to "honor" Tubman by placing a slaveholder on her back?

"Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embodies the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we will continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew explained in an open letter. "The reverse of the new $20 will continue to feature...an image of President Andrew Jackson."

By all accounts, the treasury secretary and his associates seem to be well meaning. They seem to be trying to strike a compromise between the egalitarian champions of Tubman and those admirers of the slaveholding Jackson. But sometimes compromises are good in theory and dreadful in practice.

Did the treasurers really think about what it would it would look like, what it would symbolize if they put Jackson on Tubman's back?

It is baffling that these treasurers did not grasp the symbolism of the $20 image they would be creating and circulating around the world: the king of slaveholders on the back of the queen of runaways.

The stories of Tubman and Jackson cannot both embody "the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates." President Jackson did not embody those ideals that Tubman embodied: racial equality, freedom for all, and justice for all. In fact, Andrew Jackson spent his political career striking against those antiracist embodiments. And now he stands in presidential history as one of the greatest foes of those antiracist embodiments.

President Jackson's actions and inactions were more devastatingly racist than President Andrew Johnson's (1865-1869) support of southern White supremacists after the Civil War, than President Ronald Reagan's (1981-1989) spearheading of the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, than President James Monroe's (1817-1825) imperialistic doctrine for Latin America, than President Thomas Jefferson's (1801-1809) breeding of Black people for the domestic slave trade into the Deep South, than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1933-1945) concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.

President Jackson's actions and inactions were more devastatingly racist than President Woodrow Wilson's (1913-1921) re-segregation of the federal government, than President James Polk's (1845-1849) embrace of White Americans' "manifest destiny" to seize the American Southwest from Mexico, than President Dwight D. Eisenhower's (1953-1961) refusal to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, than President Calvin Coolidge's support of the racist restrictions in Immigration Act of 1924, than President George W. Bush's (2001-2009) deathly slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

It is perplexing that Treasury Secretary Lew cannot see the problem of putting on the back of Harriet Tubman maybe the most racist U.S. president of all-time.

Jackson stepped into his two-term presidency in 1829 as a wealthy Tennessee enslaver and military general. He helped found the Democratic Party. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Jacksonian Democrats amassed a winning coalition of southern enslavers, White workers, and recent European immigrants who regularly rioted against abolitionists and non-White communities. Jacksonian Democrats defended permanent slavery, opposing all those abolitionists demanding immediate emancipation, opposing all those Whigs and later Republicans requesting gradual emancipation.

When the mass mailings of antislavery tracts captured national attention in 1835, President Jackson called on Congress to pass a law prohibiting "under severe penalties, the circulation...of incendiary publications." And the following year President Jackson and his supporters instituted the infamous "gag rule" that effectively tabled all the anti-slavery petitions rushing into Congress.

And yet, of all President Jackson's racist policies, his policy of Indian removal had the most devastating effect on the lives of Native Americans (and African Americans). Starting with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, President Jackson forced several Native Americans nations to relocate from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas west of the Mississippi River. More than ten thousand Native Americans died on this "Trail of Tears and Deaths," and many more horrifically suffered from exhaustion, disease and starvation--and many more have suffered on reservations ever since.

But there is the other lesser known side of the American "Trail of Tears and Deaths" that Harriet Tubman knew all too well. After these forced Indian removal policies cleared out the Southeastern United States to make way for the expansion of the slavery in the 1830s and 1840s, enslaved Africans in Upper South states like Tubman's native Maryland were continuously bred and removed from their families. President Jackson helped forged this trail of Native American tears out of the Deep South, and this trail of African tears into the Deep South.

Harriet Tubman saved roughly 70 people from slavery, from this African "Trail of Tears and Deaths" during her thirteen missions into Maryland. She emerged as the queen of runaways in the 1850s--their "Moses"--at a time when those worshippers of the recently deceased President Jackson were angrily and anxiously figuring out ways to capture her.

For the sake of Tubman, for the sake of America, we cannot move on from this issue. The symbolism is too dreadful. We cannot let the United States imprint a slaveholder on Harriet Tubman's back.