Tub­man fits the bill

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— Con­ser­va­tives should be de­lighted that Har­riet Tub­man’s like­ness will grace the $20 bill. She was a Repub­li­can, af­ter all, and a pi­ous Chris­tian. And she rou­tinely ex­er­cised her Sec­ond Amend­ment right to carry a gun, which she was ready to use against any­one who stood in her way — or any fugi­tive slave hav­ing sec­ond thoughts. On her long road to free­dom, there was no turn­ing back.

In­stead, we’ve had mostly si­lence from the right. Don­ald Trump did mouth off, of course, opin­ing that slated-to-be-dis­placed An­drew Jack­son “had a great his­tory” and that sub­sti­tut­ing Tub­man — who, he al­lowed, was “fan­tas­tic” — amounts to “pure po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.” Ben Car­son de­fended Jack­son as “a tremen­dous pres­i­dent” who bal­anced the fed­eral bud­get.

Both men sug­gested that Tub­man in­stead be put on the $2 bill, which no­body uses. That would be a great recipe for to­kenism. I’m glad that Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Ja­cob Lew made a bolder and more mean­ing­ful choice.

It mat­ters who’s on the money. Since the an­cient Greeks be­gan stamp­ing coins with images of their gods, na­tions have used cur­rency to de­fine a pan­theon of heroes. Tub­man was a great hero not be­cause of who she was but what she did: bravely fight to ex­pand the Con­sti­tu­tion’s prom­ise of free­dom and jus­tice to all Amer­i­cans.

Crit­ics who pol­luted so­cial me­dia with in­vec­tive fol­low­ing Lew’s an­nounce­ment seemed to look past Tub­man’s deeds and fo­cus on her iden­tity. Yes, she was a black woman. If any­one can’t deal with that fact, and doesn’t want to use the new bills when they fi­nally come out, feel free to send them to me.

Tub­man was born into slav­ery on Mary­land’s East­ern Shore around 1822. She es­caped to Philadel­phia in 1849, but re­turned to the South more than a dozen times, risk­ing life and lib­erty, to lead run­away slaves to free­dom. Slave own­ers re­port­edly of­fered boun­ties of thou­sands of dol­lars for cap­tur­ing the diminu­tive woman known on the grapevine as “Moses.”

“I was con­duc­tor of the Un­der­ground Rail­road for eight years,” she said later in life, “and I can say what most con­duc­tors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a pas­sen­ger.”

But that was just the be­gin­ning of Tub­man’s heroic ser­vice. Dur­ing the Civil War, she guided a team of Union scouts op­er­at­ing in


the marsh­lands near present-day Beau­fort, South Carolina. In 1863, she led a raid on plan­ta­tions along the Com­ba­hee River that freed more than 750 slaves — be­com­ing, ap­par­ently, the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed as­sault.

Later in life, she worked along­side Su­san B. An­thony and oth­ers in the cru­sade for women’s suf­frage. She died in 1913, frail yet still un­bowed, hav­ing lived one of the great­est of Amer­i­can lives.

Is it po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness or his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism to put her de­fi­ant like­ness in our pock­ets? Of course — and high time, too.

Un­ceas­ing strug­gle has ex­panded the mean­ing of “we the peo­ple,” once re­served for white men only. As our un­der­stand­ing of free­dom and equal­ity has changed, so has our read­ing of the na­tion’s his­tory. In fight­ing for the rights of AfricanAmer­i­cans and women, Tub­man risked her life for the high­est of Amer­i­can ideals. Her ex­am­ple en­no­bles us all.

By def­i­ni­tion, the study of his­tory re­quires in­ter­pre­ta­tion and as­sess­ment. The many vi­tal con­tri­bu­tions made by black peo­ple, women and other “out­siders” were long over­looked or un­der­val­ued. We are now able to see Tub­man through a sharper lens, and she was mag­nif­i­cent.

As for Jack­son, his­tory has been less kind. He was a ma­jor slave owner, of course, like so many of our early pres­i­dents. If that alone were enough to get a pres­i­dent booted from our money, we’d have no dol­lar bills, no nick­els and no quar­ters. Of course we should keep Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Thomas Jef­fer­son around, un­der­stand­ing their flaws while cel­e­brat­ing their greatness.

But Jack­son also ini­ti­ated the forced mi­gra­tion of thou­sands of Na­tive Amer­i­cans from the South­east to the West, an ex­o­dus called the “Trail of Tears” that can only be de­scribed as geno­ci­dal. He knew that many In­di­ans would die along the way — just as South­ern plan­ta­tion own­ers, New York fi­nanciers and other sup­port­ers of slav­ery knew that keep­ing hu­man be­ings in bondage was wrong.

Still, Jack­son did win the Bat­tle of New Or­leans; if he hadn’t, the young na­tion might not have sur­vived the War of 1812. I say let’s put him on the $2 bill, if any­body can find one.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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