Politics & Policy

What They Didn’t Teach You in School about Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (H.B. Lindsey/Library of Congress)

Harriet Tubman is a good choice to replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Jackson, the first Democratic president, is exactly the sort of overheated, pompous populist that has tended to screw up the American political system. His demotion to the back of the bill is long overdue.

But before we act to raise Tubman’s stature to the point that she is memorialized on commonly used currency, it behooves Americans to understand her role in our common history. It’s a lot more interesting than the description of her as an “Underground Railroad conductor” that appears in my son’s elementary-school materials and many popular accounts of her life.

In fact, Harriett Tubman was a gun-toting, Jesus-loving spy who blazed the way for women to play a significant role in military and political affairs.

Indeed, her work on the Underground Railroad was mostly a prelude to her real achievements. Born into slavery as Araminta Ross, Tubman knew the slave system’s inhumanity firsthand: She experienced the savage beatings and family destruction that were par for the course. She eventually escaped and, like most who fled, freed herself largely by her own wits.

Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad was mostly a prelude to her real achievements.

She later went back south — always carrying a gun she wasn’t afraid to use — to help guide her own family and many others out of the plantations. The courage and will that this took is difficult to fathom. But she’s really a secondary figure in the history of the Underground Railroad. Historians estimate that she led 300 or so people to freedom, while figures like William Sill and Levi Coffin helped bring freedom to thousands.

This isn’t to say that Tubman is a minor figure. To the contrary, what she did during the Civil War secures her an important place in history. The Union, fighting a war mostly on southern soil, desperately needed good intelligence. Tubman’s exploits on the Underground Railroad, quick wits, mastery of stealth, knowledge of local geography, and personal bravery made her a near-perfect scout and spy. She could often “hide” in plain sight, since white-supremacist southerners probably were not inclined to consider a small African-American woman a threat.

#share#Her quasi-memoir Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (told to Sarah Bradford and written in the third person) explains how things worked. While African Americans were suspicious — often rightly — of Union soldiers, they were willing to trust Tubman. “To Harriet they would tell anything,” Bradford writes. “It became quite important that she should accompany expeditions going up the rivers, or into unexplored parts of the country, to control and get information from those whom they took with them as guides.”

Tubman was one of the most valuable field-intelligence assets the Union Army had. She had hundreds of intelligence contacts and could establish new ones — particularly among African Americans — when nobody else could.

Tubman was one of the most valuable field-intelligence assets the Union Army had.

During one of her scouting missions along the Combahee River, she became the first woman and one of the first African Americans to command a significant number of U.S. troops in combat. The raid she organized and helped to command freed far more enslaved people than her decades of work on the Underground Railroad. She also was a strong advocate of allowing African Americans into the Union Army. She knew Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the almost entirely African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment — the unit at the center of the 1989 film Glory. A (probably apocryphal) legend even has it that she cooked his last meal before the heroic assault in which he and much of his regiment perished.

In her “retirement” — she never really stopped working until she became ill at the very end of her life — Tubman remained a political presence. A friend of Secretary of State William H. Seward, she settled in his hometown of Auburn, N.Y., on land he sold her. There, she helped to build both a church (she was devoutly religious) and a privately run retirement home. She also fought for women’s suffrage, supported Republican politicians, and advocated for fair treatment of black Civil War veterans, which they rarely received.

In short, Harriet Tubman was a black, Republican, gun-toting, veterans’ activist, with ninja-like spy skills and strong Christian beliefs. She probably wouldn’t have an ounce of patience for the obtuse posturing of some of the tenured radicals hanging around Ivy League faculty lounges. But does she deserve a place on our money? Hell yeah.

Eli Lehrer — Eli Lehrer is president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. He oversees R Street’s central headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as its field offices in ...

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