Who should be the first woman to appear on American currency in over 100 years? The U.S. Treasury Department recently announced that it will reveal later this year the identity of a woman whose image will grace a redesigned $10 bill. An advocacy group called Women on 20s is on record supporting the placement of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
This series of blog posts has so far examined the records of Alexander Hamilton, whose image currently appears on the $10 bill, and Andrew Jackson, whose image appears on the $20 bill, and asks the question – what message are we conveying with the legacies we choose to memorialize?
Hamilton and Jackson in some ways represent American success stories. Both born into poverty, each rose to positions of prominence, power, and influence. Hamilton believed in a strong national government ruled by a wealthy elite. Jackson was a champion of the common man who believed in states’ rights, subject to the authority of a national government that was nonetheless limited in its powers by the Constitution. Each man essentially created and led new political parties. And each man made his mark on monetary policy in the young nation.
Each man had political enemies and personal failings, and each left a record that is subject to debate and differing interpretations today. Hamilton could be seen as a hero to political conservatives today because of his policies designed to give government support for a stable economic environment in which American businesses could thrive. But some conservatives would take issue with his advocacy for the expansion of federal power.
Jackson is even more problematic for us today. His championing of democratic rule and the rights of the common man are overshadowed by the fact that he was a slaveholder. Even though he was entrusted with positions of power, he was not above ignoring the law when it suited his purposes. As a general of the army, he waged an illegal war in Spanish Florida. As president, he defied the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Native American tribal sovereignty, reportedly saying, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” But even when he acted outside of the laws, he did so openly and often notoriously. Jackson was controversial in his own time, and then as now, it is easy to condemn parts of Jackson’s record while celebrating other parts.
By contrast, it is difficult to condemn any of the acts that established Harriet Tubman’s reputation. She risked her life and freedom to help others escape from the immoral institution of slavery.
But unlike Jackson and many other celebrated Americans, she acted in secret. And unlike Jackson and other slaveholders whose violations of human rights were perfectly legal in 19th century America, her actions were contrary to the laws of the time. According to the standards of antebellum America, she was a criminal, and the basis for her designation as an American hero is the fact that she refused to acquiesce to the rule of law when her own sense of values compelled her in another direction. Unlike Jackson, who welcomed a fight with his opponents, Tubman carried a pistol with her so that if she were caught she could end her own life and avoid the consequences of her decisions.
And yet it is difficult to find fault with someone who risked so much to combat an evil as great as American slavery. Certainly, the fact that the laws she was violating have since been repealed as contrary to human rights and basic human dignity makes her actions seem even more commendable. There is really no doubt today that Harriet Tubman deserves to be recognized as a hero, along with others whose acts were criminal when undertaken, but are celebrated today – such as every person who signed the Declaration of Independence.
The more interesting question is – what does it say about our values as a country that we believe in the rule of law based on the will of the majority, and yet we also believe that lawbreakers acting as individuals may sometimes be excused for their actions? Is it the fact that she didn’t get caught? Is it the fact that by the time her actions became public knowledge, slavery had been made illegal, and those who had opposed it were being recast as prophets?
Can we really say that we believe in the rule of law if we also believe that if a lawbreaker waits long enough, he or she can not only be excused for criminal actions, but may also be recognized as a hero?
And if the passage of time and the altering of public opinion would allow us to celebrate Tubman for her actions while excusing her for violating the laws of her day, why shouldn’t we also retroactively view the act of slaveholding as criminal? In other words, if we are letting Tubman off the hook, why not hold slaveholders personally accountable?
In its most common form, the story of Harriet Tubman comes with a moral lesson about courage in the face of a powerful yet immoral institution. It is David versus Goliath, the weak defeating the strong. It can be told simply and effectively without even questioning the reasons for the existence of slavery, or of American racism. But told in a different light, the story raises serious questions about American values and American institutions.
The way that we tell the story is a choice that we make.
History is not what happened in the past. It is the events of the past retold – in different lights and for different purposes. History is our interpretation of the past, our selection of heroes, our decisions about which values to celebrate and which to deemphasize.
History is not just facts, but also the organization of information into a new form, with fidelity to the events as recorded in existing records, and constructed by us and for us living in the present. History is not a series of monuments; it is a tool for understanding ourselves.
The way we teach history matters. Learning how to remember facts is just a step towards learning how to construct meaning. Learning how to question is more important than learning deference to institutions or laws – which are always subject to change in a democratic society. Learning to take responsibility for the narrative of our lives and of the life of our nation is more important than memorizing a series of bullet points or a set of factoids about a list of Americans who have been designated as heroes. Learning how to judge for ourselves what to admire and who to respect may be the most important lesson we can take from the past.
I have completed writing a book on the teaching of history, which should be published soon. For further discussions of the nature of history, the purposes of education, and for news about the forthcoming publication of the book, keep reading this blog.