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.
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