Another scene in the life of Harriet Tubman

28 April 2016

Ethnic Studies | History

Recently, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, announced that some changes were being made to America’s paper currency. Chief among them was the replacement of Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, to make way for the inclusion of Harriet Tubman, the former slave turned abolitionist who was dubbed “Moses” due to her work in guiding slave families away from their owners using the infamous Underground Railroad. Tubman will be joined on the bill by a slew of activists and reformers who will soon grace the $5 and $10 notes, including Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

 

Image © the New York Public Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Harriet Tubman’s tale was immortalised by the author Sarah H. Bradford in 1869, in her book Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Bradford spent her time talking with Tubman to produce a “plain and unvarnished account of some scenes and adventures in the life of a woman who, though one of earth’s lowly ones, and of dark-hued skin, has shown an amount of heroism in her character rarely possessed by those of any station in life”. 

Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to access the document in the collection.

Bradford details the life of a girl born in Maryland to slave parents, who married a free man, and who finally succeeded in escaping to Philadelphia. Tubman’s work in going back to try and rescue her family and then other slaves, too, took place over a decade. Her insuperable nature led her to joining the Union army: “this fearless woman was often sent into the rebel lines as a spy, and brought back valuable information as to the position of armies and batteries”. She also worked as nurse during this time.

In a personal letter Ruth Brown Thompson, daughter of John Brown of Harper’s Ferry raid fame, expressed her admiration for not only Harriet Tubman but also Lucretia Moss. As with nearly all matters of history, opinion is split and Thompson's view is not universally held, as news of Tubman’s likeness gracing the $20 bill was met with outcry amongst some circles in America. Yet it is argued that Jackson is now known as much for his morally dubious policies of forcibly removing groups of native peoples and having them relocate to lands west of the Mississippi as he is for any other supposed redeeming qualities. His Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to several treaties negotiating the removal of tribes from their homes, nominally peaceful and voluntary but in practice a forced migration which gained the ominous title of the “Trail of Tears”. He writes in a letter dated 3 February 1831 about his desire to have the Brothertown Indians of New York removed to Wisconsin, and demonstrates his awareness of others’ opposition to the morality of his policies: “I wish you to make this arrangement with care & circumspection, so that no charge of unfairness can be justly ascribed to us”.

Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to access the document in the collection.

The lives of these two significant historical figures could not be more varied, therefore, and yet they are brought together in the twenty-first century as the American government makes a move which conservatives decry as pandering to “political correctness”, but which many welcome as a change towards a broader and more inclusive historical narrative.

 

American History, 1493-1945 is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Both Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman and Andrew's Jackson's letter of 3 Feb. 1831 are temporarily free to access by clicking on their respective links.

About the Author

Sara Hussain

Sara Hussain

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 I have worked across a variety of projects, including World's Fairs and African American Communities. I enjoy studying all types of history and dabbling in languages, and travelling in my spare time, a combination which is perfectly complemented by my day-to-day work.

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