Ever notice how a lot of so-called “controversies” in American culture aren’t actually controversies at all, but instead the externally manifested angst of conservatives who are highly skilled at snatching persecution from the jaws of privilege?
For example, you may have heard that the United States Treasury plans to replace former president, slaveholder, and Indian-wiper-outer Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with abolitionist and civil rights icon Harriet Tubman. The change to $20 notes won’t occur until 2030, but it’s the first successful result of a concentrated effort to get some female representation on U.S. currency. This is a welcome change that reflects intensely shifting racial, ethnic, and gender demographics in American society, so it stands to reason that some people would complain about it.
First, there’s ferret-topped billionaire and Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who called the change “pure political correctness,” mostly because Andrew Jackson was a total winner. “Jackson had a history of tremendous success for the country,” The Donald opined before calling for a new currency denomination to keep Old Hickory in the public’s wallets. Other conservatives reacted with similarly pained complaints about the need to honor both historical figures equally. Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Jackson’s home state of Tennessee, noted that, “United States history is not Andrew Jackson versus Harriet Tubman” (actually, it kind of is), and he considers it “unnecessary to diminish Jackson in order to honor Tubman.” And, of course, the ever-putrid cultural cesspool that is Twitter responded to the $20 bill change with a smorgasbord of white persecution.
Look, when it comes to interpreting history in the public sphere, there’s a legitimate point to be made about the dangers of imposing our present-day values and beliefs on the past. But in the vast majority of cases in which representatives of groups with a history of cultural privilege cry “political correctness,” it isn’t past beliefs that are being challenged, but present ones.
Andrew Jackson was a staunch proponent of common people, and his political movement of Jacksonian Democracy during the 1830s and 1840s expanded universal suffrage to all white males regardless of their status in wealth and property ownership. This is perhaps his greatest legacy.
But few historical figures also embody the pained interrelationship between American freedom, slavery, and white supremacy better than Old Hickory. A renowned military hero, Jackson made a name for himself as a general who led U.S. forces to victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and against Spaniards and Seminoles during the First Seminole War from 1816- 1817. In both conflicts, he helped to expand the scope of the American empire, and for his efforts he’s often viewed as a preeminent patriot.
Jackson’s military victories, however, opened the floodgates for the expansion of slavery and white supremacy into the Deep South via the extirpation of native people from their ancestral lands. Old Hickory was perhaps the foremost proponent of 19th-century America’s odious policy of Indian Removal. He signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law and ordered the 5 major tribes of the American Southeast (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) to relocate to Oklahoma or face the wrath of the U.S. Army.
Removing the threat of foreign powers and native people from the South opened up hundreds-of-thousands of acres to the spread of plantation slavery. Safe from British meddling, New Orleans became antebellum America’s preeminent slave market, and newly available territory in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana eventually became the epicenter of America’s Slave Power. Jackson was, after all, a southern slaveholder himself, and he often justified his actions by invoking the callous white supremacy shared by nearly all white Americans of the time.
But if all antebellum Americans were de-facto white supremacists, why should we single out Jackson? Why impose 21st-century notions of racial equality on a man who was, at worst, a man of his time by removing him from our national currency?
The answer is straightforward: by replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, the Treasury Department isn’t imposing present values on the past, it’s acknowledging that different values and viewpoints have always existed in American culture, even when they’ve been suppressed by the dominant white cultural hegemony.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta Ross in Maryland around the year 1820. As a child, she worked as a house servant before eventually being sent to do backbreaking field labor. In 1844 she married a free black man named John Tubman, with whom she had two children. Fearing that she would be sold to the Deep South and be separated from her family, in 1849 Tubman ran away to the free state of Pennsylvania, where she found work in Philadelphia. A year later, she returned to Maryland and helped her sister and her sister’s children escape to the North, a move that inspired her to help other enslaved people reach freedom.
Throughout the 1850s, Tubman made countless excursions into the South and facilitated slaves’ escape to the free states. She became the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network stretching into Ontario and Quebec, Canada, through which an estimated 100,000 slaves escaped from the South to freedom between 1810 and 1860.
So important was Tubman’s work that white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison dubbed her “Moses,” after the biblical figure who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. By 1856, southern slaveholders were offering rewards for Tubman’s capture. During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse, a cook, and a spy for the Union cause. After the war, she settled in New York, where she advocated for racial equality and women’s suffrage until her death at age 91 in 1913.
Harriet Tubman’s life demonstrates how even during a time when now-antiquated notions of slavery and white supremacy dominated mainstream culture, some Americans rejected the dominant paradigms of the era.
For the first portion of her life, Tubman existed as human property in the eyes of the law. Even after slavery’s abolishment, any claims she could make to American citizenship as a black woman were tenuous at best. Yet she endured. In the end, her efforts contributed to the expansion of American equality even more so than the actions of men like Andrew Jackson, who helped to entrench the paradoxical notion that white freedom rested, in part, on the enslavement and subjugation of non-white people. This is why her place on the $20 bill is not only just, but completely appropriate.
People like Harriet Tubman have always existed as part of the American story, even when their contributions were suppressed by unjust systems that claimed the sanction of culture, of economy, of Constitutional law. Through her subversive efforts, Harriet Tubman helped to make American society more committed to the notion that all people are created equal. She fought for racial and gender equality not as a 21st-century social justice warrior, but as a 19th-century abolitionist and civil rights advocate. It isn’t “politically correct” to acknowledge and celebrate the efforts of Americans like Tubman, it’s merely correct.
Besides, Andrew Jackson spent the entirety of his political career fighting against central banks, which he believed to be “dangerous to the liberties of the people.” Removing Old Hickory’s image from notes printed by the Federal Reserve eliminates a glaring historical irony that we’ve carried in our wallets for decades. The old general himself would no doubt approve.