History

Let's Put Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder and serial abuser of executive power. Harriet Tubman championed human freedom.

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Public Domain

Earlier this month the grassroots group Women on 20s sent a petition to the White House calling on President Barack Obama to add the face of abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill in place of its current occupant, President Andrew Jackson.

It's a nice idea. Jackson was a slaveholder and a serial abuser of executive power. Tubman, a lifelong champion of human freedom, would be a fitting improvement.

Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Writing at The Washington Post, the left-wing writer Feminista Jones rejects the Women on 20s petition because "Harriet Tubman did not fight for capitalism, free trade, or competitive markets." In fact, Jones asserts, "putting her face on America's currency would undermine her legacy. By escaping slavery and helping many others do the same, Tubman became historic for essentially stealing 'property.'… Tubman didn't respect America's economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting."

Unfortunately, Jones appears to have mistaken her own left-wing ideology for the actual views held by the 19th-century abolitionist movement. Yes, Tubman and her allies fought to destroy the slave system. But that does not mean they also fought to destroy capitalism. In fact, a number of prominent abolitionists sang the praises of capitalist free enterprise, a troublesome bit of history that has discomfited several generations of left-wing scholars (Yale historian David Blight, for instance, comes across as palpably uncomfortable when trying to grapple with Frederick Douglass' belief in "laissez-faire individualism").

As for Tubman "essentially stealing 'property,'" as Jones put it, that unfortunate description turns abolitionist thinking on its head. In the eyes of Tubman and her fellow anti-slavery activists, human bondage was illegitimate precisely because, in the words of the 1833 Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Convention, "man cannot hold property in man." In other words, as the abolitionists saw it, they weren't stealing anybody's property because nobody had a right to own human property in the first place. Tubman was thus fully justified in liberating herself and others from the tyrannical regime that violated their natural right to self-ownership, a right which John Locke famously called man's "property in his own person."

The abolitionist crusade against slavery simply does not qualify as some sort of socialist campaign against capitalism—far from it. In short, never mind the leftist naysayers. There are plenty of good reasons to put Harriet Tubman on the 20.