Harriet Tubman

4 Ways Harriet Tubman Totally Kicked Ass From a Libertarian POV

The "Moses" of the Underground Railroad exemplified belief in self-ownership, liberty, equality before the law, and more.


So Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) is going to be the new face of the $20 bill. Great choice, yes. The only downside, really, is that the bills won't be released until 2026 or later, by which point they'll be worth, what, about $10 in today's fiat currency? And Andrew Jackson, who in many ways incarnates everything that is awful about America (racist, jingoistic, power-mad, genocidal, and more), will still be on the back of the bill.

Here are four ways that Tubman isn't just a great choice in general but a great choice from a specifically libertarian perspective.

  1. She chose to live free or die and articulated that message for all to understand. "I had reasoned this out in my mind," she said, recalling the death of her master and the necessity of escape. "There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty, or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me."
  2. She exemplified higher-law theory, which holds that laws violating basic human rights are null and void regardless of the repressive superstructures created to legitimate and maintain them, and risked her life freeing about 70 other slaves as the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad. Her actions thus stemmed from a reading of rights that synchs with libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett's discussion of limits on government power in his latest book. At the same time, she didn't advocate violence in the mode of John Brown, whose goal of ending slavery she shared.
  3. She believed in armed self-defense, a radical-enough concept for poor whites, let alone renegade blacks. During her Underground Railroad missions, she carried a pistol both for protection against slave-catchers and, reportedly, to keep ambivalent "passengers" in line. To this day, blacks have a strong and yet routinely overlooked belief in the Second Amendment, leading one historian to argue that "guns made the Civil Rights movement possible." The desire of relatively powerless minorities to arm themselves can still be heard in pro-Second Amendment remarks made by rappers such as Ice-T.
  4. She was a suffragette who, after helping slaves escape and working as a spy and scout for the Union in the Civil War, committed herself to women being allowed to vote and have equality under the law. According to Wikipedia, when Tubman was asked whether she believed women deserved the vote, she replied, "I suffered enough to believe it."

A year ago, when Tubman's name was first floated as a possible figure for a new $20 bill, a number of anti-capitalist commenters observed that Tubman of all people shouldn't be on money because, by their reckoning, slavery is the essence of capitalism. As Damon Root noted at the time, this is not just ahistorical in the extreme, it flies in the face of the explicit thought of leading former slaves. I haven't been able to locate specific quotes from Tubman on the question of wage labor, but there's no doubt she believed in self-ownership, which is the actual basis for capitalism. Where today's leftists want to celebrate Tubman for "subverting" capitalism by effectively stealing her own self, Root argues that's just dumb. Root again:

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."

Indeed, the abolitionists were extremely clear that slavery violated fundamental rights in a liberal order, one that shouldn't countenance slavery for exactly the same reason it should promote free labor. As Frederick Douglass, who corresponded with and thought extremely highly of Tubman, wrote in a scathing letter to his former owner, "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living." In the public letter, which designed to increase outrage at "the horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men," Douglass also wrote,

Since I left you, I have had a rich experience. I have occupied stations which I never dreamed of when a slave. Three out of the ten years since I left you, I spent as a common laborer on the wharves of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there I earned my first free dollar. It was mine. I could spend it as I pleased. I could buy hams or herring with it, without asking any odds of anybody. That was a precious dollar to me. You remember when I used to make seven, or eight, or even nine dollars a week in Baltimore, you would take every cent of it from me every Saturday night, saying that I belonged to you, and my earnings also.

Read the full thing.

That's the logic of the abolitionist movement of which Tubman was an essential part. Those aren't her words of course, and, by all accounts, she struggled with money for all of her free life (and she complained about blacks making less than whites for army service during the Civil War). But the idea that the country does Tubman or any escaped slave a disservice on today's currency is rooted only in contemporary fantasy, not historical reality.