Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would be smart for the president, his party and the nation

Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would be smart for the president, his party and the nation
© Getty Images / Treasury Department

Could a black, Republican, female military hero who once helped reunite our country do so again? The Trump administration has vacillated on whether or not to place Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill, but confirming this choice would be smart for the president, his party, and the nation.

I am among a group of 127 eminent historians from 30 states who have petitioned Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump names Mulvaney acting chief of staff On The Money: House GOP struggles to get votes for B in wall funds | Fallout from Oval Office clash | Dems say shutdown would affect 800K workers | House passes 7 billion farm bill Conservative leader Meadows will not be White House chief of staff MORE to do so in time for the 98th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage on August 26.

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The American Historical Association, the world’s largest professional organization of historians, has joined the campaign as well.

 

In 2016, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama urges people to sign up for health insurance after ruling striking down law The 2020 Democratic nomination will run through the heart of black America Gillibrand says she's worried about top options in Dem 2020 poll being white men MORE announced that the Civil War heroine would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the currency. Jackson would move to the back. Then candidate Donald Trump praised Harriet Tubman as “fantastic,” but denounced Obama’s choice as “pure political correctness.” Secretary Mnuchin has since waffled on the plan.

Overlooked in this spat is that Harriet Tubman was selected by public acclaim. Over 609,000 Americans voted online for candidates winnowed from over one hundred women nominated by historians and museum curators. In addition to Tubman, 15 finalists included Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Margaret Sanger, Clara Barton, and Susan B. Anthony. Tubman won.

Now is President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE’s chance to show that honoring a hero who defended ideals we all treasure is simply the correct thing to do: an act that rallies, as Abraham Lincoln said in another time of strife, “the better angels of our nature.”

Conservatives to whom the president appeals criticize identity politics that parcel Americans into victim groups. Trump can provide leadership here. A white male president is in an ideal position to assert that we are all Americans, first and foremost. No one will accuse him of identity politics when he inducts a deserving woman into our national pantheon, as most other democracies have already done.

Tubman is easily the most exceptional female leader in our nation’s history. Born a slave, she fled North like thousands of others who escaped along the Underground Railroad. This was brave enough, but then she returned in disguise countless times over the course of a decade to spirit a hundred or more to freedom.

Tubman addressed Northern gatherings to awaken the conscience of fellow Americans, risking capture by bounty hunters. “I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass marveled.

Once the Civil War broke out, Tubman went South with a price on her head to fight for the Union Army. Experienced at going behind enemy lines, she served as a scout on the occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina.

Her most famous military exploit was to develop the intelligence for a victorious Union raid into Confederate territory shortly after the Union suffered a catastrophic defeat in Charleston Harbor. Tubman guided federal gunships up the Combahee River past underwater mines to liberate 756 slaves off three large plantations. With that one raid, she swelled regimental ranks with newly freed men and gave the Union a desperately needed boost in morale.

Commanding officer James Montgomery of Kansas called her “invaluable as a scout.” General Rufus Saxton recommended her for a military pension as a “spy” who made “many a raid inside the enemy’s lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal, and fidelity.” President Lincoln’s Secretary of State wrote: “a nobler, higher spirit, or a truer, seldom dwells in human form.” Congress nonetheless resisted granting her a scout’s pension. Three decades after the raid, she was awarded the cheaper benefits of a Union nurse.

Harriet Tubman never achieved full military recognition though she defended our country on active duty during its greatest peril. She brought the nation closer to its ideals and resisted the notion that skin color makes any group a “people.” Indeed, during the war, when one officer told her to rally “your people,” she reminded him that slaves were no more her people than his. They were all Americans.

President Trump can strike a blow against the political correctness he deplores and reassert the noble heritage of the party of Lincoln by confirming Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill.

Such an act would bolster Americans now under pressure to tie national greatness either to racial superiority or hypersensitive diversity. It would show that, in fact, our greatness derives from devotion to a common goal: creating a City Upon a Hill that attracts people the world over to a more perfect union that fosters liberty and justice for all. Harriet Tubman is the perfect symbol.

Elizabeth Cobbs is professor of history at Texas A&M and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and author of The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.