WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump invites historical comparisons, it is usually to his detriment. This is the risk of being even more corrupt than Warren Harding and even less articulate than, well, Warren Harding (whose rhetoric reminded H.L. Mencken of “a string of wet sponges” and “stale bean soup”).
Even so, the Trump administration’s recent snubbing of Harriet Tubman in favor of extending Andrew Jackson’s run as the face on the $20 bill is particularly revealing, and especially damning.
It is revealing for who is being kept on the money — not only the proud owner of slaves, but the political author of a vicious white man’s populism. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump called the proposed replacement of Jackson “pure political correctness.” Actually, the switch would be an example of sound moral judgment. Jackson’s defining cause was the ethnic cleansing of Native American lands to make way for more slavery-based agriculture. In pursuit of his pale-faced vision of democracy, Jackson was imperious, violent and indifferent to constitutional norms. Late at night, if Trump speaks to the portrait of Jackson he has hung on the wall of the Oval Office, I suspect the two men would find much in common.
The most damning part of the controversy for Trump, however, comes from whom he is rejecting. In opposing Harriet Tubman, Trump has messed with the wrong woman.
Tubman was familiar with white men who discounted and underestimated her. As a teenager, she was nearly killed by one who fractured her skull because she defended a fellow worker. She defied white slave hunters — slipping past them on at least a dozen forays to rescue about 70 slaves as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Frederick Douglass emerged as an abolitionist leader because of his brilliance and rhetorical skill. Tubman may have been illiterate, but she was justly celebrated for her fearlessness and sense of calling. White supremacists attempted to create an image of black inferiority, passivity and helplessness. Tubman was bold, calm under pressure and organizationally gifted. She was also a mystic, who found divine guidance during trances and occasionally burst out into religious song and rhythmic dance (what some call a “spiritual shuffle”). This combination of the efficient and the numinous made her one of the most interesting figures of the 19th century.
Tubman became a legend in a certain historical context. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 essentially left African Americans anywhere in America — slave or free — vulnerable to apprehension and accusation in special courts. Slave hunters could take their searches even into abolitionist strongholds such as Quaker Pennsylvania and “the burned-over district” of New York state. As outrage built in the North, slave rescues through the Underground Railroad became an important source of symbolic defiance. Though the total number freed was relatively small, these efforts provided outsized inspiration to both slaves and abolitionists.
The work of Tubman and other conductors was also a demonstration of African American agency in the defeat of slavery. Contrary to accounts that exaggerated the role of whites, the Underground Railroad was mainly manned and funded by free blacks in the North (and Canada). Black women contributed money to support Tubman’s raids. Black churches hid fleeing refugees. Black “vigilance societies” in the North met slave hunters with physical resistance.
Tubman herself was not an advocate of nonviolence. She carried a pistol on her rescues. She was friendly with the radical abolitionist John Brown. Before Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, according to Henry Mayer’s “All on Fire,” Tubman “supplied him with information about the terrain and local allies and offered him help in building his force.”
Brown called Tubman “the General.” But she was better known as “Moses.” Tubman believed that African Americans were a specially chosen people, engaged in their own Exodus from oppression. This armed Tubman and black Americans with a sense of purpose no whip or cannon could defeat. It also placed white Americans in the uncomfortable role of being pharaoh’s forces. And during a terrible, fraternal conflict, horse and rider were thrown into the sea.
Honoring Tubman’s contribution — along with the essential role of African Americans in ending slavery — would not be an example of political correctness. It would be evidence of historical discernment and moral maturity. In the Trump era, these things are in short supply. But Tubman is still making her pursuers look like fools.