The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has fast-tracked efforts to feature famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the US$20 bill, a change that was first announced in 2016. Below, an updated version of a post first published in 2016 arguing the Canadian case for why there could be no greater figure on the world’s most circulated banknote.
If Canada could have hoped for anyone on a United States Treasury Note, it would have to be Harriet Tubman.
Here was a woman who lived in Canada, who risked her life to turn people into Canadians and stands as a testament that when it came to basic human freedom, the so-called “land of liberty” couldn’t hold a candle to a cold, agrarian British colony. “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, I brought ’em all clear off to Canada,” Tubman told her biographer in 1869.
Tubman will be taking the place of seventh president Andrew Jackson, one of four men featured on U.S. money who owned slaves — and a president who ironically hated central banking.
“We’re ecstatic that we can call her one of our own,” said Rochelle Bush, historian for Tubman’s former church in St. Catharines, Ont. Between the 1851 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and the opening shots of the Civil War 10 years later, Tubman was a well-known attendee at the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church.
That is, when she wasn’t slipping back over the border to smuggle more people to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In total, Tubman freed roughly 300 former slaves by bringing them to Canadian soil, and hundreds of their descendants remain in the country to this day. Within Tubman’s own family tree, in fact, Bush estimates there are roughly 100 descendants living in Ontario and British Columbia.
As Bush noted, it’s a further testament to Canada that some of these Tubman descendants look black, while others look white. “Thank god for Canada; interracial marriage was accepted,” she said. In several former slave states, meanwhile, interracial marriage would not be legalized until 50 years after Tubman’s death.
Canada’s history is not free of chattel slavery. Notably, James McGill, the founder of McGill University, owned black household slaves. But as a component part of the British Empire, Canada was subject to London’s 1834 effective abolition of the practice, which occurred a full 31 years before slavery was completely abolished in the U.S.
Nevertheless, U.S. history has long been unusually coy about pointing out where the Underground Railroad actually ended. Often, textbooks will merely say that slaves were fleeing “north.” While early passengers on the Underground Railroad were initially able to stop their journey in the free Northern states, that ended in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, a notoriously coercive measure that made it a crime for Northerners to shelter escaped slaves, even if they lived in a state where slavery had already been rendered illegal. From that point forward, the Underground Railroad had to be extended beyond U.S. borders into British territory.
Tubman has already been adopted as a figure important to Canadian history. She was briefly in the running to feature on Canada’s $10 bill, and has been named by Parks Canada as a person of national historic significance. Saint Catharines is also home to the Harriet Tubman Public School, complete with a life-sized bronze statue of Tubman.
Kathleen Powell, manager of the St. Catharines Museum, similarly touted that “someone from St. Catharines” would be on a U.S. banknote (which, incidentally, currently costs CDN$25.40).
The honour will soon make Tubman among the most recognizable visages in the world, up there with Albert Einstein and the ubiquitous portrait of Mao Zedong. United States currency is used well beyond the country’s borders, and greenbacks remain the official or unofficial means of monetary exchange in several Central American countries and unstable corners of Africa. And among this vast array of international transactions, it’s the $20 that changes hands the most.
“There’s more $20 bills than human beings out there,” said Douglas Mudd, director of the Edward C. Rochette Money Museum in Colorado. The choice of Tubman is of sort of a no-brainer, said Mudd. In her 90 years, Tubman ran the gamut of United States history; a former slave, an abolitionist, a Civil War hero and an early suffragist. And, like any archetypal American hero, she always carried a gun. “In one person, she covers a number of different bases,” he said.
And, unlike a lot of the more political choices for U.S. money, support for Tubman is definitively nonpartisan. The conservative National Review, for one, praised the addition of a “gun-toting, Jesus-loving spy” in place of “overheated pompous populist” Andrew Jackson.
Appearing on a U.S. treasury note has a way of thrusting people into immortality. Alexander Hamilton was an influential Secretary of the Treasury, to be sure, but it was likely his face on the $10 bill that kept his legend strong centuries after his death. It was the prospect of taking Hamilton off the money, in fact, that inspired a revival in the Founding Father’s life story, including the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.
Canadians, of course, have a bad habit of smugly talking up their country in the presence of Americans, but Bush said it’s entirely fine now to “proclaim it to everybody” that the woman on the $20 bill appreciated Canada’s policy of not forcing those of African heritage to work for free.
Of course, in addition to former slaves, Canada also took in the people who had once owned them.
After the Civil War, in which Tubman served as a valuable Union spy and armed scout, British North America accepted many exiled Southerners from the defeated Confederacy, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis. “Canada was the gateway to freedom,” said Bush, “not only for freedom-seekers (the name for Underground Railroad refugees) but for Confederates as well.”
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