Civil Disobedience Pioneer on $20 Bill

Civil Disobedience Pioneer on $20 Bill

by Michael Earl Patton
Cartoon by Stephen Wuesthoff

As you probably have heard, Andrew Jackson will leave the front of the $20 bill and go to the back, replaced by Harriet Tubman.  Andrew Jackson was the 7th president of the United States, a slave-owner, famous for winning the Battle of New Orleans and infamous for forcing tens of thousands of peaceful Indians to move west in the “Trail of Tears.”  Harriet Tubman was a slave who had fled north for freedom but was not content once she reached relative safety.  She joined a network of both whites and blacks who worked both to abolish slavery and to help slaves escape from the South.  She made repeated trips there herself to conduct slaves north, making more trips than anyone else known.  The first activity – trying to make slavery illegal – was generally protected by the Constitution as long as peaceful means were used.  The second activity – helping slaves escape – was not only against the laws of several states, it was against federal law.  The Constitution itself at the time said there was no such thing as an escaped slave living in freedom in the North (see Article IV, Section 2).  Being an escaped slave herself, her “owner” had the legal authority to go north to claim and re-enslave her.  Yet she believed that she needed to disobey all these laws and risk her freedom to help others.

Civil disobedience is the active refusal to obey certain laws or commands of the government or authority in charge, but falls short of opposing the entire system of government.  It is generally used to describe those who put their own liberty at risk for a certain cause to help others or to bring attention to an issue.  Those in the United States who helped slaves escape did so even though the Fugitive Slave Act made this illegal.  If a slave made it all the way to Canada where slavery was illegal, those who helped there were not breaking the law and so were not engaging in civil disobedience.  Invariably authorities frown upon even relatively minor transgressions.  An example from a few years ago was the mass arrests made for trespassing during the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Here thousands of people from across the country were illegally “occupying” tiny areas of park land to bring attention to the current economic and political systems which permit 1% of the population to control ever-increasing amounts of wealth and power.

In Harriet Tubman’s case, not only was the system of slavery abhorrent, she herself was supposed to be freed even according to the slave laws of that time!  Her mother’s original owner had specified in his will that she and her children were to be kept in slavery only until the mother reached 45.  Instead, she had been sold.  Harriet had a lawyer look into the case.  He said that regardless of the will, since so many years had passed and since both she and her mother had lived all their lives as slaves, no judge would take the case.  It wasn’t just her case, of course, that showed slave owners themselves sometimes flouted the law.  Even though the importation of slaves had been made illegal in 1808, about a thousand slaves per year were brought in.  To meet the demand for slaves from plantations in the Deep South, traders often came to Maryland, where she lived, and offer cash for slaves.  Several of Harriet’s brothers and sisters were sold and taken south in spite of the will’s provision that they were to be freed when their mother turned 45.

Harriet was physically strong.  Being female she was first hired out when a young girl as a domestic slave, where she endured severe whipping brought about by the smallest real or imagined slight.  Eventually she was hired out to work in the fields and logging camps.  The background no doubt aided her in her eventual escape and subsequent trips back to bring slaves north.  Not only did she gain familiarity with her immediate surroundings, the men with whom she worked were part of a broader communications network of free blacks and slaves that reached beyond the borders of the slave states.  Someone told her about sympathetic families to whom she could go if she wanted to escape.  When she began her escape, the first sympathetic family told her about the next one, and so on.  How many were white who helped her and others to escape, and how many were black, is not known at this time.  Certainly the Underground Railroad had many people of both races who were active in breaking the laws.

What makes Harriet Tubman stand out among the others who helped is that she went back again and again to help slaves escape.  The exact number of trips and the number of slaves she guided north is not known.  The book Harriet Tubman: Anti-Slavery Activist says it was 19 trips and over 300 slaves; others say 13 trips and 70 slaves.  Either way, there are two important things to note.  First is that she went again and again, primarily to free members of her family but also others.  Second is that the Underground Railroad functioned again and again.  She spoke of herself as a conductor in that railroad who never lost a passenger.  And all of this was illegal, several times over.

It is important to note, because it was important to her, that she had a deep Christian faith.  She prayed often and said that it was God who guided her.  At times she was audacious, as when she stole a horse and carriage to take her aged parents north.  At other times her careful planning was evident.  She would avoid the summers with its long days and short nights.  She would send word ahead to the slaves she would guide to meet her several miles from where they lived.  That way if any were caught during the first part of their escape, she herself would avoid capture.  Saturday night was a favored time to begin the journey because Sunday was when many slaves were allowed to go to service or to visit family.  So an absence would likely not be noticed until Monday.  Repeated trips brought her more familiarity with the routes and safe houses.  She made her last trip in 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Articles and books mention that she aided John Brown in his preparations for his raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Brown, a white abolitionist, intended to seize the weapons stored there and use them to ignite a rebellion among the slaves.  The raid itself was a disaster with most of Brown’s men being killed or captured.  Southern attitudes towards slavery and against the North was not being trustworthy hardened.  Certainly Harriet Tubman knew Brown and met him, and he asked her to recruit former slaves to join him.  But chasing down the sources in the Wikipedia yielded little firm information beyond initial meetings.  I mention this because I think of Harriet Tubman as a pioneer in civil disobedience, willing to break the law in actions that would directly free slaves.  I do not think of her as an advocate of violence.  I think the case for any direct involvement on her part in John Brown’s raid falls short of proven.  I also offer the following, which is admittedly circumstantial, but so is the case for her involvement.

First, Harriet Tubman related how, before she escaped, she prayed for the conversion of her owner.  Then she heard that her owner was planning to sell her and two of her brothers.  She changed her prayer so that God would kill her owner if he wasn’t going to be converted.  Soon her owner became ill and died.  She was horrified that her prayers might have something to do with his death and said she would have given anything to bring him back.  This does not sound like someone who would have encouraged an armed, undoubtedly bloody uprising.

Second, she had had a recurring dream about a serpent whose head became that of an old man with a long white beard.  When she met John Brown she recognized him as that old man.  She said that she did not know what that dream signified, but in Christian imagery the serpent is generally associated with evil – think of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.  That association must have occurred to her.  It seems that she never talked about any possible involvement afterwards, so we shall probably never know for certain what happened or not.  I’ll admit to the possibility that she might have encouraged him at first when his plans were not fully formed.  But even if so, I think she must have backed out as others did, and might have even tried to dissuade him for all we know.  In the end, only 21 men accompanied John Brown and only 5 of them were African-American.  I could find no reference to any of them being recruited by Harriet Tubman.

During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman first worked for the Union Army as a cook and a nurse.  Later she worked as a scout and a spy, and even led an armed expedition in the war.  She guided 300 black Union troops under Colonel Montgomery in the raid at Combahee Ferry in South Carolina, which liberated more than 750 slaves and destroyed Confederate supplies without the Union troops losing a single man.  After the war she was active in helping aged former slaves, in starting a retirement home for poor blacks, and was active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Although I was aware of Harriet Tubman and knew a little about her before her selection to appear on the twenty-dollar bill, it was only after I researched her life that I became enthusiastic about it.  It is a recognition not only of a courageous, intelligent woman, but also of those who labor in the face of strong opposition for justice.  It is remarkable to me that a government – any government – would strongly commemorate someone who first gained prominence by disobeying its own laws to the point of putting their own freedom at risk.  Those unjust laws did change due to her and many others.  The choice was an excellent one.

I recommend that anyone interested in learning more about Harriet Tubman read one of the several books available about her.  For this article I read Bound for the Promised Land, by Kate Clifford Larson, which I checked out from the Public Library.  I also read Harriet Tubman: Anti-Slavery Activist by M.W. Taylor, which I ordered used from Amazon.  Both are fine books.  The first is a somewhat scholarly work filled with many references and remarks as to what we know for certain and what is not certain.  The second is a very readable book, but is relatively short and with few references.  I also consulted The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North, written and edited by Charles L. Blockson.  The Wikipedia’s entries, although helpful as a starting point, will probably be insufficient for those who want to know more.