Two Hamiltons For A Tubman

Tubman20Seems like we were just talking about this not very long ago. We’re not going to replace Alexander Hamilton’s profile on the $10 bill. A certain popular Broadway musical (recently featured as our sidebar musical selection, coincidentally) seems to have seen to that.

Instead, the Treasury Department has let it be known that Andrew Jackson’s image will be removed from future $20 bills, to be replaced by the image of Harriet Tubman.

With this move, the Obama Administration announces that the founder of the modern Democratic Party will no longer appear on one of the most frequently-used pieces of currency, to be replaced by a Republican who made her mark on history by using a gun for its violence-deterring abilities. And there’s people who say bipartisanship is dead.

Well, I say, Tubman was a badass and a true American hero for both her moral and her physical bravery. I’m well pleased with this announcement. Public honors of this nature shift to reflect contemporary understandings of the past and people from our history who we deem worthy of admiration. Andrew Jackson’s star has fallen dramatically, and Harriet Tubman — liberator of slaves, civil war hero, and personification of the national conscience — strikes me as an American eminently worthy of honor.

Your mileage may vary, and that’s what the comments section is for.


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207 thoughts on “Two Hamiltons For A Tubman

  1. It’s a good choice. I think Frederick Douglas would have probably been a solid choice for important African Americans, however to get a woman on paper currency, Susan B. Anthony would have irked too many people (plus she already got her face on coinage). I think Tubman is a good compromise and certainly deserving. I really liked the idea of Rosa Parks though.

    I am bothered we are losing Jackson though. He was a bastard, but also did a tremendous amount for the country.

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  2. Maybe we should consider not limiting each denomination to a single person, and use a rotation of worthies. Perhaps they could be thematic. With Lincoln as the main man on the five, we might rotate in William Seward, Frederick Douglass, and other contemporaries.
    The only problem I see with this (I don’t see vigorous debate over whether Jackson or Calhoun ought to be on a bill as a problem.) is that it might slow down recognition of denominations, a problem we could solve, as other countries do, by making each denomination a different color.

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  3. I’m not sorry to see Jackson get off the paper money, and my best reason for that is that Jackson himself hated paper money, and was immensely distrustful of it. Jackson vetoed the charter renewal for the Second National Bank, probably because of his hard-money proclivities, and partly because he had a personal beef with Nelson Biddle, president of the SNB.

    Andrew Jackson had a profound effect on the United States, it’s quite true. Even if most of the things he did ended up being things I don’t like, he still is a very important figure. Surely we can find some other forum to honor him than on the money?

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  4. I was surprisingly happy to hear the news. I know it sounds like signaling, but it seemed like the figures on our bills have been enshrined there forever. Any change, and specifically this change, is a good thing to me.

    But I would still rather our money look this awesome.

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  5. While I have my problems with Hamilton (for one thing, he supported an unjust war, just like the people who are on the 1, 2, and 100 bills), I’m glad we’re keeping him. I’m also glad we’re dumping Jackson. Tubman in my opinion is an excellent choice.

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        • Man I love Vox…

          So, the southern states rebelled from the Union and fought a costly and ultimately self-destructive war to maintain the institution of slavery, but if America had still been a British colony the British government would have been able to abolish slavery? I know everything sounds more authoritative in a British accent, but this is pushing it.

          This argument would be much more convincing if Britain’s abolition laws happened in the 18th century, but once Whitney patented the cotton gin the industry became so productive that the Civil War became almost an inevitability. The interesting thing about the history of slavery is that many at the time of the revolution thought that the institution was on its way out, but it actually became much more entrenched throughout the beginning of the 19th century.

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        • I’m actually think slavery is a counterpoint to my position, for reasons similar to what J-R suggests. I can imagine that the US exiting the British Empire made the success of British abolitionism possible. And even I have to admit that some states abolished slavery shortly after the Revolution began or shortly after independence, which I can’t help but count as a good thing.

          As to whether, as that article suggests, we would have had a parliamentary system and whether that would have been a good thing….I’m not so sure on either count. I’m a little more confident in that article’s claim that American Indians would have been treated slightly less bad.

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            • Actually the Civil War might have been even worse. Southerners fighting for slavery, some northerners for independence, and New French to stir excrement.

              Or the war might have been avoided with less encroachment on the slavery institution due to fears of the above, or because of a French threat and wars in the West, keeping slavery around longer.

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                • That was a thing in Turtledove’s Southern Victory. After the Confederacy won, the US was not especially inclined to follow up. African-Americans could vote in some states, though. One family moved from Kentucky to Iowa for that reason (among others).

                  (Kentucky was in the Confederacy until WWI when the US grabbed it (with Oklahoma and part of Texas), then ended up back in the Confederacy later.)

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        • I think JR makes good points. The whole Box piece seems awash in counter factuals. The British Empire was no bed of roses. The Brits might have freed their slaves but many Colonial subjects were paid wages that might have well made them slaves. There is also the Opium War.

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        • This is assuming that the United Kingdom would have followed the same course when it came to abolishing slavery even with the Thirteen Colonies in the Empire. The pro-slavery faction would have been more powerful because King Cotton though.

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      • You might be right. But a lot of people I know today would reject a war started for similar reasons as that one. I mean mostly the underlying reasons, not the propaganda ones from the declaration, but even those cannot always hide the many base–and to my mind insufficient–justifications for war.

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        • Besides what JR pointed out, would you be happy if the United States stayed in the British Empire and fully participated in 19th century Colonialism? Would you want ancestors who sold opium to the Chinese and used batons against Ghandi?

          The British Empire is not awash in glory.

          The American Revolution was not perfect and America is far from perfect. But I think the ideals of the American Revolution were just and important for the world. We would be a world ruled by the gentry without them.

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          • I have long argued, semi-seriously, that the French and Indian War, and specifically the Plains of Abraham, was the last significant military action in North America. The argument is that this left Britain as the only major player, at which point it would inevitably end up as an effectively-independent more-or-less liberal democracy. Whether we have a president or a prime minister and a governor general are mere trivia. As I say, this is only semi-serious, in part because it supposes that French Canada would have been a viable player in the long run, even apart from the outcome of that war.

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            • I suppose there is truth to this but I think the same truth also makes the American Revolution sort of inevitable. They were already semi-independent and far from the mother colony. By the time of the Revolution, many had only distant connections with the U.K. They probably wanted to be on their own officially.

              I don’t like counter factually because they assume too much and ignore too much. Dylan Matthews hand waves away the entire history of the British Empire in the 18th century to make a Slatepitch. I would use a genie wish to get rid of the Slatepitch and Vox navel gaze.

              I am also not sure of the ultimate goal or purpose of arguing that the American Revolution was wrong in 2016. The Revolution happened and the United States exists. What is the point of saying”Hamilton supported an unjust war” except for a variant of special snowflake?

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            • Granting the false premise of the proposal (as I understand it, “Whether it was overtly British, quasi-autonomously Commonwealthy, or independently American, an English-speaking nation in North America would necessarily have been an Anglocentric liberal democracy,”) I still disagree: there were multiple armed engagements against Spain and Mexico.

              There was German military activity in the United States during the First World War and naval engagements up and down the Atlantic Seaboard in the Second. Not sure whether you’d want to describe Pearl Harbor as occurring in North America, I guess one could go either way.

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              • The part I am most confident of is the Anglocentric liberal democracy. Every other former British colony with a majority population of European descent has gone that way, as well as some with a majority non-European population.

                The premise with regard to Spain and Mexico is that we would have stolen more or less the territories we did, regardless of technicalities of governments. It’s not as if Manifest Destiny was contrary to the spirit of Victorian England.

                As for the 20th century stuff, I am unimpressed by minor sabotage on the coast. Early in WWII a Japanese submarine surfaced at took a few pot shots at an oil complex in California. The locals were very impressed at the time, but the military significance was nil.

                Pearl Harbor is an interesting question, as the raid was of vast political significance. But Hawaii most certainly is not part of North America in any pure geography sense. The question only arises because it seems odd to have a US state that is not part of N.A. Even granting that in a political sense it is part of N.A. today, in 1941 it was no more part of N.A. than is Guam.

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            • There are plenty of paths (starting with the 1763 Treaty of Paris) that result in multiple independent nation-states in the 20th century between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico (and not just the obvious one), and many opportunities for any of those nation-states (and the one that does exist) to exit the road of liberal democracy towards a authoritarian or tyrannical rest stop (again, besides the obvious one).

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              • The counter-factual is that Britain takes over French Canada, just as in our timeline, but that for whatever reason the American Revolution never happens, or happens but fizzles. That last is incredibly easy to posit, starting with Washington falls off his horse and breaks his neck at some important moment.

                This leaves North America as a collection of British colonies. How they are organized, both internally and with respect to one another, and how firm or loose is London’s hand in them is open to variation. Also, the population is of predominantly European ancestry, and outside of parts of Canada is predominantly Anglophone. My argument is that in the real world, this has been a consistent recipe for a liberal democracy. Sure, we can construct scenarios that go in different directions, but I think the smart money is on the observed trend.

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                • It’s a consistent trend because you have one humongous country that managed to stick together, and three sisters whose combined population today equals what that humongous population was back in 1890.

                  Splitting up the USA creates a lot more laboratories of government and not necessarily democracy. Particularly since the most likely scenario, if London would have been able to keep a lid on things in 1776, was eventually trans-Appalachia settlement revolting against London (and against Native American sovereignty), creating a separate country in the Old Northwest – but with trade routes that still had to go through British East America or the Franco-Spanish Mississippi delta. So we probably eventually get a North American version of the War of the Triple Alliance, with a similar long term trajectory of political and economic development.

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          • The war was just or unjust regardless of whether the British Empire was “awash in glory.” And I agree with you, the British Empire wasn’t. But as far as it treated the American colonists, its rule fell far short of anything that in my opinion justifies killing people.

            I wouldn’t be happy with remaining in the British Empire and taken part in colonialism any more than I’m happy with the US taking part in colonialism or manifest destiny. But the fact that the British Empire was at least as bad as the American Empire turned out to be doesn’t make the American Revolution a just war and something we should celebrate.

            The American Revolution was not perfect and America is far from perfect. But I think the ideals of the American Revolution were just and important for the world.

            I’ll give you that much, the ideals were (most of them) pretty good. But so were (some of) the ideals for which American leaders claimed to be fighting wars in Iraq, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

            We would be a world ruled by the gentry without them.

            I think the democratizing trend of “modernity” would have happened with or without the American Revolution or its ideals. It all would have happened differently, but it still would have more or less happened. Or might have happened. I don’t think the ideals themselves have a lot of causal power when it comes to whether we would be (or still are) ruled by something that can be called a gentry. However, since we’re dealing in counterfactuals, your counterfactual is as good as mine.

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          • Although the comment I’m replying to is unjustifiably over-abrasive and somewhat incompletely thought out, it brings to mind a larger point that has been fermenting in the back of my mind for quite some time now…

            The “love it or leave it” crowd are generally big proponents of American exceptionalism, and treat any discussion of American life (much less actual criticism) that doesn’t explicitly train a positive light on the subject as being an attack. And one not just on the topic, but on the very idea of America itself.

            But to me, they’re getting it backward.

            American exceptionalism is about American ideals, almost in a platonic sense. It’s aspirational. The Founders, and us their descendants, dared to dream of an America that is unattainable in this fallen world. Pointing out where real Americans, and real America, didn’t live up to that isn’t an attack – it’s a chance to remind ourselves of those great ideals and to reinforce that being an American is a process of striving for something that you can only get close to, never attain. It’s not an attack to point out where we came up short in the past. It’s our duty.

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              • By Just War Theory, it’s a slam-dunk – there wasn’t. Of course, by Just War Theory, without Pearl Harbor, we wouldn’t have been justified in intervening in WWII until the death camps were conclusively proven. And even then we probably would have to have pulled up and let the Soviets take Germany all the way to the Rhine, with inevitable consequences.

                That’s why many people, myself included, consider Just War Theory to be somewhat… problematic.

                I think a case can be made that the rift between the colonies and GB could still have been healed, at least if they’d started in 1774 or so. That the Parliamentary allies we’d already built up, who were after all in the same “party” and same intellectual tradition, could have gotten the American colonies basically the same deal that Scotland had. And then, with Parliamentary representation, the huge population would be a force driving law-making going forward. So the “alternate” UK today might have America looking a little more like “our” GB, but the “alternate” GB looking a lot more like “our” USA.

                Of course, this wouldn’t have worked because slavery…

                Now that you mention it, looking back, I’m not sure if I would have been a Son of Liberty. I doubt if I’d have been a Tory – I’ve always had Whiggish sentiments. I’m just not sure if the idea of revolution in 1775 was as clear to the average person as it seems in retrospect. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

                So to sum up, I think it’s actually an open question as to whether the revolution was justified. I like the results, obviously. But weighing the costs of revolution and independence (which costs also include 1812) against the possibility of change within the existing system – that gets real murky real quick.

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                • I see–and agree with–most of what you’re saying in this comment, including the part about just war theory being “problematic,” and in more ways than you suggest. And I should probably own up to the problematism, since I’m the one invoking just war theory.

                  Kind of as an aside, I do think the case for the Revolution (or some sort of Revolution) is a lot stronger after the Coercive Acts than before. I’ve obviously staked out my view that the revolution was regardless not justified, but perhaps I have overly exacting standards. (My standards are also ahistorical, and if I adopted this position as the historian I’ve been trained to be and not as a person living in 2016, I’d have to treat the issue much less stridently.) The truth is that it happened.

                  I do agree with your warnings about us not knowing what America and the UK (and the world) would look like today without a Revolution. Maybe things would be better, maybe not.

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    • I’m reasonably sure, for instance, that I would not have liked Patrick Henry at all. He seems like a judgemental blowhard grandstander to me. And a few other prominent patriots, too. But not Franklin, and not John Adams, and not Washington. Jefferson was a brilliant writer, but somehow couldn’t carry out the ideals that he could so ably espouse. Not that unusual a failing.

      So yeah, I often wonder which side of the War of Independence I would have been on.

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        • I’ve long thought that colonial rule was never that irksome and that the representation argument was largely bogus because even granting the colonies representation in Parliament, even on a fair basis (itself a radical idea in England, where constituencies varied enormously in size), the colonies would likely have been consistently outvoted. What they really wanted was to run their own show, which is a legitimate enough beef. Whether I would have been willing to go to war over it back then I don’t know, but since it worked out at fairly low casualty levels, I can’t say now that it was a bad idea.

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      • I don’t honestly know what side I’d have been on, either. I admit my critique is ahistorical. I’m using my 20th century sensibilities (I first had my major skepticisms about the justness of the war in 1988, when I had to read Johnny Tremain for 8th grade) and applying them to the 18th century.

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  6. Frankly, I’m really not all that worked up either way. We’ve moving to a zero cash environment anyway, so making any changes seem more politics than anything else. But for got sake, make her image decent looking. The images I’ve seen frankly suck.

    While we’re at it, bring back the 500 dollar bill. I get SO tired of carrying around bricks of hunners.

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      • I’ve never seen an ATM dispense 50s. They used to dispense 10s, that’s gone. Now I typically don’t get cash in the 50, 150, etc. increments where a 50 would be convenient perhaps, but whenever I pull 100 out all I get are 20s and the occasional 2 tens.

        If I want anything bigger, I have to go into the bank and exchange it.

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        • I’m offered fifties at my ATM now. Not really liking it. Most retail clerks aren’t either; the typical cash register I see is set up with four slots for bills: ones, fives, tens, and twenties. When people offer bills other than those, they can’t store and make change nearly as fast.

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            • What I see around here that is interesting is people — often, but not exclusively, an Hispanic family — that pay for groceries from a small bundle of brand-new hundreds. Other than holding them up to the light to check the anti-counterfeiting strip, the clerks all seem to treat it as a routine thing.

              A few months ago I found three hundreds laying on the floor at the grocery. I turned them in with the manager, who gave me a receipt (but no promises about how corporate would handle things). Some days later she called to tell me that one of their regular customers had shown up in tears, having lost three hundred-dollar bills, and that corporate had decided to give her the three I had found. I suppose it’s possible it was some sort of scam, but I’d like to think not.

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