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Monday, December 09, 2019

The Way Of The World, Hamilton, Jackson and Tubman


One treasury secretary has saved another. Isn’t that the way of the world? History has its eyes on you, Jacob Lew.

Brilliant, storied Alexander Hamilton, darling of Broadway and Wall Street, will stay on the $10 bill. Hamilton, the first treasury secretary, had his face saved by Lew, our treasury secretary, who promised a genteel uprising to keep Hamilton right where he is. Even Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” pitched a plea to Lew.

Relax, Hamiltonians. America will keep singing his name. We’ll keep burying Aaron Burr, who slew him, in dust — even if Hamilton was no saint in sparking their duel.

Wait, there’s more news. All the fuss has produced a major move for President Andrew Jackson — off the $20 bill. Sing serendipity. From the annals of history, Lew chose Harriet Ross Tubman to be on the $20 bill, the first female face on paper bills in memory.

I knew that’s what Lew was going to do. He’s no historian, but choosing the 19th-century woman of color, code-named Moses, who led her people from slavery to freedom, nicely fits the tempo of our times. The nation watched as riots broke out in Baltimore last April.

Tubman was born into brutal slavery in the same state, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Under the lash. Her head bore the scar of an iron hurled at her.

As a conductor on the abolitionist Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses for runaway slaves often run by Quakers, Tubman was sought by catchers as the “most wanted” fugitive slave. But she kept returning, in disguise, to lead family and kin, crossing over the Chesapeake Bay terrain. She navigated by the North Star, singing signals, becoming a legend for her fearlessness.

The number Tubman led over the Mason-Dixon line to freedom is unknown, but some scholars say it may have been just under 100. Like most born into slavery, she was illiterate. Also a Marylander, Frederick Douglass was born nearby on a rich plantation about the same time.

Tubman’s life was about crossing treacherous borders. During the Civil War, she worked as a Union spy in South Carolina, cradle of the Confederacy, where she urged slaves to board Union boats to freedom. Not for nothing, the abolitionist John Brown called her “General Tubman.” (She declined to join his raid on a federal arsenal.)

Tubman’s displacement of Jackson makes rich irony. A famed military man, Jackson owned 100 slaves at his Nashville plantation. I visited the “Hermitage” and heard all about “The General” and his favorite places to sit. “Where did the slaves live?” I asked. In the woods, said the lady in period costume. Not a word about the “Trail of Tears” was spoken — the forced march that Jackson sent thousands of American Indians on, leaving their own lands for Oklahoma. And Donald Trump praises Jackson like a long-lost great-great grandfather.

In the 1830s, Jackson personified the “Slave Power” in Washington. He harshly enforced all the slavery laws on the books. To crown his racist legacy, he made Roger Taney the Chief Justice of the United States. In1857, Taney authored the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, so ruthless on race that it hastened the Civil War. Taney was a Marylander, too.

Reporting for the Baltimore Sun, I crossed miles and the Bay Bridge to explore this sorry history. Tubman sites on the Eastern Shore are gaining recognition as significant. The great house of the Lloyd plantation, where young “Fred” grew up, still stood when I came to call. And relatives of Tubman still tell her story, fresh as farmer’s peaches.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” as the “Hamilton” song goes. We need to know more than second-grade stories about Tubman.

Lew named a line-up of seven women for re-designs of the $5, $10 and $20 (on the back of bills.) Most were Quaker or African-American. They were all truly great. If I were in the room where it happens: Jake, I’d say, don’t be fooled by the bonnet. Lucretia Mott started it all as the women’s rights movement and an abolitionist leader. Her fellow Quaker, Alice Paul, crossed to victory in 1920 — for suffrage.

Freedom fighter Tubman lived to a very old age, about 90 in 1913, but she never saw that day. Too bad she can’t live to see this one.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit


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