Some individuals, notably Donald Trump, along with some of his high profile supporters and sympathizers like Pat Buchanan, Ben Carson, Greta Van Susteren, and Ann Coulter did indeed oppose Lew’s move.
However, when Donald Trump called the move “pure political correctness,” Red State’s Leon Wolf [Email him] said that it was “evident that he is once again signaling to his white supremacist basis of support” [Trump’s Hypocrisy on Harriet Tubman “Political Correctness” Proves that he is Actively Courting Racists, April 21, 2016]
And Republican consultant Liz Mair (the woman responsible for ads featuring semi-nude photos of Melania Trump) similarly tweeted that Trump’s opposition to Tubman was designed to court “white nationalists.”
So Trump's upset about Harriet Tubman going on the $20 bill? Wow. I didn't see that pander to white nationalists coming...— Liz Mair (@LizMair) April 21, 2016
Reality check: If opposing Tubman on Political Correctness grounds makes you a “white supremacist,” then even the most tepid neoconservatives of 20 years ago were far more racist than Trump.
Trump, after all, still stipulated that Tubman was “fantastic” and suggested she might deserve a place on U.S. currency—just not at the expense of Jackson. But back in 1992, when the National Endowment for Humanities created the National Standards for United States History, Lynne Cheney (Dick’s wife and former chair of the National Endowment for Humanities) objected that Tubman simply did not merit the attention she was getting:
Harriet Tubman, an African-American who helped rescue slaves by way of the Underground Railroad, is mentioned six times. Two white males who were contemporaries of Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, get one and zero mentions, respectively. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and the Wright brothers make no appearance at all.Stanley Rothman, Althea K. Nagai, and Robert Lerner wrote a critique of high school textbooks, Molding the Good Citizen, which leading neoconservatives like Nathan Glazer and Cheney endorsed enthusiastically. The authors criticized texts that they said were responsible for "more students knowing about Harriet Tubman than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Stalin, or Winston Churchill." The pre-purge National Review summarized their critique by writing that textbooks were “bowing to feminism and left-wing black politics by overstating the importance of such historical figures as Harriet Tubman.” [Battle of the Books, by Mark Gerson, August 14, 1995].
[The End of History, Wall Street Journal October 20, 1994]
William J. Bennett similarly complained that “something approaching 85 percent of the 17 year olds in America know who Harriet Tubman is, while only about one-third of our high school seniors can place the Civil War in the right half century” [The War Over Culture in Education, Heritage Foundation, September 5, 1991].
As Catherine Clinton observed in her 2004 biography, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, "Tubman's name became a hot button for conservative critics, and she became a symbolic 'whipping girl' for political correctness." Similarly, in his 2007 book, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, Milton C. Sernett similarly noted that "Tubman had become the iconic embodiment of African American history —'politically correct' on two counts: race and gender."
If anything, Establishment conservatives should now be more skeptical of elevating Tubman than they were in the 1990s. Although she had by then become a major figure in high school textbooks and in dozens of children’s biographies based largely on the Communist Earl Conrad’s propagandistic exhumation of her in the 1930s, no historian had written a serious biography of her until the early 2000s [The Moses Of Her People, by James M. McPherson, New York Review of Books, March 11, 2004, subscriber link. See also James Fulford's Harriet Tubman—Gun-Toting Republican, Delusional Narcoleptic, And/Or Creation Of Communist Propaganda? May 15, 2015]. These biographies, including Clinton’s and Sennett’s cited above, found that many of Tubman’s already meager accomplishments had been exaggerated or even invented.
Instead, however, the vast majority of Conservatism Inc. commentators have chosen to celebrate this latest effort to make Tubman equal, if not superior, to the Founding Fathers and other white male heroes. Whereas Respectable Right commentators of just a couple decades ago complained about Tubman’s overemphasis in textbooks, Eli Lehrer [Email him] claims at National Review that the radical Tubman was more important than “the description of her as an ‘Underground Railroad conductor’ that appears in my son’s elementary-school materials and many popular accounts of her life." Lehrer concludes:
Harriet Tubman was a black, Republican, gun-toting, veterans’ activist, with ninja-like spy skills and strong Christian beliefs. She probably wouldn’t have an ounce of patience for the obtuse posturing of some of the tenured radicals hanging around Ivy League faculty lounges.Where once for conservatives Tubman was “a symbolic 'whipping girl' for political correctness,” National Review just ran a blog post Harriet Tubman Is a Great Choice, Not a Politically Correct One [by Jim Geraghty, April 21, 2016]. And National Review’s Charles Cooke tweeted “What is ‘politically correct’ about a gun-toting Christian revolutionary who helped John Brown and willfully defied federal law?”
[What They Didn't Teach You in School about Harriet Tubman, April 21, 2016]
While the neoconservatives once complained that Tubman was elevated to be equal to the founders and great Americans of the Civil war, Cooke [Email him] now asserts on Twitter that Tubman was indeed as important: “Harriet Tubman was a freedom fighter in just the way that the Founders were. Same North Star. Same ‘promissory note.’ Even higher stakes.”
Red State’s Leon Wolf even suggests that Tubman was as, or even more consequential, than Lincoln and Grant, in the fight to save the Union and abolish slavery.
There are so many figures who were central to our great Civil War, both in the military sense (like Grant) and the political sense (like Lincoln). But the Civil War was, at bottom, a spiritual fight. It was won on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg, but these battles would never have been fought if not for the inspirational figures like Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman.It would take volumes to debunk all the myths about Tubman, but it’s worth noting that her new Conservatism Inc. fans particularly tout her fervent Christianity.
[Harriet Tubman is an Excellent Choice for the $20 Bill, Red State, April 20, 2016]
However, as James M. McPherson noted, Tubman suffered from a head injury which caused “what her biographers variously term ‘temporal lobe epilepsy’ or ‘narcolepsy’ or possibly ‘cataplexy.’” And as Kate Clifford Larson explains it in her biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, Tubman's head injury "coincided with an explosion of religious enthusiasm," driven by a "lifetime of potent dreams and visions that, she claimed, foretold the future."
In any other historical figure, this apparent heterodoxy would generate as much unease as Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Praising her strong Christianity as evidence of her conservatism is like calling the homeless man who claims he talks to God a member of the Religious Right. But Conservatism Inc. has no scruple: it needs to sway the rubes.
When Big Brother finally breaks Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Smith does not acknowledge defeat. Instead, he describes his prior hatred of Big Brother as a “cruel, needless misunderstanding”. The novel ends: "It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
This pathetic Conservatism Inc. embrace of Tubman is no different. Rather than fight for principles they professed to believe just a few years ago, they have “won a victory” over themselves. In defeat, they have elected to believe they are victorious.
Alexander Hart (email him) is a conservative journalist.