The decision to replace former President Andrew Jackson’s image on the $ 20 bill with abolitionist Harriet Tubman appears to be a departure from the foreign-policy presidents and statesmen who have graced the US currency since the early 20th century . But Tubman’s role in a network that brought the people of British colonial Canada to freedom was part of a broader struggle between competing visions of American foreign policy among those who viewed the hemisphere as a battleground for slavery or for freedom.
Tubman was born in the early 1820s, during a period of forced migration known as the Second Middle Passage, when approximately one million blacks were brought from the older coastal states to fertile, cotton-growing land taken from Native Americans in the new Louisiana area. There they were sold down the river in the deep south: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
In this context of continental forced migration of millions of people, Tubman’s work in the 1850s on the subway, which helps between 70 and 300 enslaved people travel in the opposite direction to freedom, may seem small. However, their efforts were important in part because they were an exceptional example of a decision – whether to try to seek freedom elsewhere – that many thousands of people had to make in different ways during the first half of the 19th century. Canada was just one of the possible destinations. Liberia, Haiti, Florida in Spain, Central America, and Mexico were among the places where black Americans migrated to freedom and better lives before the Civil War.
While the Second Middle Passage moved enslaved people to new US territories to the south, some American politicians discussed the merits of moving others to new colonies for liberated people. The American Colonization Society, an organization that believed that it was not possible or desirable for blacks and whites to live together, founded the Liberia colony in West Africa. It was hoped that the new settlement of black Americans would promote American values, especially Christianity and plantation capitalism, but with free black labor rather than slavery. Emigration to Liberia was never particularly popular with black Americans, partly because of the implications of the colonization arguments that free blacks were not “true Americans” but were for many released from slavery on condition of emigration there was little choice.
Other destinations were more popular. Haiti, the first independent black-ruled republic, initially showed promise. However, a major emigration project funded by Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer failed when the emigrants faced extreme difficulties – drought, famine and the smallpox epidemic – that made it difficult to farm and access work. In the early 1830s, the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy advocated the establishment of a colony in Tamaulipas, Mexico, south of the Mexican territory of Texas, to be settled by 250 free colonists, both white and black. Lundy’s plan, like the colonization of Liberia, was cited as a deliberate challenge to the expansion of slavery. He had been given land to try to plant plantations for cotton, sugar, and other commodities, to prove that free labor could grow these crops in the same way as enslaved labor, and therefore that enslaved labor was not necessary to the continued success of the American economy .
The deteriorating conditions from the 1830s for enslaved and free blacks also sparked black migration initiatives. Laws have been enacted in all regions of the country preventing property ownership, banning free blacks or abrogating civil rights and making living conditions increasingly unsustainable for free blacks. Since colonial times, both enslaved fugitive and free black Americans had settled North America outside the borders of the United States – in places like Florida under the Seminoles, Spain, or rural Appalachians. Canada was an obvious route for those in northern or border states, but for the growing number of enslaved people in the deep south, Canada was not an option.
In 1832 the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator printed a letter from an unnamed free black woman in Philadelphia who advocated migration to Mexico. She wrote that Mexico would be a haven where black rights would not be “constantly trampled”, where “our worth is felt and recognized”. Mexico, which still included areas that stretched from Texas to California, had liberated the last of its remaining enslaved population in 1829. For many enslaved people in the deep south, Mexico was a far easier route of escape than trying to escape to the northern states or Canada. And unlike the northern states, where slave captors were usually not prevented from re-enslaving people, historians have found that attempts to track down people who fled slavery to Mexico have often been hindered.
And so the blacks followed the Philadelphia woman’s advice and went to Mexico. Men like Beverly, 35, who fled Louisiana through Texas; or Elijah and Zeb, who left Arkansas and whose owners believed they were traveling through Texas to “go among the wild Indians”. And just like the Northern Underground Railroad, the refugees to Mexico were dependent on help from strangers. A reward note for six men who had fled three different plantations together indicated that they were going to Mexico with a Mexican guide. But free blacks also moved there, opened shops, learned Spanish and became citizens. William Leidesdorff Jr., a free black businessman, left New Orleans for Mexico and became a citizen in 1844. However, it wasn’t long before the vast swaths of Mexican territory that offered black Americans freedom and opportunity began to shrink.
Hemispheric ambitions have been part of American foreign policy since the Revolution. Proponents of slavery such as Jackson’s Vice President John Calhoun had advocated territorial acquisitions and hemispheric policies to defend slavery in countries like Cuba and Brazil. The purchase in Louisiana in 1804, the introduction of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, and the takeover of East Florida by President John Quincy Adams (then Secretary of State) were used to expand and defend American slavery within the hemisphere. Mexico was next.
Jackson was excited about the white American migration to the Mexican territory of Texas that he hoped to buy. Expansionist southerners had asked for access to new lands. Planting cotton had exhausted the soil in the east. The Texas settlement could open up new land for cotton, but the abolition of Mexico in 1829 threatened that plan. When Jackson’s friend Sam Houston led an armed movement for independence from Texas in 1835, he expanded the boundaries of slavery and brought security in Mexico just out of reach for those fleeing along this southern subway – just beyond the Rio Grande .
Despite the rapidly growing number of enslaved people being brought into the Territory, an independent Republic of Texas was an unstable defender of slavery. The new republic faced possible pressure from London to end the slave trade and the use of enslaved labor. British foreign policy was explicitly and often emphatically anti-slavery. The threat of British interference prompted, in part, the intervention of President James Polk and the annexation of Texas that ultimately led to the Mexican-American War in 1846-48. The war was vehemently opposed by abolitionists who viewed it as yet another victory for the expansion of slave territory in North America and the impact of slavery on the United States.
In the 1850s, when Tubman brought the people of Maryland to freedom, Canada became increasingly attractive due to the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the 1850 Compromise. The compromise attempted to reconcile the demands for pro and anti-slavery in terms of the vast territorial gains that had accompanied the victory in the Mexican-American war. California would be admitted as a free state and Texas as a slave state. Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slaves Act has applied the laws of the slave-owning states across the country, forcing states where slavery was illegal to recognize slave status. Free black Americans who lived near the border of the slave states were particularly vulnerable to capture and enslavement. Stories about the successful escapes of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs were offset by stories about captured free people like Henrietta Wood in Ohio or Solomon Northrup in New York. The reach of slavery in “free” territory even within the United States made Canada – and the anti-slavery muscle of the British Empire – the best hope for ensuring freedom.
This makes Tubman’s work in the 1850s all the more remarkable. She could have safely traveled even in Canada or looked for opportunities in Liberia. Remaining in Philadelphia and returning to Maryland repeatedly to accompany others into their freedom was an extraordinary act of bravery.
The subway was one of many avenues to freedom, many of which were gradually closed due to the relentless expansion of slavery promoted by people like Jackson. Tubman’s individual efforts helped many Americans understand how far blacks were pushed to ensure their freedom in ways that took them beyond the borders of the United States.