Monthly Archives: April 2016


Tubman on the New $20 Bill – Move Over Jackson

[Note: a version of this piece originally ran in the Huffington Post on April 23, 2016; You can also hear this and related pieces in Episode 010 of my podcast, In The Past Lane]

ITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)The recent announcement by the United States Treasury Department that Harriet Tubman, escaped slave and abolitionist, would replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill has garnered a lot of attention. Tubman will not only be the first African American to appear on U.S. currency, she also will be the first woman to do so in more than a century (Martha Washington and Pocahontas made cameos in the late-19th century). Meanwhile, Jackson will be demoted to the backside of the $20. Predictably, conservatives and traditionalists filled the Twittersphere and other forms of social media with outrage against what they see as the latest affront by the forces of so-called “political correctness.”

While this response is understandable – people often see change as a form of loss – it’s also misguided.  One of the central insights gained from the study of history is that, Nothing has always been. Nothing. Everything that we think of as traditional, has a point of origin that is probably not as far back in time as you think. For example, when did the United States decide it needed a massive peacetime military – you know, two million soldiers and 500 ships? The year was 1950 – less than 70 years ago. Before 1950, Americans agreed that a republic ought to have a small peacetime military. Then the Cold War happened and we changed our mind. There are countless other examples, but you get the point.

So how does this apply to the new $20 bill? First, we didn’t even have federal paper money until 1862 – that’s 74 years AFTER the ratification of the US Constitution. And second, in the coming years, many, many faces appeared on that paper money. Before Jackson, President Grover Cleveland’s face appeared on the $20 bill. Jackson bumped him in 1928 – a mere 88 years ago.  Let’s face it: the look of US paper money has changed many, many times and it wasn’t designed by God or George Washington.

President Grover Cleveland graced the front of the $20 bill until he was displaced by Andrew Jackson in 1928.

President Grover Cleveland graced the front of the $20 bill until he was displaced by Andrew Jackson in 1928.

But the negative reaction to the new $20 bill also reflects more than mere nostalgia. It indicates a shallow understanding of the purpose of civic symbols. Choosing names for public schools, establishing holidays, and building monuments to people or events are ways a society proclaims and affirms certain values. The selection of particular people to adorn U.S. currency performs a similar function. It says, in so many words, these people and what they stood for and what they did are worthy of our admiration. Their examples from the past should inspire us as we go about living our present and building our future.

Jackson was known popularly as "Old Hickory" and enjoyed a reputation as a defender of the "common man."

Jackson was known popularly as “Old Hickory” and enjoyed a reputation as a defender of the “common man.”

This understanding explains the decision to demote Andrew Jackson from his place of honor on the $20 bill. Simply put, American values have changed a lot since his presidency (1829-1837) and since his placement on the $20 bill in 1928. In his day and for decades thereafter, Jackson was hailed as a man who expanded American democracy and defended the rights of the “common man” against the predations of the rich and politically connected.

These are very important accomplishments and this aspect of Jackson’s reputation is largely accurate. But it’s also incomplete.  It obscures the fact that in Jackson’s understanding, democracy and equal rights only applied to white men. And it ignores the fact that Jackson advanced the cause of white men by promoting the expansion of slavery. Key to this policy was the opening of vast stretches of the American southeast to whites for cotton cultivation by enslaved labor. Jackson achieved this goal by forcibly expelling – in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court – tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homelands in the American southeast. Their deadly march to Oklahoma killed thousands and became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Jackson's expulsion of Native Americans from the US southeast became known as the "Trail of Tears" because thousands dies on the forced march to Oklahoma.

Jackson’s expulsion of Native Americans from the US southeast became known as the “Trail of Tears” because thousands dies on the forced march to Oklahoma.

These disturbing facts regarding Jackson’s presidency are not politically correct; they are simply correct and worthy of our attention. Jackson’s heroic status in the nineteenth century reflected the values of an antebellum America that was committed to territorial expansion and slavery. Similarly, the placement of Jackson on the $20 bill likewise reflected the values of a 1920s America that was dedicated to upholding a Jim Crow system of segregation and racial oppression.

A lot of history has unfolded since 1928 and with it has come an expansive notion of American citizenship that includes women, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. This transformation has been accompanied by an increased willingness to confront the darker chapters of American history like slavery and Japanese internment.

In light of this development, the choice of Harriet Tubman to replace Jackson is a laudable one. Symbolically, as a woman, an African American, and a former slave, Tubman stands for the Americans left out of Jackson’s vaunted “common man” constituency.

This 1850s woodcut image of Harriet Tubman depicts her as a defiant radical willing to break the law to end slavery.

This 1850s woodcut image of Harriet Tubman depicts her as a defiant radical willing to break the law to end slavery.

What’s more, Tubman embodied an essential and often undervalued American tradition of civil disobedience. Every chapter in the unfolding story of American freedom, democracy, and justice has been written by people who were willing to defy unjust laws, despite the attendant risks to their lives, reputations, and property. Tubman escaped slavery and then willingly risked her life innumerable times by returning to the South to guide others to freedom in the North along the Underground Railroad. Like later activists fighting for labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights (just to name a few), she broke laws to expose their unjust character and gain their repeal. What could be more American than that?

Placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill reflects an broadened notion of what sort of Americans and what kinds of actions are worthy of our collective admiration and commemoration. It’s no mere coincidence that this has occurred at a time when public sentiment has demanded the removal of pro-Confederate symbols from the public square. And this fact should caution us against reading too much into the new $20 bill. Symbols are important. But they are not ends in themselves. The best ones call to our attention what we value and why.

In 2016 the United States is beset by serious problems concerning poverty, inequality, and racism. Harriet Tubman’s arrival on the $20 bill will not solve these problems. Its purpose is to stand as a vivid and powerful symbol of freedom, equality, and inclusion. It’s up to us citizens to make use of it.


Episode 010 Harriet Tubman on the Twenty & More

subscribe-buttonThis week at the In The Past Lane history podcast, we take up some timely questions: Who was Harriet Tubman and why did the U.S. Treasury Dept. choose her as the first woman to appear on the $20 bill? And why has President Andrew Jackson been demoted to the backside of the bill? Along the way, we’ll speak with the historian who literally wrote the book on Harriet Tubman, historian Catherine Clinton. We’ll also check in with historian Stephanie Yuhl in our History Skinny segment where we discuss history that’s made headlines. So put the top down and join us for another informative and fun journey In The Past Lane.

Episode 010 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of Harriet Tubman, Andrew Jackson, and the Underground Railroad

harriet-tubman-road-freedom-clintonCatherine Clinton, “The Long Journey from the Age of Jackson to Harriet Tubman on the Twenty” History News Network

Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (2004)

Catherine Clinton’s website:

Feminista Jones, “Keep Harriet Tubman – and all women – off the $20 bill,” The Washington Post, May 14, 2015

Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton, 2015)

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)



Episode 009 Taxes and Tax Revolts in US History and More

This week at In The Past Lane, in honor (if that’s the right word) of Tax Day,  we take a close look at the history of the fraught relationship between Americans and their taxes.  This episode features three segments:
1) an interview with historian William Hogeland about his terrific book on one of the biggest tax revolts in US history, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. 2) the story of a one-man, one-day tax revolt by Henry David Thoreau that — eventually — exerted a tremendous influence on social justice struggles around the world, including women’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans in the US. 3) a fun grab bag of things related to the history of taxes in US history, including – wait for it – a reason to be thankful for taxes … seriously …

Episode 009 notes and credits

Further reading about the history of taxes and tax revolts

hogeland-book-cover-2Charles Adams, Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts That Built America (1998).

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (2010)

Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (1986)

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings, William Rossi, Ed. (2008)

Some History Podcasts to Check Out

Ben Frankin’s World with Liz Covart

Past Present with Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Petrzela, and Neil Young

Slate’s History of Slavery with Rebecca Onion

The Way of Improvement Leads Home with John Fea

BackStory with the American History Guys

Music for This Episode:

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope That It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, “Acoustic Meditation” (Free Music Archive)

Hercules mulligan title card

Hercules Mulligan, Patriot Mentor and Spymaster

Who wITPL - Check Out ITPL Podcast image (for blog)as Hercules Mulligan? Well, he certainly was a man with one of the great names in American history. Hercules Mulligan – you can’t make up a name like that. But beyond that great name, Hercules Mulligan has existed as a mere footnote for the last 200+ years of American history. That is, until about a year ago when, “Hamilton, The Musical,” opened on Broadway. The show, which has gone on to become one of the biggest hits in recent Broadway history, chronicles the life of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. It features well-known figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but also people lost to history like Hercules Mulligan. He played a key role in the life of Hamilton, and served as one of Washington’s most important spies during the American Revolution.

Mulligan was born in County Antrim, in northern Ireland in 1740. Six years later, he emigrated with his family to colonial New York City. His father was a wealthy merchant, so Hercules enjoyed a comfortable life and received a very good education. By the mid 1760s, he was himself a prosperous businessman, operating a shop that sold cloth and custom tailored suits.

By the mid 1760s, Hercules Mulligan had also joined the Sons of Liberty. This early Patriot group had formed in 1765 to resist the Stamp Act—you know, the whole, “No taxation without representation” thing. The year 1765 was just the beginning of a decade of turmoil over British policies and Mulligan remained active member of the Sons of Liberty.

In 1773, the same year as the Bostonhamilton logo Tea Party, Mulligan met a 16-year-old orphan from the British West Indies. His name was Alexander Hamilton. Mulligan offered to rent him a room while he studied at Kings College (the forerunner to Columbia University). When Hamilton wasn’t studying, he hung around Mulligan’s store and listened to him talk with his friends, many of them fellow Sons of Liberty, about British abuses and the need to resist them. Not surprisingly, Hamilton soon joined the Sons of Liberty.

In 1775 Hamilton penned a widely read article highly critical of Great Britain’s increasingly harsh treatment of the colonies. Two months later, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. Sixteen months after that, the British invaded New York with a massive army and armada of 300 ships. In the ensuing Battle of Long Island in August 1776, George Washington and his Continental Army barely escaped capture and destruction. From that point until the end of the war, New York City remained under British occupation and it became a key center of military planning for the British.

As the war progressed, George Washington recognized the importance of establishing an intelligence network in New York to acquire information on British military plans. Accordingly, he put in place a network of spies that came to be known as the Culper Ring. And one of its most important members was Hercules Mulligan. In all likelihood, it was Hamilton—now an officer in Washington’s army—who recommended him.

Now, it’s important to point out that spying was dangerous business. In September 1776, the British caught Nathan Hale spying in the New York area and hanged him in Manhattan, not far from Mulligan’s home. So Mulligan and the other Culper Ring spies had to be very careful.

Fortunately for Hercules Mulligan, his business put him in an ideal position to gather information without arousing suspicion. His shop had to become very popular among colonial elites before the war, and during the military occupation it proved equally popular among British officers who were convinced that Mulligan was a Loyalist. In those days, tailoring shops were kind of like barbershops or coffee shops where customers hung out and talked freely about news and gossip. So while Mulligan went about his business of selling cloth and measuring, tailoring, and fitting British officers into their new suits, he listened for loose talk of military plans. Whenever he obtained important information about troop movements or changes in overall strategy, he passed it on to George Washington.

Hercules mulligan in hamilton copy

Hercules Mulligan (second from left) in “Hamilton, The Musical”

As Hercules Mulligan in “Hamilton” puts it:

A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it…
To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
See, that’s what happens when you up against the ruffians
We in the shit now, somebody gotta shovel it!
Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction
When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!

In one crucial instance, Mulligan heard of a British plot to capture George Washington. He passed on the information, allowing Washington to change his plans and foil the plot. Needless to say, had Washington been captured, the Patriot cause would have been doomed.

Mulligan played his role of tailor/spy perfectly for the whole war. But as the conflict came to an end, he had a big problem. He had performed so convincingly as a Loyalist, that most New Yorkers were convinced that he WAS a Loyalist. This was not a good position in which to be in the early 1780s. Loyalists were being driven from the colonies by angry Patriots. Some were tarred and feathered and a few were even killed.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

General George Washington arrives with Governor Clinton and troops in New York on November 26, 1783 as the defeated British evacuated the city.

Fortunately for Mulligan, none other than George Washington came to his aid. On November 26, 1783, General Washington triumphantly processed into New York City as the last British ships departed. As he reached Lower Manhattan, he stopped at the home of Hercules Mulligan. The two enjoyed a breakfast together after which Washington publicly praised Mulligan as, “A true friend of liberty.” No one threatened Hercules Mulligan again after that!

Mulligan, unlike the ill-fated Hamilton, went on to enjoy a long and prosperous life in the years that followed. He died in New York in 1825 at the age of 85. Then he faded into historical obscurity—but not permanently.

Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton helped rescue Hercules Mulligan from historical obscurity.

In 2004, Ron Chernow published a best-selling biography of Alexander Hamilton. In it, he related the role Mulligan played in Hamilton’s early life and his role as a spy in the Revolutionary War. And this is the book Lin-Manuel Miranda read that inspired him to create, “Hamilton, the Musical.” Miranda has said in interviews that he was drawn to Mulligan both for his unique name and for the important role he played in Hamilton’s life.

So there you have it. The incredible story of the great Irish spy helped win the American Revolution. Who knew?




Further reading:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Michael O’Brien, Hercules Mulligan: Confidential Correspondent of General Washington (1937)



Episode 008 – How America Got Cool

This week In The Past Lane looks into the little know and yet hugely significant development of the ice and refrigeration industries in US history. 1) first we tell the story of the Frederick Tudor, The “Ice King,” who single-handedly invented the ice industry way back in 1806. This development radically redefined the American life, especially the American diet. 2) Then we check in with historian Jonathan Rees, the subscribe-buttonnation’s leading authority on all things related refrigeration, to learn how mechanical refrigeration and machine-made ice accelerated this transformation of everyday life. 3) Finally, we take just a few minutes to visit a unique bar in New York City. It’s called Minus 5 and with the exception of the floor and ceiling, it’s made entirely of ice and kept at a temperature of Minus 5 centigrade (minus 19 F). Yeah, I know …

Episode 008 notes and credits

Further Reading about the history of ice and refrigerationRees - RefrigerationNation copy

Oscar Edward Anderson, Jr. Refrigeration in America: A History of a New Technology and Its Impact (Princeton University Press, 1953).

Mariana Gosnell, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance (Knopf, 2005)

Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rees, Refrigerator (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle (Massachusetts Historical Society and Mystic Seaport, 2003).

Gavin Weightman, The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story (Hyperion, 2003)


Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (courtesy,

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “On The Street” (Free Music Archive)

Jason Shaw, “Jenny’s Theme (Free Music Archive)