A pedestal for Harriet Tubman

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By Paul Finkelman and Kate Clifford Larson
Friday, March 11, 2011; 8:30 PM

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that there is such strong resistance from a small minority in Maryland's General Assembly to replacing Revolutionary figure John Hanson's statue in the U.S. Capitol ["Harriet Tubman vs. John Hanson: Statuary Hall Smackdown," Style, March 6]. As scholars who have spent our careers interpreting American history, we hope to shed some light on this issue.

Despite the claims of Hanson supporters - some of them Hanson family descendants - John Hanson was not an important Revolutionary figure, even in Maryland. The definitive biographical dictionary for the United States, American National Biography, published in the 1990s by Oxford University Press, sums up Hanson's role and the reason he is in Statuary Hall:

"In 1903, a statue of John Hanson was unveiled in the statuary hall in the U.S. Capitol. Since Congress allowed each state to honor just two of its outstanding citizens, Hanson's selection was noteworthy. It has recently been argued, however, that Hanson's selection, while not entirely without merit, resulted primarily from a vigorous campaign carried out by one of his grandsons. This descendant argued that Hanson deserved to be memorialized in the U.S. Capitol because of his position as the first president of the United States.

"Hanson was not, in fact, among the first rank of Maryland leaders of the revolutionary generation. Others were more brilliant, more eloquent, and more involved at the highest levels in determining the fate of the state and nation."

Hanson was a hard-working patriot. But so were thousands of others in Maryland. And, despite all the claims of his descendants, he was emphatically not the "first president of the United States." He was the presiding officer over Congress when the Articles of Confederation were ratified. His title was president of the Congress. But in reality he was more like the speaker of the House. He was not elected by the people of the United States. To call him the first president of the United States does a disservice to history and in some ways makes a mockery of the real first president, who had been busy leading the troops in the war against England.

Hanson deserves to be honored - for his patriotism and his hard work in helping gather troops and then finding supplies for those troops. Hanson's descendants are justly proud of what he did, but neither they nor the people of Maryland should accept the linguistic sleight of hand that leads people to incorrectly claim he was our first president, or that he deserves to be in Statuary Hall. A far greater claim can be made for Harriet Tubman.

Tubman embodies the true spirit and meaning of the Declaration of Independence - a founding document that Maryland's own patriot, Charles Carroll, signed almost 235 years ago. Carroll, like Hanson, was a slaveholder. In their worldview, people like Tubman were not part of the freedom and democracy they fought for and struggled to create after the Revolution. How significant, then, that Tubman actually personifies the true intent and great ability of our Constitution to evolve to fulfill the promises of our democracy and the Declaration - that all men (and women) are created equal.

Though born enslaved, Tubman overcame the most horrific of childhood experiences, illiteracy, physical disability and profound social disadvantages to claim freedom for not only herself but for her family and others. She fought to destroy slavery as a soldier, spy and scout in the Civil War, and she spent the last 50 years of her life campaigning for civil rights for women and African Americans.

Tubman is, perhaps, so famous today because she represents ideals that we as Americans hold dear - freedom, equality, justice and self-determination. These are ideals peoples all over the world dream about and hope for. People just like Harriet Tubman.

John Hanson had his days of fame. But Carroll and Hanson could not have possibly imagined the diversity of America today. Statuary Hall should reflect that diversity by honoring an ordinary citizen who did extraordinary things in the pursuit of freedom and equality. What better symbol to represent Maryland and America than a petite, disabled, black woman who was born into slavery but stood up and demanded that our Constitution represent and protect her, too.

Paul Finkelman is a professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School. Kate Clifford Larson is a professor of history at Simmons College in Boston and author of "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero."


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