Culture

Harriet Tubman to Share $20 Bill with President Who Called for Some Abolitionists to 'Atone ... With Their Lives'

Jackson sought legislation to prohibit abolitionist groups from using the postal system to deliver their message.

The Internet exploded with takes Wednesday after Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman will appear on the front of the $20 bill.

"With this decision, our currency will now tell more of our story and reflect the contributions of women as well as men to our great democracy," Lew said in a letter. The Treasury also announced that the new bill will maintain an image of Jackson, who owned slaves, on the back.

Jackson's administration has a very specific connection to the abolitionist movement. In 1835, the American Anti-Slavery Society (an organization founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan) started a direct mail campaign, sending anti-slavery information to religious and civic leaders in the south. That year in his message to congress, President Andrew Jackson sought legislation to destroy the campaign.

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In Charleston, the Society's mailed materials were seized and burned. Charleston's postmaster wrote to Jackson's postmaster general, Amos Kendall, and asked him what should be done about the campaign. Kendall informed Charleston that it could not legally prohibit the materials, but New York's postmaster asked the abolitionists to stop the mailings. When they refused, they were informed that the matter could be decided and campaign was stifled with the tactical approval of the Jackson administration.

In Michael Kent Curtis' book Free Speech: The People′s Darling Privilege: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History, he explains what happened after Kendall wrote Jackson for advice on the matter:

On August 7, 1835, Kendall wrote the president for his advice and on August 9, President Jackson responded. Himself a slaveholder, Jackson regeretted the existence of men "willing to stir up servile war." If they could "be reached," he added ominously, "they ought to be made to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives." He also regretted the spirit of mob law. Until Congress could pass a law on the subject, Jackson suggested that "those inflammatory papers be delivered to none but who will demand them as subscribers; and in every instance the postmaster ought to take the names down, and have them exposed [through the public] journals as subscribers to this wicked plan of exciting the negroes to... massacre." They would then be compelled to desist or "move from the country."

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria