*Folks are ecstatic that Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and a quote attributed to the famed abolitionist that’s been hot on social media is: “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Those are powerful words, but they didn’t come from Tubman.
W. Caleb McDaniel wrote a blog post on March 22, 2016, titled “The Dangers of a Fake Tubman Quote,” that voices frustration over this persistent misquote:
Read an excerpt below:
Tubman expert Milton Sernett called it a twentieth-century fabrication, and Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson listed it as a fake quote on her page of “Myths and Facts” about Tubman.
Despite these corrections by scholars, however, the quote continues to haunt the Internet. It shows up in a prominent sidebar when you search for the abolitionist’s name on Google, which only knows to report what is most popular on webpages. It appears regularly on Twitter. It has been circulated recently by prominent figures like Senator Cory Booker and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow.
In one sense, these findings are not surprising. The Internet is a fake quote emporium; just ask Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, Harriet Tubman’s story has from the beginning been a malleable icon who has been made to say what various groups wanted her to say.
As Jean Humez shows in her book, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, this began with the very first abolitionists, who were responsible both for recording the illiterate Tubman’s own narratives and for crafting the first biographies. Those biographies are invaluable points of access into Tubman’s life and thought. But, Tubman scholars now agree, they also contained a variety of embellishments that served abolitionists’ purposes. Over time some of those embellishments (like the idea that Tubman took 19 trips back to the South and freed 300 people) became settled facts in collective memory, enshrined in children’s books and other scholarly texts as Tubman’s actual story receded from view.
In other words, a fake quote attributed to Tubman is nothing new. It’s more of the same where the public discourse around Tubman is concerned.
Yet as a historian of slavery and abolition, I have always found this particular fake quote to be particularly insidious. The idea it expresses even seems perilously close to proslavery ideology as it existed in the early American republic. In his book, In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg shows that many paternalist masters in the founding generation rationalized their slaveholding with the idea of “tacit consent.” Having just overthrown a government to which they did not consent, American patriots told themselves that if enslaved people did not rise up and resist, they must consent tacitly to their enslavement.
Modern historians know the truth: enslaved people resisted their condition in countless ways, large and small. If they were not able to attain freedom, it was not because they didn’t want it or because (as the fake Tubman quote would have it) they “did not know they were slaves.” It was because powerful forces were arrayed against them. The idea of “tacit consent” distracted attention from that fact.
Read the blog post in its entirety here.