BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY – I’m overjoyed that the phiz of that bastard Alexander Hamilton, the father of corporate capitalism, will be removed from the $10 bill he has for so long defaced with his smug mug. I wholeheartedly second my colleague J. Arthur Bloom’s nomination of the Montana pacifist Jeannette Rankin as Hamilton’s replacement. (Though I dissent from Jordan’s dismissal of Michael Lind, who is well worth reading.) The heir apparent to the obverse of the ten spot, Harriet Tubman, is worthy, too, not least because her final earthly home was down the road in Auburn, a sister city of the New York-Penn League.

If I may be permitted to play the degrees of separation game, my good friend Henry W. Clune was pals with the novelist Samuel Hopkins Adams, who as a boy knew “Aunt Harriet” well. What follows is a piece taken from my new book Poetry Night at the Ballpark and Other Scenes from an Alternative America (FPR Books), for which you are invited to fork over a few Hamiltons:

Araminta Ross, later known as Harriet Tubman and best remembered as Moses, the preternaturally wise conductor who never lost a passenger on the Underground Railroad, is perhaps the historical personage most familiar to the latest generation of American schoolchildren. The bare facts of her life—escape from slavery, daring raids to rescue other bondsmen from servitude, untimely fits of narcolepsy, service as a Union spy in South Carolina—are extraordinary, but most textbooks are too rigid and unimaginative to convey any sense of what Harriet Tubman was really like. If only a good novelist had known her, the reader murmurs. Well it just so happens….

Tubman made her home in Auburn, New York, on property that had belonged to Lincoln’s Secretary of State and her ardent admirer, William Seward. And it was in Auburn, a generation removed from the War, that Harriet met a boy named Samuel Hopkins Adams, the fortunate son of a notably cultured Upstate family.

Young Adams had inherited an ample sense of self-worth from his grandsires, who were the subject of Adams’s best book, Grandfather Stories (1955). As Adams told the tale, a “visiting New England lady” once accosted his paternal grandfather:

“Adams? Adams? Do you claim kinship with the Boston Adamses?”

“There is a Boston branch, I believe,” he answered cautiously.

“I refer to the Presidential Adamses,” the lady said haughtily.

“Ah! I was personally acquainted with the Honorable John Quincy Adams. A very respectable gentleman. He may well have been a connection of our line, though, being no brag-hard, he would naturally not press the claim.”

The New York Sam Adams, too, would grow into a crusty character. When the forceful old boy was a forceful young boy, his days were not infrequently occupied by visits from “Aunt Harriet” Tubman. Sam’s great-aunt, Sarah Hopkins Bradford, had written a pair of books about Tubman, and it was because of Aunt Harriet that young Sam and his friends played slaves and overseers rather than cowboys and Indians.

Harriet Tubman would walk the two miles to Adams’s maternal grandfather’s house. Grandfather Hopkins would ask, “Harriet Tubman, will you sing for my grandchildren?” and after a modest demurral Harriet “would clap her stringy hands upon her bony knees, rock her powerful frame, snap her eyes,” and sing “Go Down, Moses” in the same great baritone in which she once sang her song of deliverance to escaping slaves following the North Star.

The children, being children, would ask impertinent questions (“Show us your mark, Aunt Harriet”) and she would reveal the scars left by the whip.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dramatics left Harriet Tubman unimpressed: “When our grandmother once took her to a matinee of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Adams recalled, “she expressed approval of the theme but was critical of Eliza’s escape across the ice, declaring the affair ill-managed and intimating that she could have handled it better.”

“‘Bloodhoun’s!’ she said disdainfully, eyeing the two disconsolate mastiffs who appeared in the role. ‘I nevah made no min’ of bloodhoun’s.'” (Adams transcribed Tubman’s remarks in her rich dialect, and while it may strike our ears as awkwardly anachronistic he also captures her in a way that later writers, hamstrung by p.c. etiquette, do not.)

Although her date of birth remains a mystery, Harriet Tubman lived close to if not beyond 90 years. She was a fixture about town, and often was seen sweeping clean the front yard of the Harriet Tubman Home, which her respectful neighbors in Auburn had endowed as a residence for indigent African Americans.

Tubman, one of the great heroines of our history, deserves better than mummification in dry textbooks. We are lucky that Samuel Hopkins Adams, the young novelist-to-be, never forgot her sly wit and superabundant humanity. When Sam and his cousins asked her, “Did you kill lots of people?” Aunt Harriet disappointed them by answering no.

“Why not?” they wondered.

“Whuffoh I want to kill folks?” replied Harriet Tubman. “Nobody nevah kill me.”

(Originally published in The American Enterprise, 2006)

Previous articleKnowing the Place We Call Home
Next articleThe Silly Season is Here Again
Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.