ANNAPOLIS – Legislators and advocacy groups are working to put up a statue of a legendary woman who spent much of her life freeing slaves, in place of a statue of a wealthy, slave-owning Maryland patriot considered by some to be the first president of the country.
Harriet Tubman, the Moses of the Underground Railroad, is a fixture of American history classes. John Hanson, a planter, merchant and president of the Continental Congress, has faded into the background of history, obscured by more famous patriots of his time.
To historians, it comes down to which of several competing narratives Maryland wants to use to tell its story.
One story says that John Hanson was the first president of the United States. That’s the story Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. is telling in his opposition to the bill. Miller and others say that Hanson, elected by his peers in the Continental Congress, is an important national figure deserving of his statue’s current place in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
The Tubman bill, introduced by Delegate Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, is supported by the Legislative Black Caucus and the women’s caucus, as well as the National Organization for Women. Funds to commission the Tubman statue and relocate the Hanson statue to Annapolis would be raised from private donors and organizations.
The bill is being heard Thursday before the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
The 1864 statute creating Statuary Hall invited “each and all the States to provide and furnish statues, in marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each State, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services such as each State may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.”
Maryland chose John Hanson and Charles Carroll.
Carroll was a wealthy planter and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hanson was a planter and the first president of the Continental Congress under the ratified Articles of Confederation, the pre-Constitution contract that bound the new states together.
In 2000, Congress passed legislation to allow states to replace one or both of their statues, acknowledging that the original figures may have been eclipsed by the accomplishments of more contemporary citizens.
Hanson’s role was significant during the Revolutionary War and in the forming of the new nation’s government.
The Articles of Confederation formed the first independent government when Maryland, the last holdout of the 13 states, signed on in 1781. Hanson was the first elected “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” according to the web site of the Architect of the Capitol.
But the story in the history books is that the United States government was formed when the Constitution was ratified in 1788, so George Washington is given the title of first president.
Paul Finkelman, a legal historian at Albany Law School, calls Hanson an important local figure in Frederick County during the Revolution, but only a “second or third level” official in Maryland’s political landscape during the time.
Hanson was responsible for organizing the war effort in Frederick County, keeping citizens united, gathering money and supplies for troops, and enlisting men. Based on his work in Frederick, he was elected to the Maryland General Assembly.
Once there, his loyalty to the vision of a free and united nation got him selected by his colleagues to represent the state in the Continental Congress, which was then based in Philadelphia. He became known in congress for his attention to detail and financial matters.
“People are too hung up on the question of whether he (Hanson) was or was not president of the United States,” said Maryland State Archivist Ed Papenfuse. “That’s not the reason he’s in Statuary Hall. He’s in Statuary Hall because he represents a steadfast support of the Revolution.”
The story of the fight for independence and the story of race in America are inextricably intertwined.
“The question is whether we want a figure more representative of the population,” Papenfuse said.
African-American history is an integral part of Maryland history, and Tubman is a larger-than-life figure in a critical period of that history, said Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson. Tubman’s contributions to enslaved individuals and to the nation are extraordinary.
Tubman escaped from a life of slavery in Dorchester County to Philadelphia. Many escaped slaves used the Underground Railroad, a network of people sympathetic to those fleeing, who would provide shelter and food along the trek north.
Tubman utilized the network, and then did what few escaped slaves dared to do. She returned to the Eastern Shore to bring others north to Pennsylvania, New York or Canada, aiding 70 people over 13 dangerous trips, according to Larson, though the numbers have been disputed and inflated over the years.
Tubman was heroic by any standards. She served the Union Army as a nurse and scout during the Civil War, advocated for women’s suffrage, established a home for elderly former slaves, and managed to make enough money to live on, which was difficult for a black woman in the 19th century. And she did all of this while suffering from seizures due to a head injury caused by an overseer when she was a child.
“America has lots of historical figures who have been forgotten,” said Larson. “Harriet Tubman was never forgotten. People today still get incredibly emotional about her. Why is that? She represents to us what we hold so dear to us as Americans; the fight for freedom.”
The question is not one of importance or influence; Hanson and Tubman were each important to the fight for freedom in their own eras. The question is whose story Maryland chooses to tell in Statuary Hall.