Study Guide

Harriet Tubman

by Catherine Clinton

Harriet Tubman Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Catherine Clinton's biography of Harriet Tubman has been widely praised by critics as a highly readable, historically accurate portrayal of the life and times of this heroic woman. Tubman was illiterate throughout her life, so she left no diaries or letters in her own hand. Moreover, the essential secrecy of the Underground Railroad, the movement with which Tubman's life was inextricably bound, means that personal details of her story can never be recovered. Catherine Clinton, a distinguished historian, has relied on meticulous research and her extensive knowledge of African American history to tell the story of Tubman's life in the context of the times in which she lived.

Araminta Green was born a slave into the plantation society of the eastern shore of Maryland between 1820 and 1825; because slave births were not recorded, the date is uncertain. Araminta's mother, Harriet Green, was powerless to prevent the sale of two of her daughters, lost to her forever when they were sent into the Deep South. Green did, however, successfully defy her master by hiding one of her sons in order to prevent his sale. Benjamin Ross, Araminta's father and a skilled workman, assisted his master, John Stewart, in managing his lumber business.

Young Araminta's health was damaged when her master put her to work at tasks far beyond her age and capability. The image of her two sisters, sold off and taken away in a slave coffle, haunted Araminta for the rest of her life. Araminta, a resourceful and intelligent child, must have understood at an early age the terrible destruction of family life and the powerlessness of the individual that accompanied slavery. As a teenager, she sustained a severe injury when she was hit in the head by a lead weight, thrown by an angry overseer at another slave. She underwent a long recovery and suffered a lifelong disability, probably as a result of this injury. Throughout her life she suffered “spells,” or uncontrolled periods of deep sleep that overcame her without warning.

Instead of despairing of the harsh reality of her life, young Araminta turned to God, developing the strong religious faith that was to sustain her throughout her life. Believing that it was God's will that she fulfill her destiny as a free woman, she escaped in 1849, aided by the Underground Railroad. She left behind her husband, John Tubman, a free black man, who chose not to accompany her. Later in life she explained her motive for her escape: “I had reasoned this out in my mind: there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Her public life began in 1849 when she joined the large population of free black people in Philadelphia. A fugitive, she was in constant danger of being returned to slavery. Assuming a new identity, she took the name Harriet, that of her mother and possibly one of her lost sisters, and kept her husband's name.

The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1850, posed a terrible threat to both fugitives and free black people. This so-called bloodhound law gave regional authorities and bounty hunters the legal power to capture and return fugitives to their masters. Even free black people were sometimes captured and taken south. Abolitionists, most notably Quakers, created “liberty lines,” a system of escape routes called the Underground Railroad, that assisted fugitive slaves on their way north. Because of the severe legal penalties for assisting fugitives, the movement was shrouded in secrecy. Those who provided safe houses were called stationmasters; those who transported the slaves from place to place were conductors. Most daring of all were the abductors, who ventured into the South to steal willing slaves from their masters.

Harriet Tubman, driven by her passion to free all slaves, was the first fugitive slave, and first woman, to make these dangerous forays into the South. She soon became notorious among slave owners, who put a high price on her head. Her status as a fugitive willing to risk her life gave her great credibility as a spokeswoman for the abolitionist movement.

Between 1852 and the end of the Civil War, Tubman made at least one yearly trip into the Deep South, freeing an estimated hundreds of slaves, including her own mother and father. She conducted her rescues in the fall, escorting groups of fugitives to Canada, where the government did not recognize the legality of the Fugitive Slave Law. Her daring stories of rescue were recorded by others or passed down as oral history. At barely five feet tall, she posed as an old black woman who would attract no notice. In...

(The entire section is 1885 words.)