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The Socialist’s Journal: Jackson Off the $20

*This isn’t exactly news insofar as it was announced 2 years ago that President Andrew Jackson would no longer appear on the front of the $20 in American currency. But commentary on this is appropriate because 1. There is the fact that it doesn’t take 2 years to begin circulating new bills and I haven’t seen any money with Harriet Tubman’s face on it. And 2. That was a few Treasury Department Secretaries ago and there has been an administration change so there is the possibility that Jackson might just be safe after all.

But he shouldn’t be. Removing him from our money might have been the most sensible actions to take given his history.

Out of the bills in heavy circulation ($1, $5, $10, $20, and maybe $50, and $100), most people who appear on them make sense. Washington and Lincoln (on the $1 and $5 respectively) are so well liked that their faces have been carved into a mountain; Franklin (on the $100) is universally touted as a great (perhaps the first great) American who began forming the American identity as something separate from Great Britain. Hamilton (on the $10), while not as beloved across the board, was definitely a visionary and was correct about the kind of economy that would be necessary going forward for the United States to grow and thrive.

That leaves Jackson (on the $20) and Grant (on the $50) as the most reasonable candidates for replacement. I cannot argue that Grant has such an impressive resume. He was the Union general who won the Civil War but beyond that his personal achievements are not particularly noteworthy. And there are plenty of one trick ponies in American history that could be celebrated. But while Grant’s accomplishments might be uninspiring, Jackson’s accomplishments cast him in a negative light.

The first noteworthy thing about Jackson’s life was that he was physically abused while being held captive during the Revolutionary War. This event is usually painted as a catalyst for his hatred of the British – which it was. But it was also something that created a personal wound and was a long lasting lesson in the importance and superiority of physical strength; and military strength is an oversized version of an individual’s physical strength. So Jackson favored strength and in doing so undervalued politics and compromise. This perspective guided his decision making throughout his public life.

One of the great myths about the United States is that it is a country that avoids violence unless provoked. Were that statement true it would make little sense to glorify a person whose acclaim stems mostly from violence. But even if the people who originally decided to place Jackson on the $20 bill didn’t buy into the non-violent mythology of the United States, there are still other reasons he shouldn’t be on our currency.

One of Jackson’s signature moments is his defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Jackson authored a military battle plan that would prove victorious despite being outnumbered. What is less well known is his dependence on free African-American and Native-American people as part of his defense force. Yet despite their contributions to his victory and the rise in his stature, Jackson continued to promote policies that politically disenfranchised black people and dispossessed indigenous people. In addition Jackson subverted democracy. While the war was going on Jackson instituted martial law to better organize the defense of the city. But then even though the invading British force had been defeated and left, and there were no expectations that they would return, Jackson maintained martial law for months while imprisoning anyone in the city who questioned the course of events or Jackson’s leadership.

The United States is supposed to be a meritocracy but Jackson subverted the idea that individuals got what they deserved when he helped to perpetuate inequality based on race and skin color. The United States is supposed to be a country that respects the rule of law rather than tyranny. But for Jackson because he was in a position of power he ignored those foundational principles of the country. With such a legacy Jackson should never have been placed on American currency in the first place.

Andrew Jackson’s presidency is known for multiple things: (perhaps in order of prestige) the Indian Removal Act, his dispute over the National Bank, the South Carolina Secession Crisis, Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia, and the Petticoat Affair. All of these incidents further illustrate how unworthy Jackson was to be the face on any denomination of American money.

The Indian Removal Act illustrated that Jackson adhered to the “might makes right” perspective of conflict resolution. Because the Native Americans within the United States could not win against the American army and thereby stop their forced migration, Jackson deemed the migration order just. His perspective on this ignored years of diplomatic history between the United States and recognized Native American tribes. Essentially Jackson rendered diplomacy unimportant when the United States had military might on its side.

The Second National Bank was an entity that Jackson was not personally involved with and perhaps worse it was an entity that was associated with a political rival – Henry Clay. These two reasons gave Jackson the impetus to stop the renewal of the charter of the national bank. Jackson chose not to focus on the financial system that the bank was helping to support nor the individuals, states, regions, and industries that would prosper if the bank continued to operate. Instead the deciding factor was his personal feelings about banking and one of the people involved with the bank. Jackson’s philosophy in this case was shown to be decidedly small minded rather than national; his actions were the antithesis of acting presidential.

Jackson’s response to the Supreme Court case Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia saw Jackson reinterpret the Constitution to allow for his personal prejudice. I’ve argued that the Constitution necessarily changes as the country evolves so I am not saying that Jackson should not think and reconsider the president’s role. But Jackson was not driven by principle, he was guided by personal considerations that show his decision not to support the Supreme Court decision indefensible.

The Petticoat Affair refers to two factions of people in Jackson’s executive cabinet when he became president and the dislike they had for one another. But because one of those sides was being spoken about in a way that reminded him of a personal episode in his own history, Jackson was willing to have the executive branch grind to a halt and hamper the nation’s ability to operate.

Even the South Carolina secession episode, that might cast Jackson in a positive light, can be understood as a function of his personal considerations. Jackson indeed determined that federal laws were supreme over state laws and that any state that attempted to nullify a federal statute would face military consequences. But looking closer it is likely that Jackson believed the country to be his own fiefdom (similar to how he viewed New Orleans during the War of 1812) and that nullification was a state attempting to undermine his personal authority and leadership. Under those circumstances there is nothing to suggest that Jackson would sit idly by and everything to suggest he would respond forcefully – as he did.

Jackson’s reactions to all of these incidents was based in his personal feelings on the matter rather than the bigger picture and/or what might have been beneficial to a majority of Americans. Rarely do societies reward someone with such a provincial mindset but somehow Jackson was able to be placed on a prominent piece of currency. When Jackson wasn’t governing because of his personal considerations it was by way of brute force. Neither of these are what the United States proclaims to be about.

Replacing him on the $20 bill, after recognizing the potholes in his resume, should be a matter of how soon – not if. There have been lots of Americans who actually embody the country’s principles and deserve the spot.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

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