Wayne O’Leary

Dissing Jackson

How about a little love for Andy Jackson. You know, Old Hickory, the Hero of New Orleans, the seventh president of the United States (1829-36), and the only American politician to have an entire era (the Age of Jackson) named after him.

Old Andy has, it appears, come on hard times. There’s a movement under way to remove his image from the $20 bill, an initiative said to be viewed favorably by President Barack Obama despite his party’s symbolically important Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, an annual event celebrating the party’s twin founders. Jefferson, too, has fallen from grace, although the withdrawal of the $2 bill, which he adorned, has precluded any overt action to “disappear” the second president.

Jackson is in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of gender politics; Jefferson’s problem relates to racial politics — of which more later. In the case of Andy, he’s standing in the way of having a woman on the $20 bill, an idea that, like most everything else in our unsettled times, started on the Internet. An online group called “WomenOn20s” is pushing the notion, and New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, another ahistorical Democrat, has opportunistically signed on; she’s introduced legislation requiring the Treasury Department to set up a citizen panel to discuss the proposition.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a female visage on our currency, of course; the problem is we have limited denominations to work with, so the process becomes one of addition by subtraction. Someone has to be banished — put on the ice floe, voted off the island (pick your analogy) — and old Andy’s been nominated.

Obviously, the victim can’t be George or Abe, the sainted first and 16th presidents, respectively, who stare out at us from the $1 and $5 bills. Alexander Hamilton (the $10 note) is a possibility, but he designed the nation’s financial system and served as first secretary of the Treasury; Wall Street would have a collective heart attack, and devotees of “sound money” (bankers and such) would be outraged. We could certainly do without Grant (the $50 bill), McKinley (the $500), or Cleveland (the $1,000), all mediocre presidents or worse (although Grant was a fair country general).

The difficulty with such a solution is that those gentlemen are high on the denomination scale. The feminist money changers want their affirmative-action figure on familiar greenbacks in common use and daily circulation; few people carry around $500 or $1,000 bills. So Jackson, gazing out from the everyday $20 bill, is in the crosshairs.

There’s also a historical brief against Old Hickory, who’s lately become a target for scholarly revisionism. The revisionist view holds him paramountly responsible for one of the seamier episodes in American history, the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the Southeastern US to make way for white settlement. This forced migration to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, along what became known as the “trail of tears,” showed Jackson at his worst, notwithstanding at least one biographer’s opinion that he acquiesced in the policy to appease states’-rights sentiment — Southerners wanted Indian land — and preserve a tenuous national unity. Altogether, not a pretty picture.

But there was another Jackson, the liberal champion of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr’s celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning classic The Age of Jackson. This was the Jackson of the nullification controversy, who faced down archconservative South Carolinian John C. Calhoun and his claim (recently revived by reactionary elements) of the right of states to nullify or invalidate unpalatable federal laws — thereby saving the Union a generation before Lincoln. This was also the Jackson of the “common man,” who represented the class interests and aspirations of ordinary citizens, and who first proclaimed the White House the peoples’ house, not the preserve of the aristocracy.

Equally important, this was the Jackson of the war against the Bank of the United States, the monopolistic “money power” that was the 19th-century equivalent of the too-big-to-fail financial institutions of today. As such, he should be a source of Warrenesque inspiration to Democrats. “The bank,” Jackson said, “is trying to kill me, but I will kill it” — and he did. Yet, in our time, a Democratic president merely slapped offending banking behemoths on the wrist.

Given the current mood, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Andrew Jackson is figuratively on the ropes. In the Democratic party of today, a self-styled party of women and minorities, Old Hickory is definitely old hat; the politics of identity, not economic populism, is driving the agenda, at least as far as the party’s dominant centrist apparatchiks are concerned. Jackson, the original Democratic populist, is awkwardly out of phase.

Much the same is true of Andy’s fellow violator of political correctness, Thomas Jefferson. T.J.’s political sin is that of being a slave owner who cohabited with one of his slaves. In an era of racial sensitivity, this is judged hypocritical and incompatible with the phrase “All men are created equal,” so Jackson will have to make room on the ice floe. The Declaration of Independence be damned.

Jackson, too, was a slaveholder, as were most of the prominent founding fathers, George Washington included; it’s the country’s original sin. If this is now the standard for exclusion from our national currency, numerous presidents before Lincoln can be eliminated. These historical figures, Jackson, Jefferson, and the others, have to be judged within the context of their times, and not just written off as disreputable members of The Dead White Men’s Society. For what it’s worth, furthermore, Jackson and Jefferson were no Simon Legrees; they were unusually compassionate slave masters. They undeniably conformed to their social milieus, but they balanced the scales with truly historic achievements.

So, what will it be on the $20 bill, the tried and true egalitarian hero Andrew Jackson, or a more de rigueur personality attuned to modern political sensibilities and symbolic group affirmations? FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, environmentalist Rachel Carson, and abolitionist (and former slave) Harriet Tubman have each been mentioned — all reasonable choices, but none with the gravitas of Old Hickory.

There’s something to be said for continuity and recognizability on our currency; a picture, they say, is worth a thousand words (or, in this case, numbers). Besides, what will all those cinematic private eyes offer their paid informants instead of “a couple of Jacksons,” a couple of Tubmans?

Editor’s Note: In late June, Treasury Secy. Jacob Lew announced his plan to place a woman’s portrait (as yet unnamed) on the $10 rather than the $20 bill. The new $10 note would be unveiled in 2020 and would include both the new female image and a smaller rendering of Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, who is on the current $10 bill. But Jackson critics and Hamilton backers haven’t given up on the $20 bill.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2015


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