Point Counterpoint: Should Andrew Jackson be on the $20 bill?
November 18, 2019
Only in recent years have historians and the general public began to question the success of Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
He has been portrayed as a racist, imperialist, loose cannon, and authoritarian. And, while the actions that merited those descriptions should be condemned, they do not merit tarnishing a leader who brought about a turning point in American history, and thus removing him from the 20 would be unnecessary.
Before Jackson, presidents all had similar backgrounds, with two Vice Presidents, four Secretaries of State, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
Of Jackson’s six predecessors, two were Harvard-educated Massachusetts lawyers and diplomats, and four were wealthy Virginia landowners and statesmen.
Though elected indirectly by the people, all of these leaders came from an exceedingly narrow slice of the population with little knowledge of most Americans’ conditions and grievances.
Jackson was different. Born to two Irish-Americans, he was the first and only president to come from an entirely immigrant household. Growing up in the working class, Jackson had little formal education.
However, through untraditional means, Jackson managed to become a lawyer and legislator, paving the way for a successful career. Indeed, Jackson came to national prominence as a star general, winning the War of 1812 in the Battle of New Orleans. Furthermore, as a Tennessee planter, Jackson found the affluence that had eluded his immigrant parents.
With his unique background, Jackson governed unlike any other president.
A core tenet of Jackson’s ideology was support for common people, which distinguished him from his predecessors’ patrician approach to governance. Even on his inauguration, Jackson hosted an open party at the White House for anybody to freely attend, demonstrating his commitment to a more open and democratized administration.
One tradition that exemplified Jackson’s style was the “big block of cheese day,” wherein common people were invited to the White House to eat a slice from a large block of cheese and speak to the president about affairs of state. Never before had public opinion been given such attention by high-ranking government officials, proving that Jackson, in his appreciation for everyday struggles, was the first real “people’s president.”
Jackson was not, however, unmarked by criticism. His impulsive style was certainly noted by all and disapproved of by many. In a personal regard, Jackson was known to be aggressive, and was purported to have killed up to 150 men in duels.
On his deathbed, Jackson proclaimed that his greatest regrets were that he did not kill political opponents Secretary of State Henry Clay and Vice President John Calhoun.
His abrasive personality did not shy away from government; during the nullification crisis, where South Carolina attempted to declare a federal tariff null and void, Jackson asked congress to allow him to send in the military to force South Carolina to comply. In this instance, Jackson’s hands-on approach to government resulted in South Carolina backing down to reach a compromise, avoiding a constitutional crisis and righting the ship of state.
Perhaps Jackson’s weakest point was his treatment of Native Americans. Declaring them as uncivilized and unfit to run the land they claimed, Jackson forced several tribes off of their ancestral land in Georgia, marching them to Oklahoma in the now-infamous Trail of Tears.
By no means were Jackson’s actions commendable. And while he should be condemned for this racist and destructive policy, it is important to contextualize the morality of his actions.
Unfortunately, mistreatment of minority groups was, by and large, the norm of American politics. Throughout its history, the U.S. has expanded its boundaries without any regard for Native American tribes, violating numerous treaties.
In one instance, American settlers refused to pay Native Americans, which was part of a treaty, resulting in a brief war. The result? 38 Native American men were sentenced to death by Abraham Lincoln. If Lincoln’s name shall remain untarnished by this unjust action, why should Jackson be any different?
Andrew Jackson was not a perfect president in any sense. Indeed, his policies towards Native Americans rightly draw criticism from scholars and the public alike. However, given the context of his time, Jackson was a reasonable and successful man from a humble background, and a president who set a long-standing precedent of a government that represents and serves its citizens.
Money is a part of all cultures. We don’t tend to second guess our currencies or their designs. Rather, paper money appears to just be a practical way of financially functioning in society. However, what our societies must realize is that each respective country’s paper money is a reflection of their culture and their history. Andrew Jackson’s presence on the 20 dollar bill is outdated and insensitive to the harm he caused to not only his own nation financially, but also to the thousands of Native Americans who perished under his command.
There is no doubt that President Jackson promoted inclusivity to the wider public for the politics of the United States during the mid-1800s. He pushed for greater public contestation from the lower classes, and he himself represented a different side of America, being the first immigrant born president.
Although he pushed for democracy in this sense, let us not forget that many of his policies harmed his people more than they helped.
For instance, Jackson attempted to demolish the Second Bank of America in 1832, and withdrew all federal funds from the national bank.
Moreover, Jackson issued a presidential order of Specie Circular which called for the removal of paper money, stating that all purchases had to be made in either gold or silver. This, and the withdrawal of federal funds from the national bank caused hyperinflation and led to the economic depression of 1837. For a president that attempted to represent the lower class of the United States, his policies harmed this socio-economic group as well as the entire country.
Does it not seem contradictory to put a president that harmed the American economy on the 20 dollar bill? There are other figures in American history who contributed far more successfully to the financial growth and developed of the United States.
Not only were his economic policies questionable, but Jackson was also a firm advocate of the expansion of slavery to the west of the growing U.S. It is true that there are presidents like Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves and is on the 2 dollar bill, however not only did Jackson own slaves, he also opposed any sort of anti-slavery reform and sentiment growing in the North during his presidency. There are many times were Jackson used his executive power to prevent anti-slavery legislature from passing.
Though some may argue that this was typical of his time, America must come to the conclusion that it is no longer acceptable in our modern-day to have a former president on a 20 dollar bill that so strongly opposed the work of the anti-slavery movement.
Times change, and no matter how strongly a nation wishes to preserve and honor its past, there are some instances, like the presence of Jackson on paper bills that simply must change. Essentially, by keeping Jackson as the face of the 20 dollar bill, it is sending a message to the rest of the world that his actions are commended by the U.S., which I am sure is inaccurate.
On top of his financial mess and his position surrounding slavery, Jackson is most infamous for his treatment of the Native Americans during his presidency. Though his entire presidential policy was based on the principle that those who were not represented in American politics at the time deserved equal opportunity, we should not forget that this was only reserved for the white population.
After completely ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, which stated that Georgia had no legal power in the Cherokee region, in 1830, Jackson officially signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced the relocation of thousands of Native Americans to the west.
This act essentially set up the Trail of Tears, overseen by the next president and Jackson’s former Vice President, Preside Martin Van Buren. In 1835, 15,000 Cherokee people were forced to move west under the surveillance of the U.S Army forces, and 4000 Natives died along the way.
Andrew Jackson was a president that used his executive power to further his own political agenda, ultimately leading to the dismantling of the American economy, the introduction of another economic depression, the expansion of slavery westward, and, the genocide of thousands of Native Americans. Evidently, this is far from what modern American morals preach. So, shouldn’t the 20 dollar bill have someone who represents American principles accurately instead?