Big news from the U.S. Treasury: vicious, violent, racist slaveholder and indigenous people-persecutor Andrew Jackson is being replaced on the front of the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman, a legendary antislavery activist, liberator of slaves, Civil War Union spy, all around badass, and real-life superhero.
This is great news! Andrew Jackson is one of the worst human beings to ever occupy the office of President of the United States, and that’s really saying something! After all, the White House has also been home to war criminals like Lyndon B. Johnson, Constitutional criminals like Richard Nixon, and fashion criminals like Jimmy Carter. (No but seriously, Jimmy Carter is a wonderful, generous person, but his beige cardigans were hideous. The Most Powerful Man on Earth should not deign to wear such drab, non-confrontational garments. No wonder the Iranians pushed him around.)
The only bad part of this news is that Andrew Jackson isn’t being removed entirely from the $20 bill (he’s still going to be featured on the back of the bill, because this is America, where we can never entirely do the right thing without giving the racists a chance to tell their side of the story), and it’s not happening fast enough. The new bills won’t be printed and in circulation until 2030, at which point, America will probably be a mostly cashless society where people make payments from their smartphones or whatever wearable/implantable devices have replaced smartphones by then. It’s nice that America will add women and minorities to our paper currency just in time for people to stop using cash.
Andrew Jackson has been dead for a long time, and moving his image to the backside of the $20 bill is mostly a symbolic gesture. But symbolism matters. As we hear the inevitable complaints from Andrew Jackson sympathizers about replacing his image on the $20 bill with a former slave, it’s worth remembering what a horrible person Andrew Jackson really was.
Andrew Jackson became famous for serving as a General during the War of 1812, where he led American forces in a major victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. However, unfortunately for the men who died in that battle, the war had already ended several weeks earlier—unbeknownst to Jackson and the other battle participants, the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed, ending the war, in December 1814. But it took a long time for news to travel across the Atlantic in those days—this was before the Internet.
Also: this isn’t really Andrew Jackson’s fault, but if the war was called “the War of 1812,” why was it still being fought in 1815? What a stupidly named war. But hey, thank God America won that war, because if we hadn’t, we might have lost our independence from Britain—and today we would all have universal health care, and sensible gun control laws, and better sitcoms, and cool accents.
Andrew Jackson owned slaves, just like many other U.S. presidents. But unlike other founding fathers who were at least more ambivalent about slavery, like George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will, or Thomas Jefferson, who wrote eloquently about the evils of slavery, Andrew Jackson LOVED slavery. He built his wealth on the unpaid labor of slaves, and repeatedly supported the interests of slave states while president. Jackson died in 1845, but had he been alive during the Civil War, is there any doubt that he would have sided with—and probably fought for— the Confederacy? He apparently even made money as a slave trader in his early career—an accusation he denied—and he was harshly attacked in the newspapers for it during the 1828 presidential campaign.
The manners and customs of the institution of slavery were weird as hell—apparently in Jackson’s time it was totally fine to OWN slaves, but you weren’t supposed to TRADE slaves for profit. If you held people captive against their will and whipped them for not picking cotton fast enough, that meant you were a totally fine upstanding Southern white gentleman; but if you TRADED slaves, that was considered déclassé.
So that’s the sort of person Andrew Jackson was. He not only owned slaves; he managed his slavery business in a way that was considered gross and tacky even by the standards of his time.
Andrew Jackson had a frighteningly violent temper and fought in more than 100 duels. He once killed a man named Charles Dickinson in a duel for writing disrespectful newspaper articles about his wife. But instead of drawing their guns and firing at the same time, Jackson sneakily allowed Dickinson to shoot first, hitting Jackson in the chest. Jackson then steadied himself, took his time, aimed carefully, and shot the other man dead. This behavior was considered allowable, but dishonorable, under the rules of dueling at the time, and Jackson was widely criticized—not for killing a man, but for the WAY he killed the man. (Again: The antebellum South was weird as hell.)
Fun fact: The bullet lodged in Jackson’s chest could not be safely removed, and it stayed there for the rest of Jackson’s life, often causing him to cough up blood.
Jackson is perhaps best known today for engineering genocide against the Cherokee and other indigenous peoples, including his enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (defying the orders of the Supreme Court) that resulted in the deadly “Trail of Tears” where thousands of innocent men, women and children died during a forced march to new reservations in Oklahoma. Jackson did more than any other politician to create and legitimize the U.S. government’s brutal 19th century policy of land theft, betrayal, and violent extermination against indigenous people. Andrew Jackson paved the way for the Wounded Knee Massacre and all the other injustices and horrors to come.
Andrew Jackson was a staunch states’ rights advocate and supporter of the gold standard; he didn’t believe in the concept of a U.S. central bank or paper money! Even if he hadn’t been a horrible person, it still would be a stupid idea to put Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, because he never wanted the U.S. to have a $20 bill or a central bank in the first place. Jackson’s vindictive, self-indulgent economic policy decisions are widely blamed for causing the Panic of 1837 and the four-year-long economic depression that followed. Putting a picture of Andrew Jackson on U.S. paper money is like putting a picture of Ronald Reagan on an AIDS treatment clinic.
Even aside from his official acts as a public figure, Andrew Jackson popularized a certain kind of misguided Southern white cultural pride that has done massive damage to America. Jackson and his political descendants embodied the spirit of a brawling, dueling, feuding, violent-tempered, belligerent, self-sabotaging ignorant pride that helped lead to the Civil War and that lives on today in the attitudes and demeanors of angry-drunk SEC football fans. Andrew Jackson exemplified the idea that it’s better to be a tough S.O.B. than a wise leader, that it’s better to brawl than negotiate, that anger and vindictiveness are signs of strength, that it’s better to stubbornly stick to your principles even if your principles are objectively wrong.
Andrew Jackson is credited as being “the People’s President” who fought corruption, defied establishment elites, and defended the principles of popular democracy, but even this legacy has had damaging consequences. “The people” can be just as shortsighted and corrupt as the elites. Mob rule is worse than misguided meritocracy. The idea that America is better off being governed by plain-talking simple folk who would rather fight than think is another unfortunate legacy of Andrew Jackson—without Andrew Jackson, there would be no George W. Bush and no Sarah Palin.
If the sort of people who venerate Andrew Jackson are unhappy about this decision to remove him from the front of the $20 bill, then that is something that all other Americans can feel happy about.
Again, it’s too late to really redress the injustices and harm that he created during his life. Removing him from the front of the $20 bill is a symbolic gesture, and there are some good arguments to be made against putting Harriet Tubman on the bill; this author writes that putting Tubman on paper money would distort and co-opt Tubman’s legacy, and would distract from the issues of economic injustice that women and minorities continue to face. But it’s absurd for a 21st century high-tech multiracial society like America to keep honoring a murderous racist on our most prominent paper currency. It’s insulting to make the descendants of slaves and indigenous people handle currency every day that is printed with the image of a man who despised them. We can do better than Andrew Jackson.
Also, the Democratic Party should stop using Andrew Jackson as a symbol of their party. Just because he was a founding standard-bearer of the Democratic Party back in the days when only white men were allowed to vote doesn’t make him relevant to today’s multiracial party. Let’s focus instead on celebrating some real heroes—like Harriet Tubman.