Is it time to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill? Liberal advocacy groups and and columnists are pushing hard to have Old Hickory’s image removed from American currency, primarily citing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Trail of Tears, and his “genocide” of Cherokee Indians.
The Washington Post recently reported on how Women on the $20s organizers are trying to have Jackson removed in order to put a woman on the $20 bill. Their list of potential replacements includes Progressive feminist icons such as Betty Friedan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger, among others. Another recent column by Daily Beast contributor Arthur Chu titled “The Mass Murderer on Your $20” accused Jackson of “masterminding a genocide” on the Cherokee, painting our seventh president as generally villainous.
Few have come to Jackson’s defense. Most Americans, even those with a pro-American view of United States history, accept without question that the early nineteenth-century president must have been a virulent racist and Indian hater. However, this narrative of Jackson as a mastermind of genocide—almost demonically hateful toward American Indians—is false. The story of Cherokee Indian removal is far more complex than the simple, but ideologically useful narrative of greedy American oppression that one often encounters in a modern classroom.
Federal Indian removal of the Cherokee from their eastern home in Georgia, which was a relatively unpopulated chunk of land roughly the size of New Jersey, to western lands in Oklahoma was considered a long-term solution to a crisis that was threatening the stability and strength of the nascent American union as well as the existence of the Cherokee as a people. The policy of removal was certainly not unique to the Jackson presidential administration. Plans to move tribes to the west began with George Washington, and the inability to create a long-term solution for the Cherokee had vexed every president since the “Father of Our Country” left office.
In an 1831 letter to President Jackson, Georgia Governor George R. Gilmer, pleaded for Jackson to solve the worsening situation and made a case that Georgia could not bear the burdens placed on it while its own sovereignty remained dramatically restricted.
In the letter, Gilmer wrote:
…the Indians have neither been compelled to pay taxes nor perform any civic duties. The only operation of the laws since the extension of the jurisdiction of the State over them has been to protect them from injury by the punishment of crimes, & the removal of the whites who had been tempted into their Country by the attraction of the Gold Mines… If the Cherokees are to continue inhabitants of this State, they must be rendered subject to the ordinary operation of the laws with less expense and trouble and more effectually than heretofore.
This crisis was dropped directly into the lap of the newly-elected President Jackson, a man possessed with a legendary iron will and a broad electoral mandate from the landslide election of 1828. Jackson said in his inaugural address, “It will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy,” he continued. “And to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our government and the feelings with our people.”
The federal government, caught between Georgia and the Cherokee, had difficulty maintaining security for the tribe and peace between the two societies. The discovery of huge gold deposits on tribal land in the 1820s created a massive challenge for the federal government as it attempted to maintain the border. Additionally, the sudden creation of a Cherokee government declaring itself independent and sovereign under a new constitution in 1827 made the tribal nation’s legal status ambiguous.
Georgia attempted to reign in the tribe under its sovereignty and jurisdiction, but Cherokee leaders challenged the state in court. In two separate Supreme Court rulings, Chief Justice John Marshall argued that the Cherokee government was not a sovereign nation yet it was also not subject to Georgia law. He ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that all Georgia laws dealing with the Cherokee were null and void, and that laws regarding the tribes were a federal matter.
It is often mistakenly repeated that Jackson’s response to this ruling was, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it!” However, this statement only cropped up decades after the fact, as recalled by a partisan anti-Jackson journalist, and was likely made up to reinforce the idea that Old Hickory was a dictatorial law breaker.
What Jackson did say was, “the decision of the supreme court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield its mandate.” Because of the way the Judiciary Act of 1789 was written, Marshall’s decision was unenforceable within the constraints of Constitutional law. It was a political rallying cry for those who opposed Cherokee removal and desired Constitutional reform, but in no way bound Jackson to take action against the Georgia government.
The conflict between the Cherokee Nation and the State of Georgia could not be resolved through the courts. It was clear when Jackson became president that delaying resolution of the Cherokee crisis was putting Georgians, Cherokees, and the union at risk. Unfortunately for him, each of the policy options before him for resolving the crisis was terrible and fraught with risk in its own way.
If Jackson’s goal had truly been to annihilate the Cherokee, he could have simply done nothing and let it happen. The federal government could have stayed out of the crisis escalating along the border, permitting Georgians to carve up the tribal lands and boot innocent Cherokee from their properties. With no territory to migrate to and few prospects, the Cherokee way of life could have been completely destroyed, and their culture extinguished. This policy could reasonably be called “genocide,” but Jackson and most other American leaders in the nineteenth century would not have seen this as a serious or responsible option.
On the other hand, Jackson could have deployed a huge amount of government resources in an attempt to protect the Cherokee from the ravenous Georgians. Though this option appears to be the clear ethical solution to modern eyes, it too was fraught with complications and dangers, for both the Union and the Cherokee.
In 1830, the national government had neither the economic nor the military means to prevent widespread incursions into Cherokee Nation lands. The Federal government had to engage in a delicate balancing act between its obligations to the Cherokee and the practical and legal limits of its ability to control Georgian citizens. If Jackson had marched in with a federal army, there would have been an angry backlash coming, not only from Georgians, but from nearly all Americans. A large, standing, peacetime army, marching into a state and threatening state government would have been, not just politically untenable, but dangerous to the then-delicate integrity of the Union.
Disunion was not a fanciful fear in 1830. During the nullification crisis with South Carolina in 1832—just two years later—Jackson had to contemplate the use of military force against states threatening secession due to disagreement with tariff laws, and that crisis nearly ended in bloodshed and civil war. Protecting the Cherokee through overwhelming force may have helped the Cherokee in the short term, but it may have also ended the notion that a free, constitutional republic could survive more than a generation without devolving into anarchy or tyranny.
Another option before Jackson was to simply dissolve the Cherokee government and grant the individual Cherokee citizenship in the United States. There were many Cherokee who had already adapted to the surrounding American culture: building farms, owning slaves, and even deftly using the court system to advance their cause.
However, a substantial number of Cherokee wished to maintain the tribe’s old ways of living off the land, hunting, and moving nomadically. As with most other eastern tribes that attempted to adhere to this sort of existence, the result was mostly a rapid loss of hunting ground and game, leading to starvation and extinction. Throughout history, nomadic and sedentary communities, with their different property norms and needs, have not coexisted well side by side.
Additionally, many people in tribal leadership who had adapted to a Western lifestyle benefitted from a lack of economic competition and the high status they maintained in tribal society. They would have been militantly opposed to the sudden dissolution of their power. Many of the tribal leaders that favored making a treaty with the United States and leaving for the west were assassinated, and there would have likely been more bloodshed had those in leadership been more directly challenged.
Jackson also had to take into account national security concerns. The British represented an near-permanent threat to the early American nation and had frequently turned to agitating and bribing Indian tribes—including the Cherokee—to fight by proxy against the United States. Leaving an Indian tribe within a populous state, ready to be used as a cat’s paw against the United States by the British, presented an serious national security risk.
Twenty-first century Americans can scarcely imagine a world in which national survival is constantly at stake as it was in the nineteenth century. American leaders had to constantly be on guard against the semi-permanent threat that voracious, powerful European empires posed to the United States. In the war of 1812, just a decade and a half before Jackson’s Indian Removal policy was decided, the British had invaded the United States, burned down the White House, and made deals with Indian tribes to attack frontier Americans.The war ended with a neutral treaty and Jackson’s stunning victory at New Orleans, but the threat that sparsely-populated and often hostile Indian territory within the United States posed was a vulnerability that no president could ignore.
The policy option that Jackson settled on and believed would finally resolve the ongoing Cherokee crisis was a federally-funded removal to open, western land beyond the Mississippi. In an 1829 letter to James Gadsden, Jackson wrote that if the Cherokee removed to the west “they will always be free from the mercenary influence of White men, and undisturbed by the local authority of the states.”
Jacksonian historian Robert V. Remini wrote in Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821. Vol. 1, that Jackson believed that, “Through removal the Indians would escape certain annihilation and preserve their identity and culture.”
In theory, removal protected everyone: whites, the Indians who stayed, and those who removed. Everyone benefitted. Whites obtained the valuable lands relinquished by the departing Indians and thereby strengthened the nation’s defenses, particularly near the frontier, the Indians who stayed gave up their wanderings and settled down to civilized life, and the Indians who removed preserved their racial heritage and “national existence.”
Remini also wrote that it is “important to note that the treaty mentioned the possibility of citizenship for Indians.” This was the first major attempt to grant widespread citizenship to a tribal nation when the “border crossed them.” “Citizenship was neither demanded nor expected, Remini continued. “It would result in the natural course of events for those Indians prepared for ‘civill life’ who remained on the east side of the Mississippi.
It must be noted that while Jackson offered citizenship to the Cherokee who wanted to remain in their Georgia homes, the Cherokee have refused to offer citizenship to the former slaves whom the Union army forced them to give up during the Civil War. The Cherokee Nation, which sided with the Confederacy, initially passed an act “that explicitly denied citizenship to former slaves and required freed slaves remaining in the Nation to obtain work permits. An 1866 treaty with the Federal government “required Cherokee leaders to grant former slaves and their descendants ‘all the rights of native Cherokees.’” The ambiguous terms of this treaty have allowed the Cherokee to find many ways to exclude the decedents of the “Freedmen” slaves from their nation, a battle that continues today.
Jackson believed that by moving the Cherokee Nation out west they would be shielded from destruction by the widespread encroachment on their civilization in the east. He believed that in due time the Cherokee would eventually abandon tribal government and enter the union on equal footing with the other states. Jackson wanted the Cherokee to be paid well for their loss of land and receive government accommodation in the move to their new settlement.
Nevertheless, as Remini has written, Jackson did not settle on Indian removal because it was best for the Cherokee, but because he believed it was in the best interest of the United States. Most important to Jackson, according to Remini, was “the elimination of tribal government, tribal organization, tribal sovereignty from white society. It was never Indians per se that bothered Jackson. It was their infernal presence as a tribe, as a unit separate and distinct from the rest of the country.”
The disastrous implementation of the removal policy, actually conducted under Jackson’s successor, President van Buren, was certainly one of the most shameful incidents in American history. Though Jackson’s administration had appropriated $5 million for removal (an enormous sum at the time), much of this money was embezzled or took decades to get into the hands of the Cherokees. The transportation process of moving tens of thousands of Cherokee to their new home in the west was cruel, corrupt, merciless, and lead to a massive loss of life.
Remini wrote in his book, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars, that “In a single week some seventeen thousand Cherokees were rounded up and herded into what was surely a concentration camp. Many sickened and died while they awaited transport to the west.”
One unhappy participant in the removal said, “I fought through the Civil War and I have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest I ever saw.”
The suffering as a result of the “Trail of Tears” certainly mars Jackson’s record, as it should. He was too impatient and believed the delay of removal represented intentional stonewalling of his policy in the hopes that the treaty would never be carried out. The same single-minded determination that made Jackson so successful in life and as president in large part created the suffering that the dislocated Cherokee experienced. Combine this with the fact that some Cherokee leaders were telling their people to hopelessly hold out and resist the treaty, along with the usual corruption and inefficiency of government projects, and it is easy to see why the result was a disaster.
However, this does not make Jackson “genocidal.”
Jackson’s detractors often claim that he was a bloodthirsty Indian hater, who really embraced removal because he wanted to wipe out American Indians to please avaricious white frontiersmen. However, this one-dimensional view of Jackson as a Satanic butcher is an incredibly unfair characterization of a man who did not possess the virulent racial animus frequently ascribed to him.
Father Francis Paul Prucha, one of the greatest historians of Indian-American relations, explained Jackson’s general outlook toward Indians in an essay titled “Jackson’s Indian Policy: A Reassessment.”
“In his direct dealings with the Indians, Jackson insisted on justice toward both hostile and peaceful Indians,” Prucha wrote. “Those who committed outrages against the whites were to be summarily punished, but the rights of friendly Indians were to be protected. Too much of Jackson’s reputation in Indian matters has been based on the first of these positions. Forthright and hardhitting, he adopted a no-nonsense policy toward hostile Indians that endeared him to the frontiersmen.”
Though Jackson often fought against hostile Indian tribes and exhibited the brutality common in frontier warfare, few incidents provoked his wrath more than when his Indian friends and allies had been harmed or attacked. For instance, Prucha wrote that when Georgia Governor William Rabun ordered a militia attack on a group of friendly Indian allies during the Seminole War, Jackson flew into a rage.
Jackson blasted the governor’s actions as a “base, cowardly and inhuman attack, on the old woman [women] and men of the chehaw village, whilst the Warriors of that village was with me, fighting the battles of our country against the common enemy.” Appalled at what he viewed as a heinous act, Jackson wrote with disbelief “that there could exist within the U. States, a cowardly monster in human shape, that could violate the sanctity of a flag, when borne by any person, but more particularly when in the hands of a superanuated Indian chief worn down with age. Such base cowardice and murderous conduct as this transaction affords, has not its paralel in history and should meet with its merited punishment.”
“To call Jackson an Indian-hater or to declare that he believed that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ is to speak in terms that had little meaning to Jackson,” Prucha wrote. Though there was a great amount of loathing and racial animus toward Indians during the early nineteenth century, Jackson never exhibited this attitude in his public or private statements.
A fact infrequently cited about Jackson is his adoption of a Creek Indian boy whom he named “Lyncoya.” During a bloody battle with Creek Indians he encountered a small child, orphaned during the fighting. Lyncoya’s family wanted Jackson to kill the child, but he outright refused. Jackson had experienced war firsthand as a teenager in the American Revolution, and according to Remini, “He was reminded of himself little more than thirty years before, his family wiped out by war, he an orphan.”
Jackson decided to adopt the boy and sent him home to his wife, Rachel. Remini wrote that Jackson gave Rachel explicit instructions that he “wanted the boy kept in the house and not treated like a servant—or an orphan.” Lyncoya was “given almost every advantage a planter’s son enjoyed, including an education.”
Though the childless Jackson couple adopted many children, Jackson saw more of himself in Lyncoya more than almost any other child in his adopted family. Jackson even tried to get his Creek son into West Point, making personal appeals to President James Monroe. But the incoming, hostile administration of John Quincy Adams ended that hope.
Unfortunately, Lyncoya contracted a disease in his mid-teens and died. For the Jacksons he was “mourned as a favorite son.” The United States Telegraph noted that Lyncoya “expired under the roof of the hero who had conquered his nation but who followed his remains to a decent grave, and shed a tear as the earth closed over him forever.”
Remini perfectly summed up Jackson’s outlook toward American Indians:
It has been asserted that Andrew Jackson hated the Indians and that racial annihilation was his real objective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jackson neither hated the Indians nor intended genocide. For a slaveowner and Indian fighter he was singularly free of racial bigotry. He killed Indians in battle, but he had no particular appetite for it. He simply performed his duty. Moreover, Jackson befriended many Indians; dozens of chiefs visited him regularly at the Hermitage. He adopted an Indian orphan boy (Lyncoya) and raised him as a son. He sanctioned marriages between whites and Indians. He believed citizenship inevitable for the more civilized Indians, and he argued that Indian life and heritage might be preserved (and should be preserved) through removal.
Imperfect as he was, Jackson was still a great man and great American. Though his policy of Cherokee removal in part lead to the Trail of Tears catastrophe, the Cherokee Nation today is thriving as the second largest tribe in the country. Jackson hated tribal government, but he did not have a particular hatred toward tribal people.
One can find flaws in almost any figure in history. For instance, one of the proposed replacements for Jackson on the $20 bill, birth control advocate and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, was a Progressive-era supporter of eugenics who made numerous racist statements, and even delivered at least one speech to the Ku Klux Klan. History does not always follow a linear progression from bad to good, racist to non-racist. Many Progressive-era theorists had “scientific” ideas about race far more sinister than any during Jackson’s time.
Jackson was one of the most influential presidents in American history. He was the first man from outside the original 13 colonies to become president, and an inspirational figure who symbolized his generation. In foreign policy, Jackson acted with strength and wisdom, and during the nullification crisis in which South Carolina threatened secession from the union, he countered with a Constitutional argument that Lincoln would use to save the country in the 1860s. On top of that, Jackson’s views on federalism and economics should be more carefully studied today, especially for those who are against the economically-centralizing policies of the early twenty-first century and crony capitalism. Though he opposed paper currency unbacked by gold and would have likely been suspicious of the Federal Reserve, Jackson without a doubt deserves to be recognized among our greatest national heroes as the face of the $20 bill.