This article was written by David Greenberg and originally posted on Politico.
He was a slave owner, hostile to the forces of abolitionism that were rising in America. He imposed a cruel policy of Indian removal, forcing the tribes of the Southeast across a brutal march to the Oklahoma territory. He was a hot-headed general, quick to violence and known to overstep his legal bounds, as when he summarily executed two Britons for aiding the Indian enemy during the First Seminole War.
On some levels, it’s easy to understand the campaign to remove Andrew Jackson’s mug from the $20 bill. Pundits are rushing to endorse the idea. The leading candidate to replace him appears to be the morally unimpeachable Harriet Tubman, who used the Underground Railroad to free herself and dozens of other slaves from bondage.
When Barack Obama first ran for president, he joked that he didn’t “look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” It is certainly time for our currency to bear the faces of African Americans and women. But this admirable effort shouldn’t come at Andrew Jackson’s expense. Jackson was a deeply flawed president and in many ways a detestable man. Yet he was also a towering hero, key to birthing the expansive American democracy we know today. It’s entirely possible to honor his enduring contributions even as we squarely acknowledge his crimes. Grappling with those paradoxes and contradictions is what distinguishes history from moralism or sentimentality.
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