Andrew Jackson’s days on the $20 bill may be over if an activist group called Women on the 20s gets its way. Because of this campaign, which is backed by a litany of liberal columnists, “Old Hickory” may be unceremoniously ditched in favor of one of these four female candidates.
This campaign has been gaining steam, as the organizers are putting together a petition to pressure President Obama, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Congress change the $20 bill. Numerous media outlets have dedicated serious coverage to the possibility of this movement’s success; the New York Times even has an entire opinion page dedicated to the cause. On April 15, New Hampshire Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen introduced legislation to”convene a panel of citizens” in order to discuss the woman to replace Jackson.
The reasons typically given for removing Jackson are that he was culpable of “masterminding a genocide” against the Cherokee Indians, that he was a generally bad president, and that he would not have wanted to be on paper currency anyway given his hard money views and opposition to central banking.
So far, there has been little opposition to dumping Jackson. However, the early 19th-century President had enormous influence of the course of American civilization and was a symbol of American character and strength in the nation’s youth. Jackson deserves a proper defense before the country decides to strip his likeness from the $20 bill and confine him to the growing list of forsaken heroes of this country’s past.
Jackson—a South Carolinian child of poor, Scots-Irish immigrants—was orphaned in his early teen years while fighting in the Revolutionary War. During the war, Jackson received a scar across his head from a sword because he refused to clean a British officer’s boots, an act of defiance and physical courage that would become a hallmark of the adult Jackson’s persona. Despite his difficult beginnings, Jackson, a true self-made man, became a merchant, lawyer, judge, general, congressman, senator, and President of the United States over the course of his lifetime.
Though Jackson was locally famous on the western frontier and in his adopted state of Tennessee, he rose to national fame in his forties when he dramatically lead a ragtag band of militia, regular soldiers, freed slaves, and pirates to victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans. The National Intelligencer called the battle’s outcome an “Almost Incredible Victory!” and it capped off the War of 1812 with the most resounding military victory for the United States between Yorktown and Gettysburg. This single battle turned a war full of setbacks into a “Second War for Independence,” and its anniversary used to be celebrated by Americans as a national holiday, similar to the 4th of July.
Fame from winning the Battle of New Orleans, along with his success in a several Indian wars, propelled Jackson into the White House. He was the first man who did not come from the American elite or reside in one of the original 13 states to be elected to that office, and his election was regarded as proof that anyone, including a political outsider of humble origins, could rise to the top in America through talent and achievement.
Though Jackson’s presidency, like any other, had its share of failures, he was an overall successful and decisive chief executive. In the realm of foreign policy, among Jackson’s greatest achievements was getting the French to back down and finally pay spoliation claims after a generation of stonewalling. Though Jackson used threatening language toward the powerful French, he ultimately avoided war, a classic American example of peace and diplomatic success through strength. However, though vastly underrated in terms of foreign policy success, most of Jackson’s presidential legacy was tied to domestic politics.
Jackson’s most controversial policy, the removal of the Cherokee Indian tribe from Georgia to lands in the west was a part of Jackson’s vision for a strong and independent United States. Jackson’s desire to ensure that foreign powers could not use the Indian tribal governments to threaten the American people as the British had done in the recent War of 1812 was a key element in his aggressive push for removal. Though this action has become the primary attack on Jackson from modern Americans, the issue is almost never fairly and accurately discussed in the context of the time. Jackson did not hate American Indians, nor did he intend to commit a “genocide” on the Cherokees. A fuller defense of Jackson’s decisions regarding Indian removal can be read here.
Jackson’s “war” against the Second National Bank severed ties between America’s largest banking institution—which had been acting as a quasi central bank—and the Federal government. In his veto of the bank’s charter, Jackson wrote perhaps one of the most eloquent attacks on crony capitalism and explained the threat of big business, big government, and political insiders working together against the common man.
Arguably, Jackson’s greatest domestic policy accomplishment was overseeing the complete elimination of national debt, something that no other modern nation, nor any president before or since, has accomplished. Elimination of the debt had been a long-term goal for Americans since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, but it was finally accomplished under Jackson in 1835.
Jackson believed that Federal government spending should be kept at a minimum, extending mostly to projects truly national in character and to national defense. His administration dramatically cut unnecessary government personnel, making him unpopular with the Washington D.C. political class. He created only one small department, which inspected boilers and hulls of steamships, during his eight years in office. The increases in government spending during Jackson’s administration were almost entirely attributable to the rapid growth in America’s population.
However, the most important decision Jackson made during his presidency was his defense of the Union during the Nullification Crisis in 1832. While Jackson was strongly committed to federalism and thought nearly all government policies should be handled at the state and local levels, he also believed the Union to be indivisible and that legally-passed federal laws should be enforced. So when South Carolina, led by Senator John C. Calhoun, attempted to nullify a federal tariff, Jackson was quick to exclaim that, if necessary, he would use force to ensure the integrity of the law. Jackson was generally a low tariff man, but the perpetuity of the Union and the Constitution were far more important to him than any temporary policy. South Carolina eventually backed down and the tariff was reduced even as the country veered dangerously close to civil war.
In a 1982 speech to a joint session of the Tennessee State Legislature promoting his ideas about “New Federalism,” President Ronald Reagan spoke about this incident and explained Jackson’s invaluable role in this crisis:
Nowhere was the forthrightness for which he was famous more evident than at that Jefferson Day banquet in the spring of 1830. Rumors of secession swept the city. In the crowded banquet room of the Indian Queen Hotel, 24 men rose to toast the dissolution of the Union. And then the President rose to his ramrod-straight six-feet-one, and beneath his thick brush of iron-grey hair, his eyes fixed as bright and fierce as an eagle’s on John C. Calhoun. He said, “Our Federal Union: it must be preserved.” They were only seven words, but they were among the most important any American has ever spoken.
A quarter of a century after the Nullification Crisis, President Abraham Lincoln would use many of Jackson’s arguments in defense of the permanent Union, which was violently tested during the Civil War. Even today, there remain a few skeptics who would reject the notion that the United States is one and indivisible. But in modern times, it is Jackson’s philosophy regarding limited government and federalism that is in more dire need of a serious revival.
In a short biography of Jackson written in 1900, historian William Garrott Brown summed up the reasons Jackson was such a highly regarded figure in his own time and still held widespread admiration from Americans at the turn of the 20th century:
He was the man who had his way. He was the American whose simple virtues his countrymen most clearly understood, whose trespasses they most readily forgave; and until Americans are altogether changed, many, like the Democrats of the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties, will still “vote for Jackson,”—for the poor boy who fought his way, step by step, to the highest station; for the soldier who always went to meet the enemy at the gate; for the president who never shirked a responsibility…
A man who has had such an impact on the course of our nation deserves recognition. Though the Women on the 20s campaign thinks that Old Hickory should be replaced on the $20 bill, it may be a better solution to simply put a woman an any number of new currency denominations. Given the inflation of the American dollar over the last century, perhaps it is time to create new bills rather than remove old heroes.