On June 18, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that Alexander Hamilton would be replaced or diminished on the $10 bill by 2020. In the place of America’s first treasury secretary would be an as yet unannounced woman.
This decision was as disgraceful as it was bizarre. Though Lew said that the currency redesign was simply part of a scheduled update for the purpose of honoring the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage, nobody expected the father of the American financial system to get the boot. Fortunately, there have been a chorus of voices from all parts of the political spectrum that have expressed anger and opposition to this unfathomable decision to remove the great Founding Father from our currency.
Yet, Hamilton’s legacy will survive one way or another. The financial system he created will thrive long after our current bills have “mouldered into dust.” Historian and National Review Senior Editor-at-Large Richard Brookhiser eloquently summed up the decision to remove Hamilton in the Wall Street Journal: “The faces depicted on U.S. currency don’t have to be unchanging. But no matter who is on our bills, they will still be Hamilton’s.”
Many are now advocating from the left and the right that Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president and hero of the Battle of New Orleans, be removed from the $20 bill in Hamilton’s place. Though there is a strong argument that Hamilton—really more than anyone—is deserving of having his visage put on American currency, it is useless to suggest that the U.S. Department of the Treasury simply remove one American hero for another. After Hamilton’s removal, it is probable that the other faces on the currency will go, one by one, depending on who is in power. And it is far more likely that Hamilton and Jackson will both be replaced than it is for the famous Federalist to be restored.
Jackson is an easy target for modernity because of the one-dimensional caricature he has become in the modern imagination. The Tennessean is portrayed as nothing more than an ignorant, bigoted racist and mass murderer; a defender of slavery and supporter of American Indian genocide. By the words of far too many Americans, Jackson has become a goon, a boogeyman of almost demonic qualities. Stripped of humanity, he is easy to hate and vilify.
Though Jackson deserves criticism like any of the flawed men who have held power in this country, the modern, shallow attacks capture nothing of who Jackson really was. Just as Old Hickory was seen as the “symbol of an age” by 19th century Americans, he is now a stand in for all of early America’s most terrible sins
The best example of modern, misplaced rage against Jackson is an article by Mary Kathryn Nagle on MSNBC.com titled “Take Andrew Jackson off the $20 Bill.” Nagle claims to be part Cherokee—related to father and son John and Major Ridge, who were alive in Jackson’s time—and recounts a story about her grandmother angrily spitting at Andrew Jackson’s grave. She then makes a mostly ahistorical and wildly inaccurate attack on the man whom she has a great deal of animosity toward. In the end, Nagle advocates replacing what she sees as a genocidal Jackson with Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Nagle wrote, “no one could be more fitting to replace the man who sought to exterminate the Cherokee entirely.”
But Jackson was neither a genocidal maniac, nor did he wish to exterminate American Indians. A comprehensive defense of Jackson’s outlook toward Indians can be seen here. Jackson held no particular malice toward tribal people; his lifelong anger was directed mostly at the British. In fact, he adopted two Indian sons, one of whom he tried to send to West Point before the young man tragically died of disease.
Despite modern accusations that Jackson wanted to remove the Cherokee in order to annihilate them, it was certainly not his intent. Had Old Hickory simply sat on his hands and let Georgia—along with the virtual army of squatters and immigrants—pounce on Cherokee land, it is doubtful that they would have survived as a nation.
It was a highly complex situation that had few good options. Jackson believed the answer to the ongoing conflict between Georgia and the Cherokee was separation and movement of the Cherokee nation to western lands in modern Oklahoma.
Nagle claims that Jackson violated the law and defied the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia. She said that Jackson had to protect the Cherokee as a “sovereign nation.” But Jackson did not have the authority to act in any way after the Court’s verdict, which was actually about two Christian missionaries arrested on Cherokee land. Nagle recites the oft-repeated, but entirely apocryphal story about Jackson telling Chief Justice John Marshall to enforce his own decision. She wrote:
Following this victory, my grandfather John Ridge visited President Jackson in the White House. My grandfather asked how the federal government would enforce the Supreme Court’s decision. Andrew Jackson told him:
“John Marshall has issued his decision. Let him enforce it.”
This is simply untrue. The statement was first spoken by Jackson’s political opponent Horace Greeley, who claimed to have heard it from someone else. Regardless, there was nothing for Jackson to enforce. Due to a technicality in the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Supreme Court could not coerce Georgia to release the missionaries through an unanswered writ.
What Jackson actually said about the Supreme Court ruling was “The decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that it cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” There was little Jackson could do one way or another. According to Remini, the president said that the Supreme Court, “cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate…I believe Major John Ridge has expressed despair, and that it is better for the Cherokees to treat and move.”
Nevertheless, through connections and political pressure, Jackson was eventually able to secure the release of the missionaries. Noted Jackson historian Robert Remini said, “It was one of Jackson’s finest actions as a statesman.”
Major Ridge, a prominent leader among the Cherokee, had in fact fought alongside Jackson against Creek Indians and the British in Alabama. He had become friends with Old Hickory and came around to Jackson’s idea that for the Cherokee to survive as a distinct national unit they would have to remove to the west. In the wake of signing the Treaty of New Echota, Major Ridge and his son John were assassinated. However, it was not Jackson who had them assassinated, it was other Cherokee partisans who sided with the anti-treaty John Ross. Also forgotten in the modern memory of this negotiation is that Jackson offered American citizenship to Cherokee who wanted to stay on the land. Despite some prejudices, being an American to Jackson was largely about accepting a certain system, set of ideas, and way of life, not ethnic background. He hated the Cherokee government, not Cherokee people.
The “Trail of Tears” that followed the signing of the treaty is well known to modernity. Unprepared for the long trek west, misled by their leaders, and disgracefully abused by government agents and opportunistic settlers, the Trail of Tears became one of the most tragic incidents in American history. After being put in what amounted to concentration camps, the Cherokee and other Indian tribes of Georgia were hurriedly sent west in harsh, unforgiving conditions. It is estimated that 4,000 Cherokee died. The disaster is a terrible mark on Jackson, Martin van Buren—who was president at the time—and the United States. Additionally, it ominously reinforced the most terrifying phrase to Americans: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
But there is an element to this story that is often forgotten and neglected. One of the many reasons that the Cherokee had such difficulty crossing the country was that they were burdened by a long chain of slaves whom they brought with them. These black Cherokee slaves suffered alongside everyone else on the journey west, and an unknown number died along the way.
Historian Natalie Joy wrote:
In 1827 the Cherokee Nation had written its own constitution, which included numerous provisions protecting the interests of slaveholders, including barring slaves and their descendants, free or enslaved, from holding office or voting. Many other laws including those against interracial marriage attest to the legal and political institutionalization of black chattel slavery in the Cherokee Nation.
When the Civil War broke out, the Cherokee naturally allied themselves with the Confederacy. They adhered to a pro-slavery tradition until 1866, when the Union Army and United States government forced them to both permanently release their slaves and recognize the citizenship of the black Freedmen.
While criticism of Jackson’s record reaches cartoonish levels of absurdity, the pro-slavery attitudes of the Cherokee are almost never mentioned. Nagle wrote in her piece, referencing Jackson’s Indian policies, “this inability to call a genocide ‘genocide’ and remove Jackson from the $20 bill impedes our ability to heal collectively and restore the true democratic ideals embodied in our Constitution.”
But it would be a stretch to say Wilma Mankiller absolutely represents “true democratic” ideals in light of the most dramatic policy she enacted as Cherokee chief. With all the brouhaha over the symbolism of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and the threat of white supremacy, few mention the current Cherokee policy which denies citizenship to the decedents of Cherokee Freedmen. This is no 19th century law of bygone era; the last successful attempt to strip Freedmen of citizenship rights occurred under Mankiller in 2006. She had been a firm and prominent supporter of these measures throughout her career.
Though the United States pressured the Cherokee of 1866 into ensuring “all the rights of the Native Cherokee” to the freedmen, the modern tribe has moved away from that policy to vastly limit who qualifies as a citizen. Jackson offered citizenship to Cherokee in the 1830s. Former Confederate states have long recognized the equal rights of black Americans. Yet Mankiller gets a pass for stripping citizen’s rights in the 21st century on a racial basis and is to gain a place of honor on American currency?
Though Jackson—and even Hamilton—rightly deserve some of the criticism they received in their lifetimes and from modern Americans, their contributions to the development of the United States are incalculable. The same cannot be said about Mankiller, who seems to have mostly been proposed – in a condescending and tokenistic way – as simply a rebuke to Jackson, and perhaps men in general. It would be a shame and a travesty if she were to replace either Old Hickory or the great New York statesman on our currency.
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