Andrew Jackson may not have a wildly popular musical boosting his reputation, but the famed general still commands a loyal contingent who say his ouster from the $20 bill leaves the seventh president shortchanged.
“That’s a huge mistake,” says Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee’s first congressional district, which was first represented in the House by Jackson himself. “I’m not sure what their motivation was. Why the $20? Why not take George Washington off the $1 bill?”
“I do not think it’s a very good idea,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the junior senator from Tennessee.
Corker said he understood that the popularity of the Hamilton hip-hop musical—a recent Pulitzer Prize winner—helped push the Treasury Department to back off a plan to add a woman to the $10 bill in place of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary.
“But Andrew Jackson is a figure that Tennesseans care about and, as you can imagine, they would prefer that another bill be looked at,” Corker said.
Jackson’s spot on the twenty and in American history rests on his status as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812; the founder of the Democratic Party; and the first popularly elected president. Jackson was also the first president to be born poor and to hail from the frontier, and he cast himself as the friend of the common man while blocking the extension of a national bank, a predecessor of the Federal Reserve.
But that reputation is overshadowed today by Jackson’s brutal persecution of Native Americans—both Cherokees and Seminoles—and his ownership of slaves.
And so, with Hamilton’s reputation boosted by the hip-hop musical, Jackson became the most expendable white man depicted on a monetary note.
A Tough Sell
Jackson partisans concede that Americans’ ignorance of Jackson’s more positive achievements, but knowledge of his failures, is a problem.
Even Tennessee lawmakers who say Jackson should remain on currency hesitate when asked why. “He was the president of the United States, a consequential presidential of the United States,” Corker said.
Howard Kittell, CEO of the Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, a historic site in Nashville where Jackson lived, admitted that promoting the general and president can be “frustrating.”
“He was the first common President,” Kittell said, pitching Jackson as a rags-to-riches example of the American dream. “He wasn’t one of the Virginia aristocrats. He wasn’t an Adams of Massachusetts. He started out with virtually nothing and became President of the United States. He also had a major role in strengthening the presidency.”
Widespread Cheers and Quiet Grumbles
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s announcement Wednesday that Jackson would be replaced on the $20 bill by Harriet Tubman—an escaped slave known for helping other slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad—drew widespread cheers.
“A woman, a leader, and a freedom fighter,” Hillary Clinton tweeted. “I can’t think of a better choice for the $20 bill than Harriet Tubman.”
But Jackson fans feel such sentiments overlook the significance of “Old Hickory,” one of his nicknames. They suggest a quick dismissal of Jackson based on his failures implies an oversimplified application of contemporary values to complicated history.
“You’re taking a 21st century view of the world and translating it to 200 years ago,” Rep. Roe said. “And you can’t do that. You have to see the world through the lens that he had.”
Kittell noted that 10 of the first 12 presidents owned slaves, and that Jackson’s policy toward Native Americans reflected the views of Americans living on the frontier at the time.
“Unfortunately, Jackson is now defined by those topics, as important as they are, without looking at the broader person,” he said. “You have to look at him within the context of his time.”
Mostly lost in the reaction to Secretary Lew’s decision was the irony of Jackson, the great foe of a national bank, losing out to Hamilton, the great champion of federal banking, in a contest over, of all things, federal currency.
Also overlooked was the continued embrace of Jackson by Americans, especially Americans from Tennessee, raised when school textbooks portrayed Jackson positively.
“History is complicated,” Kittell said. “You can’t boil it down to soundbites. You have to look at the nuances of what was going on.”
“I’m sad about this,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.). “I think they should look at the history of what he did for our country. And I wish that they would reconsider their actions.”
Asked which of Jackson accomplishments she would highlight, Rep. Black, who was headed into the House chamber to vote, did not answer.