[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Andrew Jackson adorns our nation’s $20 bill. For decades, Ol’ Hickory has remained steadfast on the bill, much to the dismay of modern historians who shine an unflattering light on merely a piece of who our 7th president was.[/vc_column_text][banner300 banner=”5517620b381df”][vc_column_text]No, these modern historians are not telling lies when they discuss the devastating consequences of his policies of indian removal. No, similarly, they are not telling lies when they note that some of our most-revered founding fathers owned slaves.
However, in both instances, the focus on these misdeeds and human rights violations by modern historians are more geared towards politics than historical understanding. We need not condone these acts; but understanding the good our founders did for our country, what Jackson did for our country, need not require approval of all that they ever did.
In recent months, a fierce campaign to remove Jackson from the $20 bill has taken hold. Though there are many who deserve the honor, many Americans wish to keep the rough Tennessean on the bill- including the left-leaning Politico.
While admitting the merits of counter arguments, Politico defends Jackson’s presence on the bill:
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.
The anti-Jackson campaign represents the overripe fruit of two generations of anti-Jackson scholarship. A century ago, progressive historians like Charles Beard saw Old Hickory as the champion of the frontier farmers and workers, fighting the Eastern moneyed classes; decades later Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. focused on Jackson’s fiercely democratic politics, his class appeal rather than his sectional appeal. But in the 1970s New Left historians such as Michael Paul Rogin, awakening to problems his predecessors had ignored, placed Indian removal at the core of Jackson’s legacy and racism at the heart of his vision. More recently Jackson’s warlike nature and contempt for modern notions of civil liberties and due process have stained his reputation even more deeply. For years now, this unforgiving picture has been a staple of high-school lesson plans and popular culture.
The piece also takes aim squarely at the sensationalistic style of “historians” who now favor hyperbole to describe Jackson’s presidency.
Unfortunately, these high school-level popular understandings of Jackson typically veer into the cartoonish. His record on Indian removal is bad enough without resorting to the anachronistic charge that he committed “genocide.” (That term was coined after World War II to describe the deliberate extermination of a people, as in the Holocaust.) Jackson’s maintenance of a slave-operated cotton plantation at the Hermitage is odious enough without mischaracterizing him as an advocate of slavery, rather than as a defender of the problematic Missouri Compromise, which aimed to keep slavery out of national politics.
But the real problem with today’s anti-Jacksonism isn’t that it oversimplifies his defects; it’s that it tends to omit his signal virtues—most importantly his role in promoting a radically more egalitarian political culture than the United States had previously enjoyed.
Biography can be overrated in explaining a politician’s values, but it’s surely significant that Jackson was the first truly low-born president, the first chief executive not to hail from an established family or boast a selective education. Born in the mountains of Carolina, he lost both of his parents by his teenage years; his mother died during the Revolutionary War, contracting cholera as she tried to rescue two nephews from a British prison ship. (A brother also died in the war.) Andrew, though just in his early teens, also saw combat, engaging in the rough guerrilla-style warfare of the Carolina backcountry, which instilled, or maybe just reinforced, the courage and mettle, as well as the belligerence, that would mark his political career.
If Jackson helped open up national politics—and ultimately the presidency—to men of all classes, he also struck a democratic blow for a more geographically inclusive government, bringing the neglected West into the life of the nation. As a young man, he had moved to the Tennessee frontier, where he ascended in politics. As a congressman and then a senator from the new state, he held a radical spot on the spectrum, casting a stern eye on corruption and any deal-making that seemed to favor the rich or the insiders. As the historian Sean Wilentz writes in his short biography of Jackson, in those early years in government he supported taxing slaves, since taxing land alone would reward wealthy plantation owners; and he joined a small group in opposing a feel-good resolution extolling the Washington administration when the first president retired, seeing it as a self-flattering gesture of the elite.
Later, when Jackson returned to politics after two decades earning fame as a general, it was again as a tribune of disenfranchised groups that were now claiming their place at the democratic table. States were starting to abolish property requirements for voting and to adopt what was called universal (white) manhood suffrage. The extension of the vote to even poor or working-class men helped give American political culture the vigorous, egalitarian spirit that Tocqueville immortalized in Democracy in America after he toured the country in 1831.
Jackson’s legacy has fallen victim to yet another historical revision infused with political considerations and devoid of contextual understanding. Though we are under no obligation to overlook the blights upon Jackson’s legacy, we are obliged to attempt to understand him within the context of his time and understand how his presidency shaped America- for the good and the bad.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]