Kick Andrew Jackson Off the $20 Bill!
My public high school wasn’t the best, but we did have an amazing history teacher. Mr. L, as we called him, brought our country’s story to life. So when he taught us about the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s campaigns to force at least 46,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Muscogee-Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles off their ancestral lands, my classmates and I were stricken.
It was unfathomable that thousands of Native American men, women, and children were forced to march West, sometimes freezing to death or starving because U.S. soldiers wouldn’t let them bring extra food or blankets. It was hard to hear that the Choctaw Nation lost up to a third of its population on the death march. It was disorienting to learn that what amounted to ethnic cleansing had come at the insistence of an American president.
But then it was lunchtime, and we pulled out our wallets in the cafeteria. Andrew Jackson was there, staring out from every $20 bill. We had been carrying around portraits of a mass murderer all along, and had no idea.
Andrew Jackson engineered a genocide. He shouldn’t be on our currency.
Symbols matter. Many people, for example, are inspired by the symbolic implications of Jackson’s path to the presidency: He was born two weeks after his father’s death to a widowed immigrant mother and, despite his poverty and lack of education, reached the highest office in the land. That’s a powerful story. So is the more precise telling of how Jackson climbed the American socioeconomic ladder. Jackson was the only president who worked as a slave trader, and he accumulated much of his fortune that way. In fact, Jackson later pursued his “Indian Removal” policies specifically so that the stolen lands could be used to expand cotton farming and slavery.
Even in historical context, our seventh president falls short. His racist policies were controversial even in his own time. After the Indian Removal Act only narrowly passed Congress, an 1832 Supreme Court ruling declared it unconstitutional. (Jackson ignored that decision.) In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a passionate letter calling Jackson’s policies “… a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?"
Ironically, the biggest supporter of any campaign to remove Jackson from the $20 bill might be Jackson himself. He was a fierce opponent of paper money and the central banking system, and would probably be horrified to see his face on our national currency. Leaving him on the bill as a form of mockery could be the best insult. But complicated historical slights don’t translate: His face on our money implies an honor that Jackson’s legacy doesn’t deserve. Worse, it obscures the horrors of his presidency.
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