In Lew of an Indian, Harriet Tubman
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s announcement that Andrew Jackson is to be evicted from the face of the twenty-dollar Federal Reserve note was greeted with celebration in Indian country, particularly among the Five Tribes. The announced plan is to remove Jackson from the place of honor and move him to a smaller role on the reverse side, replacing him with Harriet Tubman.
African Americans will be seeing one of their own on the money for the first time, and there is some justice in replacing a slave dealer with an ex-slave. There have been lots of Indians on U.S. currency, but only one on paper money. The Sacagawea dollar is the only Indian themed money currently in circulation.
Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Awesome, well deserved—and about time.” Donald Trump promised to reverse the decision if elected, calling it “pure political correctness.”
Women on 20s, the organization that did the heavy lifting, was pleased with the intent but not with the schedule, since their original plan was to see a woman on the face of a Federal Reserve note by the centennial of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 2020. Understanding that putting a woman on meant that a man was coming off, they picked Jackson as their target because of his role in Indian removal and his slave dealing and the plain fact that if Jackson had his way there would be no Federal Reserve notes.
In recognition of the infamy Jackson earned among Cherokees for his role in the Trail of Tears, Women on 20s included Chief Wilma Mankiller among the finalists in their online poll to nominate a woman to replace Jackson. The stated reason was the magnitude of harm Jackson inflicted on Cherokees and the result was widespread attention to the effort in Indian publications, this one included.
Linda Sacks published an unscientific survey of Indian opinion in Native News Online that endorsed Mankiller to replace Jackson, but gave plenty of reasons why Jackson ought not to be on a Federal Reserve note anyway. The only controversy in the comments posted on Sacks’ piece was over picking a woman.
Some male nominees were Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, or Chief Seattle. The majority opinion held, in the words of one commenter, “women are equal and should be treated as such.” Nobody pointed out that it was women who were doing the work to get it done.
The Associated Press quoted Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker that Jackson “is not the poster boy for America, and it’s good to see it changed.”
Cherokee composer and playwright Becky Hobbs represented a lot of Cherokee Nation opinion when she commented, “We’re just thrilled that Andrew Jackson has had a removal of his own. The constant reminder of Andrew Jackson being glorified is sad and sickening to our people.”
In a group dedicated the Cherokee language, culture, and history, Jo Ann Tidwell remarked on, when she was younger, comprehending the meaning of the apocryphal statement attributed to Jackson about Worcester v. Georgia, recognizing Cherokee sovereignty, “John Marshall has made his decision—let him enforce it.” Tidwell said the president ignoring the Supreme Court made her feel “insecure.” As to Jackson, she expressed a common opinion in the Cherokee Nation that “if this man’s image was on the last toilet paper roll on the earth, it would go unused.”
Cherokee elder John Cornsilk said it was about time, because he was tired of making sure to stack twenties upside down “when I got a few.”
A Facebook post about Jackson’s move to the back of the bill commented, “That sucks. It's like they are trying to have it both ways. He has no business being on her back.”
One comment on the ICTMN story about the redesign complained, “his face is just going to the opposite side. I don’t really see how this is better.”
Jack Moore expressed similar sentiment in GQ, calling Jackson on the back “insane” and complaining, “You were so close to getting this right, Treasury Department.”
One regular reader of ICTMN commented after being informed that Jackson would hate the idea of being on a Federal Reserve note that maybe Jackson should stay for that reason but “his face should appear on a horse’s ass and he should have clown makeup on, too.”
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported a devastating criticism of Jackson by Suzan Shown Harjo, who called him “the Donald Trump of his era.”
Fox News hostess Greta Van Susteren called Lew’s decision “stupid for no reason.” She proposed to leave the Indian killer in the place of honor and give Tubman a new $25 bill to herself. “That’s the smart and easy thing to do. But no, some people don’t think and would gratuitously stir up conflict in the nation. That is so awful, and yes, dumb.”
University of Tennessee history professor Daniel Feller attributed Jackson’s fall to a modern awareness of Indian removal. Writing in U.S. News & World Report, he noted that the leading history of Jackson contained one reference to Indian removal in 523 pages and textbooks of the ‘50s and ‘60s said nothing about it. Times have changed, Feller admitted:
Indian removal is now usually told as a simple morality tale with Jackson as the villain. Its true story is much more messy and complicated. Still, no matter how we judge Jackson’s role, we cannot say that the present fixation on Indian removal distorts history, because Jackson shared that fixation himself. He made Indian removal a leading priority, he pursued it relentlessly, and he took pride in its achievement. If the result was a travesty, Andrew Jackson’s reputation cannot and should not escape it.
Rutgers history professor David Greenberg, writing in Politico, agrees that Harriet Tubman was morally superior to Andrew Jackson, and admits that Jackson was “in many ways a detestable man.”
However, Jackson was “the first truly low-born president.” He lacked important family ties or an elite education and he did bequeath to us “a radically more egalitarian political culture.”
That “egalitarian” excluded blacks and Indians and women does not make him evil, but rather a creature of his time. I understand, but I do get weary of the argument Greenberg recycles that the Trail of Tears was not a genocide because the term is a neologism and intent to exterminate a people was lacking. Fine, let’s move to another neologism, “ethnic cleansing,” but understand that when my Indian nation lost a quarter of its people, those who survived and their descendants are bound to be a little touchy.
Still, it is hard for a grownup person to disagree with Greenberg’s fundamental point:
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.
Of course he’s correct, but maybe the ephemeral nature of paper currency makes it a more appropriate place for moralism and sentimentality than for history. Even if it were a place for history, how could a historian square Jackson on a federal reserve note with Jackson’s active opposition to the central bank and his distaste for paper money?
We in the 21st century United States can’t choose who shaped the country, but we can choose which of them we honor. As Suzan Shown Harjo told the Associated Press, “A country usually puts forward its best when it shows the world the people on a stamp or on money. They’re really saying, ‘this is what we want you to think of us ... these are our best people.’”
Indians were not citizens of the U.S. in Jackson’s time, but we have been since 1924. Therefore, it’s fair that we have a voice in asking if Andrew Jackson is the best we can do?
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