There's been a recent movement to get President Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill
His legacy is mired in controversy, particularly his anti-Native American and pro-slavery positions
Program note: Explore the vicious rematch between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams on “Race For The White House,” Sunday, April 3, at 9 p.m.
You’ve probably heard about the movement to replace Andrew Jackson’s image on the ubiquitous $20 bill, but why exactly did the United States put him on there in the first place?
It’s no secret that Andrew Jackson’s legacy is complicated. He’s described by the organization that wants him off the $20 bill as “the slave-trading, Indian-killing seventh President.”
Yet, his humble origins as a poor orphan with little education exemplified the American dream that anyone could become president.
Biographer James Parton put it this way: “He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint.”
We may never know exactly why the U.S. Department of Treasury selected Jackson as one of about a dozen American presidents and statesmen to adorn U.S. currency. But here’s a look at why Jackson’s legacy is mired in controversy:
His anti-Native American policies
Jackson believed Westward expansion would keep America a great and strong republic, yet this came at a terrible price for Native Americans.
President Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowing the U.S. government to forcibly evict native Americans east of the Mississippi to land west of the Mississippi. The Cherokees, who had helped Gen. Jackson win a decisive battle in the War of 1812, fought the new law in the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
But it didn’t matter.
Infuriated by the ruling, Jackson declared, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
A few years later, nearly 17,000 Cherokees were rounded up and forced out of Georgia to present-day Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears.”
“Families were rousted out of their cabins and directed at gunpoint by soldiers,” wrote author and historian Tiya Miles. “Forced to leave most of their possessions behind, they witnessed white Georgians taking ownership of their cabins, looting and burning once cherished objects.”
Thousands died on that journey, many from smallpox and cholera.
Champion of the average (white) man
To those who supported Jackson, he was almost a folk hero, an embodiment of the American spirit. He grew up the poor son of Scotch-Irish immigrants in the Carolinas during the Revolutionary War. He joined a militia at 13 after his older brother died fighting in the war and served as a courier.
While ferrying messages across battle lines, the teenage Jackson was captured along with his brother by the British. A British officer reportedly ordered him to clean his boots and when Jackson refused, the officer slashed him across the face and hand with a sword.
He was later released in a prisoner exchange. The incident not only fueled his lifelong hatred for the British colonists, but it added his legendary status.
Later, as the swashbuckling commander during the War of 1812, his cunning and fearlessness led him to win the Battle of New Orleans, despite being outnumbered nearly two-to-one.
Getting rich off slavery
Jackson’s legendary status appears quite tarnished when you consider his involvement and position on slavery.
“Slavery was the source of Andrew Jackson’s wealth,” according to The Hermitage organization, which maintains Jackson’s plantation home near Nashville, Tennessee.
He owned hundreds of slaves whose labor produced the cash crops from the 1,000-acre Hermitage and his plantation in Alabama. Enslaved African-Americans also ran nearly every aspect of everyday life at these large plantations.
Jackson actively supported pro-slavery policies during his presidency in an attempt to keep the nation together. At one point, he even ordered the postmaster general to destroy abolitionist pamphlets mailed to the Southern states, fearing the newsletters could fuel discontent around slavery and spark a civil war.
Defender of women’s honor
When Jackson decided to run for president against John Quincy Adams in 1824 and 1828, his marriage to a not-quite-divorced-yet woman in the 1790s became fodder for his political opponents.
“Jackson’s elopement with the married Rachel Robards was a perfect example of his rampageous personality,” wrote historian Ann Toplovich, summing up the Adams campaign’s assessment of Jackson’s nuptials.
Jackson tried unsuccessfully to shield his wife from the negative press about their marriage, while his campaign team tried unsuccessfully to put the matter to rest.
After Jackson’s 1828 victory, Rachel Jackson died before her husband could be sworn in.
Stung from his wife’s death, the newly elected President refused to bow to pressure not to appoint his longtime supporter and friend John Eaton as his war secretary. Washington society had deemed Eaton scandalous because he – like Jackson – had married his wife under not-so-politically correct circumstances,
Jackson refused to give in.
“Do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my Cabinet?” he told his critics.
The ensuing “Petticoat Affair” led to the resignation of several of Jackson’s Cabinet members but also cemented Jackson’s legacy as a Washington outsider who refused to bend.
Jackson was the first president under the newly created Democratic Party, which “stood for simple, frugal and unintrusive government,” according to the nonpartisan Miller Center.
While ordinary, working people were at the heart of the Jacksonian Democrats’ mission, the party’s pro-slavery stance would create a schism many years later.
Yet the key Democratic principles set forth by Andrew Jackson would be utilized many generations later by American women, blacks and other minorities to advance their rights with the same passion and fervor that Jackson did for white men.