248 Years Later, Andrew Jackson Remains Controversial

Today commemorates Andrew Jackson’s 248th birthday, and it’s safe to say that he remains controversial.

Today’s Nashville Tennessean editorial page shows the divide. Howard Kittell, CEO of the newly named Andrew Jackson Foundation (previously the Ladies’ Hermitage Association), makes the case that the new exhibit at The Hermitage seeks “to present Jackson in a truthful and realistic manner, recognizing that his actions reflected the views of many people of his time and also the profound effect of his actions upon generations of Native Americans.” Native American activist Albert Bender, not surprisingly, sees Jackson in a different light. “[T]he Andrew Jackson Foundation wants to elevate this monster, this ethnic cleanser, to the status of a great president,” Bender writes. “Jackson was a racist devil incarnate — an early-day American Hitler whose deadly legacy for American Indians remains extant to this very day.”

Jackson’s legacy has also been attacked in other ways recently. Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast reluctantly argued for Reagan to replace Jackson on the $20. While Chu is not a fan of Reagan, he prefers him to Jackson because “[t]here is not a single significant accomplishment of his administration that you can defend today as a positive thing.” Chu finds redemptive qualities or decisions in Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Ulysses S. Grant, but none in Jackson’s. In fact, he argues that “honoring Jackson gives tacit approval for” nearly every modern-day failure. Banking collapse? Check. “Cowboy diplomacy?” Check. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as California’s governor? Check.

Chu is not the only one who wants to see Jackson replaced on the $20. A “Women on 20s” campaign has emerged that seeks to replace Old Hickory with a “female ‘disrupter.'” Candidates include Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger.

These two pieces led to a Breitbart piece that argues “Jackson without a doubt deserves to be recognized among our greatest national heroes as the face of the $20 bill.”

I’ve written about this topic before (here and here), so I won’t repeat my previous arguments. I will say two things, though. First, Chu is wrong about Jackson. Whatever his flaws as we look back at his life and presidency, he stared down South Carolina nullifiers. For that decision alone, he deserves some respect. Second, I think it would be great to replace some of the current men on our currency with others who represent a more complete American experience. I think one could make a case for others besides Jackson being replaced (Grant, for example), but I don’t see his presence on the $20 as sacrosanct.

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3 Replies to “248 Years Later, Andrew Jackson Remains Controversial”

  1. Dear Mark, what would you say to those calling for the removal of the Jefferson and Jackson label (as they were slave owners) from the Democratic Party dinners, as has been done in Connecticut?

    1. To borrow Dan Feller’s phrase, I’m pretty agnostic about it, but I don’t like the reasoning. As I’ve argued, which nationally known, prominent statespeople could Democrats use as substitutes? FDR, JFK, LBJ are the three who come to mind, and all three have significant faults.

  2. I agree with you, Mark, that Jackson was just continuing the same policies of his presidential predecessors regarding Native American removal. President John Q. Adams, for example, started cutting back on missionary funding once he realized that Indian education actually made tribal nations more resistant to removal. Adams successfully promoted Creek removal, but refused to do so with the constitutionally-fraudulent Treaty of Indian Springs. Jackson’s policies were consistent with his presidential predecessors, but his methods differed significantly. As you know, Jackson blatantly ignored constitutional precedent to promote Cherokee removal in particular, and his unilateral methods had far-reaching consequences. While Americans were glad that Jackson “stood down” South Carolina’s nullifiers, you could also argue that the president helped to create the problem in the first place. A February 1831 exchange of letters between Nullification proponent Robert Young Hayne and Jackson indicates that Nullification supporters linked their cause with Georgia’s claim against federal sovereignty, at the moment that the Cherokee Nation stood before the US Supreme Court for Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. A year later, when the Cherokees won Supreme Court validation for their sovereignty rights, Jackson refused to uphold treaty-defined protections. Jackson’s “inaction” toward Georgia may have encouraged the bravado of South Carolina’s Nullification Ordinance. Between South Carolina and Georgia, Jackson was constitutionally inconsistent. The American public recognized this, and South Carolina’s nullifiers exploited it.
    The point, as you noted in your May 29, 2013 blog, is not to “yea” or “nay” Jackson, but to apply a “relativist view” that recognizes “the power of moral judgments but also suggests that understanding moral differences in the past allows for the study of change over time.” Jackson’s presidency and politics is as pertinent and controversial today as it was in his era. For me, I’m fascinated by the connection between populist rhetoric and the techniques utilized by political elites to control and manipulate citizen’s voting behaviors and popular opinion. Jackson was a master at it, but he certainly wasn’t alone.

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