The $20 Bill and Jacksonian Mythology

I’ve watched with keen interest the discussion about the $20 bill that has taken place over the last week or so. Most commentators seem to support the decision to move Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill and place Harriet Tubman on the front. I may have a published piece on this topic coming out soon, so I’m refraining from public comment for now.

In the meantime, though, there’s been some bad history in some of the reaction pieces that I’ve read. One of the most egregious is Suzanne Fields‘. A short list of the factual inaccuracies and distorted interpretations in her piece includes:

“He was the first president whose identity was forged outside the original 13 colonies.” (Jackson was actually 21 when he moved to what became Tennessee and was 29 when it became a state, so arguing that his identity was “forged” in his 20s is a stretch.)

“He was a self-made man in Tennessee” (Jackson owed much of his success to his kinship and political networks, including his wife Rachel’s family.)

“he diversified and democratized politics, blazing the way for any boy born in poverty to dream of rising as high as the Oval Office.” (Most scholars would agree that Jackson benefitted from political democratization more than he contributed to it. Also, his immediate family wasn’t wealthy, but poverty doesn’t describe its socioeconomic status, either.)

“He fought in that war with guerilla tactics in the remote Carolina backcountry, maturing in later years into a skilled dueler on behalf of the honor of his beloved wife Rachel, who was denounced as a bigamist because her lawyer had not properly tidied up her divorce proceedings.” (Jackson’s military service during the Revolution was as a courier. This description of Rachel’s divorce is virtually disconnected from any historical reality.)

“Jackson was . . . a fierce defender of democratic values” (This depended on the issue.)

“He even adopted an orphaned Native American baby as his son.” (This “fact” is so overused and misrepresented that I can only roll my eyes. Update: Fortuitously, Slate just interviewed Dawn Peterson, who has a new book coming out on Indian “adoptions.” )

Fields makes the point that Jackson is being treated differently from Washington and Jefferson, who held many of his same views and took many of the same actions that he did. That’s a reasonable argument to make, but much of the rest of her piece is ahistorical claptrap.

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2 Replies to “The $20 Bill and Jacksonian Mythology”

  1. I hope you will let us know in this blog when the published piece comes out – sounds intriguing. Meanwhile, I have a question about the issue of Jackson’s adoption (or not) of Lyncoya. I had been taught this as well, and the Hermitage website describes it thusly:
    —————
    Lyncoya, Jackson’s Native American Child

    In 1813, Andrew Jackson sent home to Tennessee a Native American child who was found on the battlefield with his dead mother. … Lyncoya was educated along with Andrew Jr., and Jackson had aspirations of sending him to West Point, as well….
    —————-
    So you have me curious about what the story is, or should be. (This isn’t meant as some sort of harebrained challenge – I don’t know much about this era and I am genuinely curious). Thanks!

    1. Lyncoya was one of three infant Creek boys sent to Rachel. There is no evidence that the Jacksons adopted any of them, and the evidentiary record on Lyncoya (the only one apparently to survive infancy) is thin at best. Dawn Peterson has a new book coming out on this type of “adoption.” Without explaining the historical context, the use of the word “adoption” is misleading and suggests something today that would not necessarily have applied in the early 1800s.

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