Thoughts on Andrew Jackson’s Place on the $20 Bill

Note: This post is an adaptation of a Twitter thread I wrote earlier this week.

Several years ago, a publisher asked me to write an essay defending Jackson’s place on the $20 for a book on debating political reform. Each set of essays took a pro or con position. I was given the intellectual exercise of making the best case for Jackson. The argument I finally chose was three-fold:

  1. Jackson championed a less elite, more democratic government;
  2. He fought against concentrated economic power in the form of the 2nd Bank of the U.S.; and
  3. He defended the Union agt. nullification & secession.[1]

Michael Knowles’ recent take for keeping Jackson on the $20 bill follows a different path. Along the way, Knowles includes some factual errors that mischaracterize Jackson and the history for which he is known.

For example, Knowles writes that the U.S. defeated Britain “twice over the course of three decades.” In fact, the War of 1812 was a stalemate, not a U.S. victory.[2]

About Indian removal, Knowles writes, “Jackson did indeed support the policy of Indian Removal, an inevitable consequence of persistent conflicts between settlers and natives.” He continues, “on roughly 70 occasions Jackson secured the relocation of Indians through negotiated treaties and federal payments totaling millions of dollars.”

In fact, Indian removal was by no means inevitable. European nations, and then the U.S., chose to remove Native Americans by a number of means, usually fraudulent treaties, coercion, manipulation, and violence. Jackson himself was notorious for dealing fradulently and violently with Native groups throughout his career.[3]

Knowles then makes a leap similar to that of Bradley Birzer in his recent book on Jackson: “The historical record also shatters the caricature of Jackson as some sort of Indian-hating, genocidal bigot. In fact, he appears to have held no personal animosity toward Indians at all.”[4] On the contrary, Jackson clearly believed that Native Americans were uncivilized “savages,” as seen in his 1830 message on Indian removal, to cite just one example.[5]

It’s interesting that Knowles believes “Jackson’s campaign chased corrupt officials out of the government and reduced waste and abuse.” While he is talking about the general government, Knowles ignores the fact that the removal process was full of corruption and abuse, as Ronald Satz and others have discussed.

It’s also noteworthy that Knowles focuses on the Cherokee Trail of Tears (which did take place under Martin Van Buren, not Jackson), while ignoring the removal of other Native groups, both northern and southern, that occurred during Jackson’s presidency.[6] Knowles also ignores the Second Seminole War, which began in 1835 while Jackson was president and embodied the corruption and violence of the removal process practiced by Jackson earlier in his career.[8]

Finally, Knowles passes along a common myth about Jackson. “After the Battle of Tallushatchee during the Creek War, Jackson adopted an Indian orphan whose own village had rejected him,” he writes. “Jackson, an orphan himself, took pity on the boy, named him Lyncoya Jackson, brought him back to his home in Tennessee, and educated him alongside his other adopted son, Andrew Jackson Jr.”

There are several issues with this description, and they cut to the heart of Americans’ misperceptions about Jackson. First, the reason Lyncoya was an orphan was because Jackson’s men killed his family, a point that Jackson ignored when he wrote Rachel, “I feel an unusual sympathy for him.” People tend to ignore this basic fact.

Second, Knowles fails to mention that Lyncoya was one of three Creek Indian boys Jackson sent to live with his wife Rachel on their plantation near Nashville. (Not much is known about the other two, Charley and Theodore.) Either Jackson was really compassionate, or there was something else going on.

Third (and this is the “something else going on”), Jackson did not “adopt” Lyncoya (or Charley or Theodore) in the sense that we think of the word. The adoption of Native children was a process of cultural assimilation, a topic covered in depth by Dawn Peterson and Christina Snyder. Adoption of Native American children was less about individual compassion and more about status and public posturing.

Why am I focusing on this error in such detail? Today, scholars and non-scholars alike often use the example of Lyncoya to soften Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans. How could Jackson be that bad when he felt empathy for a boy who lost his parents at an early age? Not only felt empathy for Lyncoya but sent him to live at his home, provided him with an education, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get him an appointment to West Point.

The answer is that Jackson’s treatment of Lyncoya, about which there is little primary source evidence, doesn’t really mean anything when it comes to understanding his attitude toward other Native people, either individually or as groups. Someone can treat an individual person from an identity group well and still mistreat or hate that same identity group. How many people do you know who have an African-American/gay/Jewish friend who can’t stand African Americans, gays, or Jews? I know several.

Is that what’s going on with Jackson and Lyncoya? Again, the evidence is thin on their relationship. But it doesn’t take a historian to understand that whatever Jackson thought about Lyncoya, Old Hickory dealt duplicitously with Native Americans, worked hard to take their land throughout his life, and considered them inferior to whites. How do we know? Because Jackson’s papers, which are freely accessible online (up through 1832), contain voluminous evidence proving this point. They show what Jackson wrote publicly and privately about Native peoples. Whatever motivated his “unusual sympathy” for Lyncoya did not translate to other Native Americans. As historian Laurel Shire wrote recently, “we must refuse to organize Jackson’s life into his public politics and his private feelings, as that framework relegates Jackson’s adoption of Indian boys to his personal life.”[6]

Understanding Jackson’s importance to U.S. history doesn’t require his face to be on our currency. It does require us to remember him and grapple with the world in which he lived and the arguments, both pro and con, made about him then. Donald Trump may not be a 21st-century Jackson, but some of the same issues that were important in Jackson’s day–racism, nativism, imperialism, economic and gender inequality–still face the U.S. today, and some of the same arguments, on both sides, persist.[9]

Mark Twain may not have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” But it is an apt observation when it comes to understanding why Jackson has become a cultural flashpoint in the past few years.

In 2017, I wrote an editorial about Jackson that concluded with this observation, “We continue to pay attention to Jackson because it is in our national DNA. We need to understand him and his inconsistencies in order to understand our own. Jackson often failed to recognize his personal contradictions. We should do better.” I think this assessment still holds true today.

[1]. Of the three arguments, I think this latter one is the strongest.

[2]. In chess, a stalemate typically means a player who has an overwhelming advantage fails to checkmate the player who has fewer or weaker pieces, usually due to the stronger player underestimating a resource available to their opponent. I think the analogy to the War of 1812 is clear.

[3]. See my Andrew Jackson, Southerner, as well as the recent work by Jason Opal, for example. One can also simply consult Jackson’s own papers on this point.

[4]. Birzer argues that Jackson “was in no way a racist” and that he believed that Native Americans were “inherently equal to whites, even if he also believed that Indian civilization lagged behind” (113).

[5]. For recent scholarship on Jackson and Indian removal, see Alfred Cave, Sharp Knife: Andrew Jackson and the American Indians.

[6]. Journal of the Early Republic 39 (Spring 2019):111.

[7]. See the work by John Bowes and Mary Stockwell, for example.

[8]. On the Second Seminole War, see C.S. Monaco’s The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression.

[9]. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this echo of the past in today’s world doesn’t mean making false comparisons about Jackson and Trump, however.

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