Friday, March 17, 2017
March 17, 2017: Andrew Jackson’s America: The $20 Bill
[March 15th marks the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to a special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
On three historical ironies surrounding Jackson’s presence (for now!) on the twenty.
1) The Federal Reserve/Paper Money: When Jackson finally managed to kill the Second Bank of the United States, it stayed dead, and so did any idea of a national bank—right up until 1913, when the latest in a long line of financial panics convinced Congress to pass the Federal Reserve Act to create a new such national monetary system. Jackson was also an impassioned opponent of paper money (he cautioned against its use in his March 1837 farewell address), and one of the new Federal Reserve’s first steps was to create a series of new bills, including a $20 bill in 1914. Grover Cleveland was the first choice for the president on that currency, but in 1928, on the 100th anniversary of his first election to the presidency, Andrew Jackson became the twenty’s portrait (Cleveland was shifted to the $1000). I can’t say that I much mind the thought of Jackson cursing from beyond the grave his inability to challenge the architects of each and every one of these policies and steps to one last duel.
2) Grover Cleveland’s Marriage: Speaking of Jackson’s duels, it’s also ironic that he replaced Cleveland on the $20, since Cleveland’s presidential marriage was likely the other most unusual in our history. A bachelor at the time of his inauguration, the 48 year old Cleveland soon developed a relationship with Frances Folsom, a Wells College undergraduate who was both 21 years old and something of a ward of Cleveland’s (he had helped supervise her upbringing after the death of her father, Cleveland’s friend Oscar Folsom). Cleveland and Folsom were married in the White House’s Blue Room on June 2nd, 1886. While it would seem that some of those details might have been cause for scandal, apparently Frances and the marriage were generally well received; whereas while Andrew Jackson married a woman whom he had helped escape from an abusive marriage and who was still married only because of a technicality, she and the marriage would become the source of constant rumors and accusations throughout Jackson’s life and political career. I do feel worse about this Old Hickory irony, to be clear.
3) Harriet Tubman: Whereas this historical irony? This one I don’t feel the slightest bit badly about. I’m with those who felt and feel that Jackson should have been replaced by almost any historical figure on the twenty—not because he’s some sort of monster (although as I discussed in Tuesday’s post, he unquestionably did some monstrous things as president), but because we have precious few such currency slots, and they should go to truly impressive and inspiring figures. While I would have been fine with any of the four women who became finalists for the twenty—and certainly Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller would have represented a particularly delicious irony in her own right—I think Harriet Tubman is most definitely an inspired choice. Not just because Jackson was a slaveowner, although yes, that. But also and even more pitch-perfectly because while much of Jackson’s life featured some of the worst forms of social and political violence—dueling, “Indian fighting,” warmaking, and forced removal—Tubman embodies the Underground Railroad, a form of social resistance and activism that was both nonviolent and hugely effective. We can’t and shouldn’t eliminate Jackson from our collective memories—but replacing him with Tubman on the $20? Easiest call ever.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Jackson histories or contexts you’d highlight?