‘Old Hickory’ gets the heave-ho

Getting through Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has been a long slog for me. Embarrassing, considering that Meacham won a Pulitzer for his effort on “American Lion.”

As excellent as I found Meacham’s recent biography of George Bush, I thought he missed a broader analysis of the politics of Jackson.

Meacham spends an inordinate amount of time in the book — too much time this reviewer says — analyzing the relationship with Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton, who brought scandal to the Potomac by marrying a once-married former tavern maid with a past.

Vice President John Calhoun’s wife led Washington’s elite in snubbing the Eatons. Eventually Eaton resigned to save the Jackson administration. The affair hardly seemed a bigger deal than the big deal that was Andrew Jackson as president and yet it dominated almost half of the book.

I’ll get through it eventually, although I’ve already learned more about Jackson than I did as a history minor in college. One of the lessons is: History is complicated.

Jackson, with help from Calhoun (who came up with his plan under the Monroe administration), engineered the forced migration Westward of five Native American tribes. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 spelled doom for the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee, who had to leave their land in the southeastern United States that they’d held for years.

Dastardly, indeed.

But Jackson also saved the Union when South Carolina threatened rebellion over tariffs. Calhoun was behind nullification, too.

Jackson pushed legislation to bring the country to the brink of war, a sign of force to South Carolina. At the same time, he helped orchestrate a political solution in Congress for lower tariffs. It worked, although Jackson predicted that those who fought the tariffs under “state’s rights” would eventually turn to the issue of slavery.

Jackson, more than any other president before him, made the presidency a powerful position.

Of course, Jackson was also a hero of the War of 1812, when he and his troops defended New Orleans, and forced the British to the negotiating table.

How, then, does one judge Andrew Jackson who had the misfortune of history to live in the time in which he lived?

That battle will be waged anew because Andrew Jackson is about to be thrown off the $20 bill. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is announcing today that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace him.

The announcement reflects a greater love that history has for Alexander Hamilton, who was going to be replaced on the $10 bill until a resurgence of interest in him, spurred by a Broadway show, added pressure on Lew to keep him in his present location.

Jackson and his colleagues would probably make an unsuitable musical. So he will probably go quietly.

  • BReynolds33

    Jackson’s hand in the deaths of thousands (10’s or 100’s of thousands? Is there even an official count?) of native people is enough to make him a disgrace, no matter what else he did. There is no saving grace for him. None whatsoever.

    I’m glad he’s being booted off of our money. It was an absolute embarrassment having such a person featured on the most used piece of currency on the planet.

    • Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution of Native Americans in the history of the nation. The one that took place in Mankato.

      He’s on the fiver.

      • Jerry

        But to be somewhat fair to Lincoln, that’s because he believed they were guilty of atrocities during the uprising. He pardoned many others.

      • BReynolds33

        I’m more than happy to decry Lincoln as well. Basically made the Constitution a set of suggestions.

        • BJ

          FTFY
          Basically made the Constitution a document with teeth.

    • frightwig

      Of course Jackson isn’t the only President on our currency who presided over Native relocation policy or slavery, or has some blemish on his record that seems disgraceful from a modern perspective.

    • Jeff

      We visited the Hermitage last year and no matter how they tried to spin his legacy the slave shacks on the back of the property were more telling to me. Yes we live in different times, but his face on the $20 bill feels more like a tradition than honoring our greatest citizens. I think we can do better.

  • MrE85

    The War of 1812 had officially ended when Jackson and his makeshift army beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans, but there was no way for him — or the British — to know that at the time.

    • Blame Comcast.

      • MrE85

        Heh. The odd thing is, for a guy later considered a notorious racist, he had to assemble a force of whites, blacks, native warriors, and even pirates to face the Brits, who almost always won every land battle they had with the Americans. But not this time….

  • Jerry

    The Treaty of Ghent, which ended The War of 1812, was signed on December 24 1814. The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8 1815 so the victory was great for American morale, but not the outcome of the war.

  • Leann Olsen

    There IS a musical about Jackson. We’re just lucky it didn’t reach Hamiltonian status. Of course maybe it helped kick him off the bill. It is aptly named Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.

  • PaulJ

    Had New Orleans not been saved, it is said the British might have tried to take the Louisianan Purchase. And then Minnesotans would be speaking English instead of American

    • Jack Ungerleider

      But we would have Canadian healthcare!

  • Joe

    Even if Jackson did nothing wrong (though he obviously did), I’d still be fine with choosing Tubman over him.

  • Mike Worcester

    I find it fascinating who all is on our currency and why they were chosen:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/02/17/which-presidents-are-on-your-money/

    And wow would I like to see one of those $100,000 bills!

    • And no mention of the “Ike” silver dollar (of which I have several).

      🙂

      • Rob

        We need to have at least one follicularly challenged dude on our coinage!

  • Gary F

    I hope they choose this picture.

    • Gary F

      or this one.

      • Angry Jonny

        Why?

  • wjc

    I’m glad to see the $10 founding father stay on the bill. If you have not listened to the cast recording Of Hamilton, do yourself a favor and do so. Also, read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography.

    Lyrics at: http://genius.com/albums/Lin-manuel-miranda/Hamilton-original-broadway-cast-recording

    Another good article at: http://www.popsci.com/hamilton-musical-most-addicting-album-ever

  • Rob

    Bob Collins, really? Poor Jackson, having the misfortune to be born when he was. Nobody held a gun to his head to force him to own slaves or commit atrocities against native tribes. All the good deeds in the world wouldn’t erase those stains. Good friggin’ riddance to his place on our currency.

    • No, nobody did at all. And nobody suggested that anything erases anything. However, the reality of this country is that people lived in the times they lived in and, yes, the standards of the times change for the better.

      But from a historically accurate perspective, they lived in the times they lived in and the judgement imposed on them now is different than the judgment imposed on them then.

      It’s fine with me if ownership of slaves is a disbarment from historical honor. But you better not leave it at Andrew Jackson because the country was basically founded by many people who would be considered — in today’s parlance — scumbags.

      • Jerry

        Jackson was one the first presidents who could be described as “a President of the People”. Unfortunately the people were really racist.

      • Joe

        Is it better to honor Tubman on the $20 than Jackson? Yes. It doesn’t matter that Lincoln also ordered an atrocity or that Jefferson also had slaves, or that Washington cut down a tree. Tubman is a better choice than Jackson, and that’s all that matters.

      • Rob

        Yes, the swellness of our founders is one of the Great Lies that we are taught. Any Founding Fathers who supported or participated in slavery and genocide of native peoples were scumbags in their own time. I think it’s a huge and unjustified cop-out when historians and journalists use “the times” as an excuse for the barbarism that our founders engaged in. And neither lindblomeagles nor I am “confusing understanding history with approving history.” It’s the apologists who are, in essence, approving it by giving the scumbags a pass, because history and all.

        • Which part of “dastardly” confuses you?

          The assertion that I am advocating giving anyone a pass or that pointing out that the standards of judgement at a time in history are bound to be different than 180 years later is an argument based on a fallacy and there’s no point in my giving such an incorrect interpretation legitimacy.

          History is complicated. Internet comments sections aren’t.

          Start with that and maybe I’ll catch up if I care enough.

          Read Meacham’s book. You can have my copy when I’m finished with it in a year or two.

          • Rob

            What was I thinking? Because the times were different, and the dominant culture approved of them, slavery and genocide were OK. I see that now; thanks for enlightening me about history being complicated. BTW, I’ll be crushed if you don’t care enough to “catch up.”

            And thanks for the book offer. I’ll send you an email with my home address, in a year or two.

  • PaulJ

    The article said Jackson would still be on the back of the bill – that’s odd.

    • That’s the same thing they were going to do with Hamilton.

  • Gary F

    Good having a Republican on the $20!

    • Gary F

      And out with the founder of the Democratic Party! Andrew Jackson.

      • Veronica

        Seriously?

        • I’ve never been much impressed with this “We are the party of Lincoln” or any other reference suggesting that there’s a comparison of political parties by history.

          The racists of the South were Democrats. Then they became Republicans. It’s not much of a one-size-fits-all descriptor although I fully recognize why today’s partisans try to use it that way.

          • Which was the point I was making upthread.

            🙂

          • Even in the present generation, one has to break down the GOP into pre-Gingrich and post-Gingrich.

          • Rob

            Not pre-Limbaugh and post-Limbaugh?

          • Khatti

            At some point you really do need to concern yourself with the here and now. Andrew Jackson doesn’t give a damn what we think of him.

        • Khatti

          Yup! He was.

    • There are Republicans on quite a few of our coins and bills.

      Of course, over the decades since the US Civil War, the parties have completely swapped political planks…

    • Rob

      Yes, especially one who would be a Democrat if he were alive today!

  • Khatti

    In the mood to be judgmental? Just remember, we are quite capable of doing something that will appall our great-great grandchildren just as much as we are appalled by Jackson. And that something may be something seriously advocated on sites like this one.

    • Like what?

      • Khatti

        If I knew for sure I could counsel against it. My only bit of advice is keep a handle on your proclivities and watch out for fanaticism. Hitler is not remembered because he was a racist, he’s remembered because he was a fanatical racist.

        I couldn’t help but notice that I misspelled “counsel”. Oooooh this is so sad.

        • Khatti

          A question that does intrigue me concerning say, equality, or ending climate change is: “what are you willing to do to your opposition in order to get it?” It’s the sort of question where a passionate answer could get your name mentioned in the same breath as Stalin, or Hitler, or Robespierre.

          • Rob

            Que?

          • Khatti

            Well, let’s take equality as an example. Equality is a rheostat issue: it’s not a question of having it or not having it, it’s a question of how much equality you have. At some point equality has to be imposed, and it is imposed at the expense of freedom. What mechanism do you want to use to impose equality? Can you guarantee yourself that your favorite mechanism will remain fashionable two hundred years from now? Our sense of what is an appropriate amount of equality might prove burdensome to our great-grandchildren for reasons we can’t appreciate. When all else fails our great-great grandchildren are going to grow bored with us. “That was then, this is now.” is not an argument that will pass with us.

            Finally, some fanatical or monomanic clown could come along and discredit our most cherished values. The best example for MPR nation to keep in mind is Robespierre and the Jacobites, who attempted to spread freedom, brotherhood, and equality, through France with the guillotine.

          • Rob

            yeah, nothing like a bunch of beheadings to spread liberty, equality and fraternity. The Jacobites also left out sorority.

          • Khatti

            But not women. Look at Marie Antoinette.

      • Angry Jonny

        Like voting for Trump?

  • lindblomeagles

    First, suggesting Andrew Jackson lived in the time that he did is a cop out because African Americans lived during Andrew Jackson’s Presidency AND WOULD have contributed to America IF THE TIMES GAVE THEM THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO IT. And as long as we are going to be HISTORICALLY ACCURATE, the reason Andrew Jackson didn’t like Indians is because Indians, like the Seminoles, HELPED AFRICAN SLAVES ESCAPE PEOPLE LIKE JACKSON. Andrew Jackson had every opportunity to outlaw Indian killings (and land redistribution to whites) and Southern slavery. He did neither. Meanwhile, Harriet Tubman, whose time arrived shortly after Jackson, as a woman AND as an African American RISKED HER LIFE to help others. We shouldn’t be asking why does Jackson have to go. We SHOULD BE ASKING why it took so long to honor Harriet Tubman, in the past and the present.

    • You’re confusing understanding the times with approving of the times. The point is simply that what is shameful today from a community standpoint was acceptable then. Understanding history and approving of history are not the same things.

      Frankly, throwing more politicians off pedestals is fine with me, especially if it comes at the benefit of far more deserving individuals.

      We think much too highly of the politicians we like, much of our history is political propaganda, and we don’t need to be spending any more time building more monuments to them.

      • lindblomeagles

        I agree with most of what you say here, particularly about the politicians. The most over-hyped politician to me is Ronald Reagan who did make the country feel good about themselves, but whose programs were largely failures. My point here was that while slavery and removing Indians was acceptable to most of the country, especially the South, during Old Hickory’s Presidency, an abolition movement had already begun long before Old Hickory became President and it was a movement in the North that gathered more steam during and after Old Hickory’s Presidency. The Founding Fathers, themselves, debated the issue of slavery before compromising on the 3/5s clause in the US Constitution in 1789, which allowed slavery to continue. By the time Lincoln becomes President in 1860, the abolition movement had swayed just enough of the country to go to war with the south over slavery. To your point, Americans found it acceptable to remove Indians long after the last tribes settled on reservations, and to some extent, still find that acceptable.

  • Rob

    LOFL!

  • Rob

    Why in the gods’ names is it gonna take fourteen years to get Tubman’ s likeness on the bill? And Treasury plans to put an image of Jackson on the back of the bill? WTF?