By Paul M. Lewis
Not surprisingly, the decision to remove Andrew Jackson from the face of the new $20 bill has been controversial. There are those who continue to adulate Jackson. And although as a young man he could be rowdy, self-willed and quick to anger—he killed a man in a duel to defend his wife’s honor—he was also brave, self-made, and he championed everyday people, defending them, as a lawyer in court, against the elites of the day. He had an abiding hatred for the British, whom he fought against as a young teenager during the Revolutionary War, and by whom he was captured. While in captivity, an English officer ordered him to polish his boots; Jackson refused, and the soldier slashed the left side of Jackson’s face with a sword, leaving lifelong scars. Later, as an officer himself during the War of 1812, Jackson is reported to have fought bravely and was loved by his men.
That is one side of Jackson’s personality. The other side, a darker one, is that he was an owner of almost 150 slaves, whom he sometimes treated with extreme cruelty, and he had no love for American Indians. While president of the United States, he became famous, or infamous, for his terrible treatment of the Cherokee people. The Cherokee had lived for centuries in the southeastern portion of the United States, occupying much of what is now known as the state of Georgia. Although the history is a complex one, and the Cherokee were themselves undermined to an extent by their own political infighting, they were driven off their ancestral land, in no small part due to Jackson’s efforts, and ordered on a forced march to trek a thousand miles to the west to live on the southern Great Plains. This was an utterly alien land to them, where they had to make a home among other Indians whom many of the Cherokee themselves looked upon as “uncivilized.” Along the way on this exhausting march, as many as 4,000 died, and many more expired after having arrived in so-called Indian Territory, due to the disastrous effects of such an onerous and punishing journey. It has long been referred to as “The Trail of Tears.”
Again and again during the course of his presidency, Jackson proved his utter disdain for Indian peoples, in spite of the fact that he and his wife adopted an Indian child. As such, many American Indians today, perhaps the Cherokee in particular, detest his memory. They have long loathed the fact that the face of this man, who so tragically used and abused their ancestors, was on the front of one of the most commonly used bills in US currency. In the April 24, 2016 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Becky Hobbs, a contemporary member of the Cherokee Nation, says of her elders that they “wouldn’t even touch a $20 bill because they so despised Andrew Jackson.” To add insult to injury, the calamity of removal, as it was called, befell the Cherokee in large part because white men wanted what had been Cherokee land, so that they could use their black slaves to clear the land and plant cotton. And this in spite of the fact that the Cherokee had made many accommodations to white civilization and were convinced that their future, such as it was, lay in cooperation with, not opposition to, the Americans. Indeed, when forced off their land, they took the US government to the Supreme Court and won a judgment against the administration, which Jackson proceeded to ignore.
All this raises a number of questions related to the topic of who should be on the face of a country’s banknotes; what message ought to be put front and center about a nation? Take the European euro, as an example. Maybe by way of not offending anyone in so multinational, multicultural, and multilingual a political association of states as modern day Europe represents, no one individual appears on the euro. Instead, each of the seven bills (€5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500) features representations of generalized and stylized “European architectural monuments” on the obverse, and—tellingly, or maybe hopefully—bridges on the reverse. In China, not surprisingly, Chairman Mao’s face appears on many of the banknotes of the renbinmi, along with occasional pictures of various Han Chinese faces and depictions of other nationalities to be found within modern day China. Renbinmi, after all, means “the people’s currency.” The Russian ruble mostly shows famous monuments, such as St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Moscow Kremlin, as well as depictions of towns famous in Russian history and culture. The South African rand, again not surprisingly, depicts Nelson Mandela on the obverse of most bills, along with an assortment of animals native to the region, such as the lion and the water buffalo, on the reverse. But American bills have traditionally been mostly about men—white men specifically—from our storied past. Thus, Andrew Jackson on the face of the $20 bill. Countries, in other words, tend to place their heroes front and center, at least as long as the powers-that-be can agree that they are heroes (e.g. Vladimir Ilych Lenin was dropped from the Russian Ruble in 1992).
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that money means many things in the life, history, culture, and politics of a nation. Who, or what, appears on it is also fraught with meaning. In the form of bills or coins, money is used by every citizen of that country, and in the case of large and influential countries—none more so than the United States—by those living outside of the country, as well. It is handled by virtually every adult, and many children, in every country every day, often multiple times within a twenty-four hour period. As such, its look and feel sometimes may hardly register on the consciousness of those who use it. And yet, there is little doubt that most Americans can tell you who is on the one dollar bill, the five, the ten, and case in point, the twenty. Maybe especially the twenty, since almost everyone uses ATM machines these days, and they dispense only bills of that denomination. But what of the vaunted melting pot of the country? If only white men are depicted on currency, how does that in any way represent American diversity? Andrew Jackson’s picture has appeared on the $20 since 1928. Where are the women; where are black people, Latinos, Asians; and where is the depiction of the American Indian? Even the iconic “Indian head nickel” (a coin, not a banknote) is no longer issued by the US mint, and hasn’t been since 1938.
But that is about to change. The US Department of the Treasury has decided to remove Andrew Jackson from the obverse side of the $20 bill, putting him on the back instead, and replacing him with Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave, conductor on the Underground Railroad, and rescuer of countless slaves in the process—in other words, a true American hero. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who spearheaded the effort, has said that the design will be released in 2020, although it is not clear how long after that the bill itself will come into use. Still, this is a huge change, and a major step forward, for a country whose idolization of all things white and male has been endemic.
When it does come to be, how will a black woman feel when she goes to her local ATM and sees a twenty dollar bill with the face of Harriet Tubman on it? How will Becky Hobbs, the Cherokee woman, feel when she no longer has to view Jackson’s despised face, at least on the front of the twenty? Will it actually make any difference to either of them, or to anyone else? I’m guessing that it will, since symbols, which register both consciously and unconsciously, really do mean something to people. When all you see around you in terms of the literal wealth of the nation are pictures of white men, what message does that send? It says that they have the power, the influence, the authority; it says they have mastery and control over others.
None of this is meant to suggest that all white people, men or women, have influence and authority. Just ask Donald Trump’s backers, or even Bernie Sanders’s, how much in control they feel. Still, white people are, at least for now, the majority in this country. But that too is changing fast. Whites currently represent about 62% of the US population. It is projected that they will lose that majority status within the next 30 years, and white children will be a minority by 2020. Here in California, whites are already a minority, at about 38% of the population, while Hispanic peoples are at 39%. Isn’t it, then, about time for somebody other than a white man to be represented on the face of US currency?
Trump has, of course, already declared himself against the idea of having an ex-slave black woman on the face of the $20 bill, claiming that it’s just another example of liberal overreach and political correctness. But that is what we have come to expect from the Donald. To him, political correctness is just another term for whatever he happens to be against.
The real question is why a country would not want to put its best face forward on the very thing that, literally, touches every citizen of that country (and which each of those citizens touches). Putting Harriet Tubman and others like her who have overcome monumental adversity and helped their fellow citizens in the process on the face of American currency is the right thing to do. They are among the best the country has produced, and they represent the immense richness of our social, cultural and racial heritage. For my money, it’s time we left more dubious and questionable historical figures behind and picked people whom all of us can actually look up to.