In the past year Americans have engaged in a fascinating discussion about redesigning the images on our Federal Reserve notes, otherwise known as dollar bills or paper money. The discussion contains surprising relevance to ongoing current affairs.
On April 20, 2016, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew proclaimed that the lengthy dialogue would be resolved by putting a portrait of Harriet Tubman on one side of the $20 bill, opposite President Andrew Jackson, a General in the War of 1812, who became the two-term, seventh President of the United States.
In a profound iconographic twist, Tubman will soon be on the front of the bill, while the typical white, male big-wig would be effectively demoted to the back.
As a camel is well known to be a horse designed by a committee, only a bureaucracy would think they could balance a financial instrument with a liberated slave on one side and slave owner on the other. By the same token, it comes out as a fairly accurate average for American history thus far, but it seems unlikely that these two spirits can share that piece of paper even symbolically for long.
Tubman was a courageous black woman who became one of the most famous guides on the Underground Railroad, the escape route for slaves fleeing bondage in the southern states. After a childhood scarred by brutal treatment on a slave-holding plantation, she scrambled her way to freedom in the North and then went back 19 times to help more than 300 fugitives get away.
Jackson was not only a slaveholder, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Jackson was a slave trader. He is said to have owned 140 slaves by 1839.
Additionally, some of his political recognition came from his reputation as an “Indian killer, “for his actions during the Second Creek War in 1836. An article in Indian Country News, Feb. 20, 2012, argues that The Indian Removal Act, a bill Jackson signed a year after he became president was an act of “ethnic cleansing,” among the many reasons, the paper said, Jackson “deserves the top spot on a list of worst presidents.”
The Jackson-Tubman controversy packs a number of mini-history lessons that have become increasingly topical for our own time. Historians have found less and less to admire about Jackson’s turbulent presidency. An atmosphere of lawlessness during his tenure was foreshadowed on his inaugural day by the drunken behavior of his followers who climbed through the windows of the White House, smashed the china and crashed the celebration balls.
Partly to satisfy job expectations of his partisans, Jackson fired nearly a thousand federal employees and replaced them with inexperienced loyalists, which led directly to governmental infection known as “the spoils system,” and directly contributed to no end of fraud, bribery and plunder in the federal system.
Jackson presided over an economic boom that led to financial panics and fed the division between the North and South that would lead to the Civil War. His war on the Second United State Bank fueled overheated land speculation and subsidized the doomed monoculture of plantation slavery. While Native Americans were stripped of their land by Jackson or under his influence, “the common man” enjoyed an exhilarating expansion of political power –where “common man” meant newly enfranchised, white male breadwinners.
The political shock, known as Jacksonian Democracy, overthrew half a century of Federalist Party rule, the era of the Founding Fathers. Jackson notably voted against a Congressional proposal to send a letter of gratitude to George Washington. After Jackson, the party went on to deliver a wound from which we have never really recovered, by creating and governing the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Jacksonians are an amorphous, persistent class of Americans who are hard to define, but have made an emphatic return in the campaign of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. As with Andrew Jackson, Trump’s followers tend to be angry white males who despise big government, but profess to love their country. They are not nationalists, but they might be called “folk-patriots, “whose ideology is nostalgic, ephemeral and personal. They are related to Nixon’s “silent majority,” Reagan’s “Democrats,” and paleo conservative Pat Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks.”
Donald Menander, a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine wrote a paper on “The Case of Old Hickory: Boundary Violations of the U.S. Constitution,” published in February 2015 in The Neurobiology of Social Disruption. In his essay on Jackson, it can be difficult to tell whether he is talking about Jackson or Trump.
Jackson, Menander says, in a summary statement, was “mired in a narcissistically attenuated ability to respect the personal space of others,” and he had an “over identification with common male citizens of white Europe extraction, a dismissive attitude toward nonwhites, and an excessively punitive posture toward anyone – privileged, nonwhite, or otherwise – who crossed [him].
One can make a case, and there are mounting reasons to do so, that Jacksonian Democracy, based on bigotry, anger and exclusion, led not only to the Civil War, but right up to the crisis of our current presidential election.