The Mass Murderer on Your $20

Andrew Jackson was an abysmal president, and replacing him on our currency with anyone—even Reagan—would be a step in the right direction.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

So we’re in late February, which means it’s the season for local Jefferson-Jackson Days, when local Democratic Parties hold potlucks to raise money and get people pumped for Get Out the Vote drives. It’s also shortly after President’s Day, which is, for me, always a day spent reminiscing about random presidential trivia and tweeting unpopular opinions.

And for once one of those unpopular opinions caught the attention of an editor and now I’m writing about how the “Jackson” in Jefferson-Jackson Day is an abomination. Indeed, I want to grab my fellow Democrats who say stupid, historically ignorant things about how George W. Bush was “the worst President ever” by the lapels and shove them at Andrew Jackson’s Wikipedia entry, rubbing their nose in it until they understand what they did.

I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of President Ronald Reagan, and found it very hard to live in California during the “Reagasm” of 2004. That’s when the former president’s passing marked an occasion for everyone to forget the cynical trade with Iran, the mass betrayal of working-class America and that one time we almost went to war over a single careless joke, and instead come together in patriotic, bipartisan unity over what a reassuringly grandfatherly presence Reagan was on TV.

The unrelenting tide of Reagan namesakes across the country, pushed by Grover Norquist of Tax Pledge fame, is deeply annoying to me. It’s an outright slap in the face that the man who fired 11,000 air traffic controllers gets to be the namesake of Washington National Airport.

As a D.C. resident I had it drilled into me that no D.C. native calls it anything other than “Washington National Airport,” and D.C. being forced to pay to change all the signage out of pocket by Congress is one of the bitterest complaints of the “Taxation Without Representation” crowd. I’d go one step further and call the Ronald Reagan Building just “The Building” if I could.

But you know what? If the Reagan people want to put Ronald Reagan on the $20 bill and boot Andrew Jackson off, I’m all for it.

This isn’t just about historical figures being “flawed,” or “of their time.” I’m not yelling about the “Jefferson” in Jefferson-Jackson Day even though Thomas Jefferson was a massively flawed man, a hypocrite and moral coward when it came to the issue of slavery, a probable rapist and, if nothing else, a man who during his own presidency betrayed all of the small-government values his fans laud him for.

But Jefferson was also a great man whose beliefs as expressed in his writings helped shape the values of this country for the better—his failures in life can be measured by how far short they fall from his ideals. Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant were also both deeply flawed men, but I’m not calling for Reagan to boot them off the $10 or the $50—one helped write the Constitution, the other saved the Union.

No, I want Reagan on the $20 because the man there now, Andrew Jackson, is if not the worst president we’ve ever had (he’s at least in the running alongside Andrew Johnson), definitely the worst president who shows up in lists of the best presidents.

Seriously, having his face on the money cements his place as one of “the greats” among most Americans because most Americans seem to know nothing about the man. There is not a single significant accomplishment of his administration that you can defend today as a positive thing. He was celebrated in the 1830s largely because of the ways in which America was horrible in the 1830s.

The deservedly single biggest issue that gets brought up regarding his term is the minor matter of masterminding a genocide. The Trail of Tears is one of the largest-scale acts of ethnic cleansing in history, with its explicit end the eventual annihilation of the Five Civilized Tribes as peoples in the name of “progress.” Jackson brazenly, callously spat on treaties that had been established with our erstwhile allies in the name of convenient access to cheap land.

Thousands died on the death marches. Thousands more died in the concentration camps that were their destination. Still more thousands were killed because they refused to leave. Soldiers were given direct orders to gun down children in cold blood. Natives who fled into the wilderness were hunted by civilians for sport.

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And for Andrew Jackson, that was all according to plan.

For us to continue to honor a man like Andrew Jackson on our currency while we self-righteously berate our former enemies for refusing to own up to their history is the rankest hypocrisy.

But it doesn’t stop with the Trail of Tears. The military record that made Jackson a “war hero”? One long recitation of atrocity. Heroically breaking a treaty with the Creeks to slaughter them wholesale. Taking advantage of the Battle of New Orleans to rule the city as an iron-fisted dictator, complete with summary executions. Ignoring his orders during the First Seminole War in order to conquer Florida, flouting international law in order to grab more territory for America and more glory for himself.

Reckless “cowboy diplomacy”—seeking glory in battle and territory through conquest without thought for the cost in blood or stability—is an American stereotype that starts with Jackson. You want to complain about Iran-Contra, or about the Iraq War? Neither compares in scope to the act of a single general “going rogue” to conquer a foreign territory and annex it to the United States, without orders, and being lauded as a hero for it. Whitewashing Jackson’s genocide is what made later atrocities like Wounded Knee seem acceptable; whitewashing the annexation of Florida provided precedent for later, comparatively minor rules-bending like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

On domestic matters? Jackson is a patron saint of the conspiracy-theorist goldbugs who blame the Federal Reserve for all our ills. He succeeded where Ron Paul failed, dismantling our nation’s central bank at the time in the name of free markets—specifically the freedom of local “wildcat” banks to issue unstable, ultimately worthless financial instruments in the name of short-term profit.

This bold stance in favor of liberty and private enterprise led to that period of prosperity we now know as the Panic of 1837, an eight-year-long economic disaster in which the wildcat banks all imploded at once, leading to soaring unemployment rates only to be matched by the Great Depression a century later.

Any of that sound familiar? That obsessive American resistance to regulation and central planning, the obsession with destroying governing institutions in order to let private actors chase short-term profits to economically ruinous ends? Letting families starve and communities collapse in the name of an ideology? That, too, is embodied by the man on the $20 bill.

There’s very little to like about the man. People who paint him as a defender of “freedom” because he defended the freedom of for-profit banks to destroy the economy have to contend with the fact that he wasn’t much of a fan of other sorts of freedom, like freeing slaves, or even the freedom of speech of abolitionists.

He was a “man of the people,” in that his election marked the beginning of content-free, vicious mass-media-driven personality politics. Although operatives of both sides slung copious quantities of mud, Jackson’s opponent John Quincy Adams was personally one of the most educated, idealistic, decent people to serve as president, and was thus easily taken down by Jackson as being a limp-wristed, out-of-touch elitist you wouldn’t want to have a beer with.

This set the tone for attacks to be used against educated, idealistic, decent people for the entire future history of American politics. Neither sushi nor lattes were commonly consumed in America in 1828, but one gets the feeling if they had been they would have figured prominently in Jackson’s campaign.

And yes, by contrast, Jackson was our most “badass” president, as today’s ironic playwrights love to celebrate. He was the only president who had won three duels, who still had a bullet lodged in his heart from the last one, and who beat down his own attempted assassin with a cane.

And yes, our country still has an issue with equating quickness to rage with moral courage. It’s the mindset that makes our presidential candidates today think they have to prove they’re “badass” in order to prove they’re leaders, that put Mike Dukakis in a tank and W in a flight suit, that results in countless stupid photo ops where Democratic challengers and incumbents alike try to prove they’re just as manly as Republicans by shooting guns.

Jackson’s presidency is the origin story of the President as Action Hero, to be judged by history as a Great Man based on the macho decisiveness of his acts and not their moral or practical soundness. The American public that elevated Jackson to the highest office in the land based on his larger-than-life reputation as a fighter and killer is the same one that elected the Governator.

Unlike a “worst president” like Andrew Johnson, who only achieved the office of president through tragic happenstance, Andrew Jackson was elected by the popular will, and his presidency demonstrates the ugliness of an American populace that wanted to be led by Andrew Jackson.

He was the worst kind of populist, and believed in a shortsighted, cheap, selfish populism. The kind of populist who sneers at wussy bleeding-heart Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson and their moralizing against Indian removal when there’s cheap land to be had. The kind who rages at the expertise of elitist eggheads like Nicholas Biddle and Henry Clay putting regulations in the way of easy profits. The kind who’s absolutely OK with Southern postmasters ripping up abolitionist pamphlets in the mail.

Jackson rode to power on a wave of anti-intellectual tunnel-visioned “I’ve-got-mine” populism that, in a gesture so symbolic as to almost be trite, stormed the White House as a riotous mob at Jackson’s inauguration, trashing the place until the liquor ran out, then left it stripped of valuables.

It would be silly to blame Andrew Jackson for the many pathologies of modern America: the reckless disregard for environmental or economic sustainability, the pointless wars of convenience, the obsession with machismo and guns, the endless drumbeat of entitled racism. Jackson wasn’t powerful enough to create any of these things—he merely profited from a deep-seated cultural trend.

But honoring Jackson gives tacit approval for that cultural trend. The fact that people who honor Jackson tend to do so in ignorance arguably makes it worse—it means we never confront the vile legacy of our past, the brutality, the bigotry and the sheer idiocy. We get to construct pleasant narratives about how our country used to be great and the ugly Americans we see today are a new, modern phenomenon that can be blamed on TV or talk radio or the Internet.

We get to forget our history. And we end up doomed to repeat it.

Which brings me to my last point. When I tell fellow lefties I want Reagan on the $20 bill instead of Jackson they argue that Reagan is a potent political symbol for the Right whereas Jackson’s legacy is forgotten and therefore “harmless.”

I call bullshit on that. Jackson’s forgotten legacy is all the more harmful for being forgotten. The biggest reason I’d like it if Reagan ended up replacing Jackson is that we’d have to talk about both men’s legacies, instead of just taking them for granted.

And yes, I’d love to talk about Iran-Contra and the Libya bombing, I’d love to talk about the air traffic controllers and the savings and loan crisis.

But I’d also like to talk about the Seminole Wars and the Trail of Tears, the Specie Circular and the Panic of 1837. I’d like to talk about a legacy of lawlessness and catastrophe against which the reign of George W. Bush is a pale shadow.

I’d like us to admit that the bad things about America have been bad for a long, long time. Such conversations—honest conversations about the horrible mistakes we’ve made as a country, about the patterns of mistakes that are baked into our cultural DNA—are hard to have. Indeed in some states they’re already being banned.

Eventually getting Andrew Jackson off the money would be a bonus. The real goal would be getting people to talk about Andrew Jackson at all.