A few years back, there was an off-Broadway musical called, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” It was a flop. But now Broadway is host to the hit musical “Hamilton,” whose creator has lobbied for keeping his lead character on the $10 bill. Now it’s looking like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will acquiesce, keeping Alexander Hamilton on the 10 and booting Jackson from the 20, instead.
Which proves, I guess, that big decisions about our currency can be determined by Broadway box office receipts. Who knew?
Well, maybe there’s a little more to it than that. Not only has Jackson not fared as well as Hamilton among contemporary historians, but also he really wouldn’t have wanted to be on our funny money central bank notes, anyway. And for good reason.
Contemporary historians have turned against Jackson because he owned slaves and pushed for the removal of Cherokees from the southeastern United States to the Oklahoma Territory in a forced relocation known as the “Trail of Tears.” Fair enough, though there’s a good case to be made that some of the contemporary outrage at Jackson is the usual exercise in easy moral superiority. It’s the comforting smugness of imagining yourself to be brave in 2016 for holding beliefs that were daring in 1832.
But the issue isn’t whether Jackson is an over- or underrated historical figure. Whether he was, on balance, a good president in the context of his time, does not tell us whether there is any specific reason to keep him on our money. (Whereas with Hamilton, there is no one who belongs there more.) In fact, Jackson wouldn’t have wanted to be on the kind of money we have today. You might notice that the bills you have in your wallet are called Federal Reserve Notes, issued by our central bank, an institution Jackson opposed. You might notice that they also do not say “redeemable in gold,” which Jackson would have regarded as a necessary condition for them to be real money.
When Jackson vetoed the re-authorization of the Bank of the United States in 1836, he did so on the grounds that it would give special favors to the wealthy and connected, to be paid for by everyone else. Old Hickory may have been wrong about other things, but not about this — given that we recently pledged a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to bail out the big banks, and we’re still on the hook should they ever get in trouble again. Jackson explained that the central bank “enjoys an exclusive privilege of banking under the authority of the General Government, a monopoly of its favor and support, and, as a necessary consequence, almost a monopoly of the foreign and domestic exchange. The powers, privileges, and favors bestowed upon it in the original charter, by increasing the value of the stock far above its par value, operated as a gratuity of many millions to the stockholders.” The great innovation of our age is that we extended this privilege — and the “gratuity” paid for by the American people — from the central bank itself to the various private financial institutions regarded as “too big to fail.”
So if Jackson was an enemy of central banks and their privileges, how did he ever get onto Federal Reserve Notes in the first place? Nobody really knows for sure, except that Jackson was still very popular with the general public when the Federal Reserve was created in 1913 and started choosing who went on its bills. (They put him on the $10 bill first and then switched to $20 in 1928.) He was popular because he had a reputation for being the voice of the common man against the elites. A man who rose from modest circumstances on the frontier, rather than from the landed gentry of Virginia, Jackson was the one who took Jefferson’s Republican Party and transformed it into the Democratic Party, giving it a more populist character.
While they have recently rejected him, for a very long time, Jackson was an icon of the Democratic Party. The problem is that Democrats wanted to keep Jackson’s populism and his railing against entrenched interests, without paying much attention to how he thought those interests got entrenched. Jackson was not primarily for the people and against the elites on Wall Street. He was for the people and against the elites in Washington, D.C. In his statement explaining his veto of the central bank, Jackson ended by declaring that the “true strength” of the Union “consists in leaving individuals and States as much as possible to themselves.” His supporters agreed. If you went looking for a radical New York City Democrat in 1835, you would have found an advocate of laissez-faire.
If you want to understand the politics of the era, I suggest you read the works of William Leggett, which you may do online. Leggett was an influential newspaper editor and Jackson supporter whose “Democratick editorials” were full of explanations about the “doctrine of equal rights,” which he summed up like this:
Protect their persons and property, and all the rest they can do for themselves. They want no government to regulate their private concerns; to prescribe the course and mete out the profits of their industry. They want no fireside legislators; no executive interference in their workshops and fields; and no judiciary to decide their domestic disputes. They require a general system of laws, which, while it equally restrains them from violating the persons and property of others, leaves their own unimpaired.
Leggett quoted Jackson in repudiating the notion “that because our government has been instituted for the benefit of the people, it must therefore have the power to do whatever may seem to conduce to the public good.” Yet that was precisely the view that would be embraced by a later group of Democrats, the so-called Progressives, who appointed themselves as an elite qualified to decide what conduces to the public good — and who set out to knock down all procedural and constitutional barriers that would prevent them from exercising the power to impose their vision. It was this generation of Democrats who created the central bank that then had the shamelessness to put Jackson on its bills.
And no, in case you wanted to make this argument, their rejection of laissez-faire was not connected to any rejection of Jackson’s racism. For one thing, the most radical laissez-faire Jacksonians, like Leggett, were also abolitionists. Most of them would eventually split off from the Democratic Party and form the new Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln. More important, many of the Democrats of the Progressive era were still dyed-in-the-wool racists. Woodrow Wilson, who had pushed for the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, openly courted the votes of the Ku Klux Klan and introduced racial segregation in federal employment. So their rejection of laissez-faire was not part of some broader program of enlightenment. They did not suddenly discover that blacks and Native Americans had rights. Instead, they were trying to make us forget that anyone had the right to freedom from government control.
You would think that their choice to continue honoring Jackson was a deliberate mockery of his legacy, except that there is no record that Progressive Democrats allowed themselves to become aware of the irony. They hid the conflict with a giant pretense: that if they railed enough against Wall Street and Big Business, they would still be true heirs of Jackson’s populism, even as they abandoned his doctrines about individual freedom and gave the federal government vast and minute powers to regulate every aspect of our lives — and, of course, to hand out favors to every conceivable variation of special interest.
From this perspective, Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill takes on a more sinister character. It is a reminder of how, in less than 80 years, Democrats went from the party of rugged individualism to the party of big government — from the party that spoke for the little guy against the elites in Washington, D.C., to the party that speaks for the D.C. elites and their desire to order the lives of the little guy for his own protection. And it’s also a reminder of how they tried to cover up that inversion.
We might as well be rid of this little evasion — though it would be nice if we understood what we were getting rid of, rather than doing it as just another knee-jerk concession to politically correct history.
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