Andrew Jackson

November 05, 2003

Last week's homework assignment was "Should Andrew Jackson be honored by being on the United States Currency."

I expected this one to be controversial: Jackson was controversial in his life; people argued about the man and his policies, and historians continue to clash over Jackson today. I got the idea for the question, which I have also used as an exam question, when I read that a group was lobbying the treasury department to take AJ off the $20 as part of the recent redesign of the money.

I had hoped to have the kids give a balanced argument. Most did not, but simply argued one side or the other. The in-class polls came out about 3-1 in favor of removing Jackson, mostly because of Jackson's role in Indian removal. The numbers were about the same before and after we laid out why Jackson should be honored and why he should be condemned. So, why do we like AJ and why do we hate him?

We like Jackson because he:

  • Personified the democratic (small d) political movement arguing that politics and government should not be the exclusive provenance of an educated elite. Almost everyone with a basic education ought to be able to hold government office.
  • Acted on those principles by bringing in rotation in office
  • Held the nation together during Nullification
  • Provided the basis and background for Unionism, Abraham Lincoln in 1861 simply rephrased Andrew Jackson. If there was no Andrew Jackson, there would likely not be a United States today.
  • Won the Battle of New Orleans
  • Intimidated Spain into giving up Florida
  • Focused American politics on dangerous concentrations of power and corruption, including the Second Bank of the United States.
  • Was always willing to do the right thing, even if it was not necessarily the legal or even the constitutional thing.

We dislike Jackson because he:

  • Presided over Indian removal. While Indian removal was a land grab and "ethnic cleansing" not a full-fledged act of genocide, the forced movement of the Southeast tribes was a land grab, an abuse of state and federal power, and so badly managed that about a third of the Cherokees died during the movement. Jackson may not have intended to starve, expose, and otherwise kill thousands of Indians during the move, but he was chief executive, he authorized the movement, he supported the states against the Supreme court, and he is in the end morally liable for all actions taken under his administration.

    Several of the kids insisted that Indian removal was genocide - I save the term for cases where there is an intent to destroy a people or society. The Holocaust was a genocide, the Rwandan civil war was a genocide. Neither Indian Removal nor the Great Hunger in Ireland qualifies - the one because the intent was to expel the other because the massive deaths came as an unintended consequence of poorly chosen ideology. Of the two tragedies, the Great Hunger comes closer to a genocide. But I digress.

  • Murdered men. Jackson killed men in duels, he hanged militia men, he performed judicial murder on two British citizens in Spanish Florida during the 1818-1819 incursion.
  • Trashed the American economy during the Bank War. Jackson destroyed the central bank; he pursued pro-cyclical economic policies; he made an unstable boom bigger and the ensuing crash deeper.
  • Violated the Constitution and the separation of powers. During the Bank War he moved Federal money around against Congressional legislation, during Indian Removal he refused to enforce Court orders. These were a particular instance of
  • Placed his own interpretation of what was right above law and constitution, turning the American government into a rule of men and not a rule of law.

  • Turned government employment into a partisan perk, sacrificing efficiency in return for loyalty. This would not be fixed until Civil Service reform at the end of the 19th century, and the reform ended up producing what some call a stratified and ossified Federal bureaucracy.
  • Owned slaves. Most rich Southerners owned slaves, Jackson owned a lot of them.
  • Invaded Spanish Florida without orders or authorization, provoking an international crisis. (it turned out well for the U.S., but he still disobeyed orders and conducted policy on his own.)

Then there are quirks about Jackson that describe him but are less subject to praise or condemnation.

  • Jackson broke up Rachel Donelson's marriage. He did so in order to protect her from an abusive husband, and while Andrew and Rachel Jackson's first marriage was bigamous (and they probably knew it) it was also a mitzvah. Jackson broke the law but did a good deed.
  • Jackson had a ferocious temper. He lost it seriously at times, he also faked rages at times. He regularly lost his temper for real when Rachel's honor was challenged, especially involving that bigamous marriage.
  • Jackson drank, especially when he was a young man. But then, so did many people, especially when we were young.
  • Jackson despised paper money, so why put him on a paper dollar?

  • Jackson adopted twice, the second was a Creek Indian baby whose parents and family had all just been killed by Jackson's militia during the War of 1812. Jackson, an orphan himself, took the child in when no one else would and raised Lyncoya as a son.
  • Jackson was emaciated, 6 feet tall and 145 pounds. He was thin by nature, the two pistol balls in his body from duels and the lifelong digestive and bowel difficulties from his repeated dysentary and typhoid during the war of 1812 left him skeletal.
  • Jackson was in constant physical pain from 1803 onwards from dueling wounds, constant emotional pain from 1828 onward from Rachel Jackson's death. Pain made him angry. For most of his political career Jackson was "Ol mean ol man ol Jackson" or "Angry old Jackson;" he was even meaner and angrier as President.

I have my own opinions on whether Jackson should be on the American money. But, before I give my answers, I was wondering if any readers wanted to give their opinions in the comments. You can make a strong case either way, which is why I like the question.

edit - added last few items to third bullet list. Forgot them earlier.

Posted by Red Ted at November 5, 2003 12:11 PM | TrackBack