My public high school wasn’t the best, but we did have an amazing history teacher. Mr. L, as we called him, brought our country’s story to life. So when he taught us about the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s campaigns to force at least 46,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Muscogee-Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles off their ancestral lands, my classmates and I were stricken.
It was unfathomable that thousands of Native American men, women and children were forced to march West, sometimes freezing to death or starving because U.S. soldiers wouldn’t let them bring extra food or blankets. It was hard to hear that the Choctaw Nation lost up to a third of its population on the death march. It was disorienting to learn that what amounted to ethnic cleansing had come at the insistence of an American president.
But then it was lunchtime, and we pulled out our wallets in the cafeteria. Andrew Jackson was there, staring out from every $20 bill. We had been carrying around portraits of a mass murderer all along and had no idea.
Andrew Jackson engineered a genocide. He shouldn’t be on our currency.
Symbols matter. Many people, for example, are inspired by the symbolic implications of Jackson’s path to the presidency: He was born two weeks after his father’s death to a widowed immigrant mother and, despite his poverty and lack of education, reached the highest office in the land. That’s a powerful story.
So is the more precise telling of how Jackson climbed the American socioeconomic ladder. Jackson was the only president who worked as a slave trader, and he accumulated much of his fortune that way. In fact, Jackson later pursued his “Indian removal” policies specifically so that the stolen lands could be used to expand cotton farming and slavery.
Even in historical context, our seventh president falls short. His racist policies were controversial even in his own time. After the Indian Removal Act narrowly passed Congress, an 1832 Supreme Court ruling declared it unconstitutional. Jackson ignored the decision. In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a passionate letter calling Jackson’s policies “a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?”
Ironically, the biggest supporter of any campaign to remove Jackson from the $20 bill might be Jackson himself. He was a fierce opponent of paper money and the central banking system and would probably be horrified to see his face on our national currency.
Leaving him on the bill as a form of mockery could be the best insult. But complicated historical slights don’t translate: His face on our money implies an honor that Jackson’s legacy doesn’t deserve. Worse, it obscures the horrors of his presidency.
Of course, contemporary Native American communities have much bigger problems than whose face is on a bill.
The Pima Indians in Arizona have the highest rate of diabetes in the world. A Native American woman has a one-in-three chance of being raped during her lifetime — more than twice the national average. There’s an epidemic of suicide among Native American teenagers and youth. Rates of unemployment in Native American communities are disproportionately high — not surprising, since inferior reservation lands are often unsuitable for farming and a lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for other businesses to succeed. Dropout rates at reservation schools are among the highest in the country. There’s a housing shortage on tribal lands. Native American areas have been disproportionately used as radioactive waste dumps.
Jackson’s visage on the $20 bill doesn’t compare.
But this issue isn’t merely cosmetic, or a nod to political correctness. Symbolic change and practical change have a symbiotic relationship. By confronting and correcting the symbols of our violent and racist histories, we prompt conversations about how that legacy continues to affect marginalized communities today.
This wouldn’t be the first campaign to change a face on our currency. In 2010, H.R. 4705 called for Ronald Reagan to replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. In 2003, the “Ronald Reagan Dime Act” tried to bump Franklin Delano Roosevelt off the dime. And there were at least two other legislative attempts to put Reagan on money.
If our government wants to spend time arguing about who should be represented on dollars and coins, it can start by booting off the man who championed a genocide.
No historical figure is perfect, but we don’t need perfection. In fact, it’s a low bar to clear: We just need someone better than Andrew Jackson. And there are plenty of worthy candidates.
It might be appropriate to celebrate Jackson’s opposite. Fredrick Douglass is a prime candidate, both for his work as an abolitionist and for his campaigns on behalf of Native Americans, women and immigrants. Osceola, a Seminole Native American, led a war of resistance against his people’s forced removal from Florida. Davy Crockett risked his political career to fight against the Indian Removal Act. Ralph Waldo Emerson would also deserve the honor, both for his timeless writing and for his eloquent arguments against Jackson’s policies.
Personally, my vote goes to Harriet Tubman. If Jackson’s humble origins inspire people, you can’t start much lower than Tubman, who was born into slavery. Although Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, she bravely risked her life to return to the South and help more than 300 enslaved people escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served our country as a nurse, armed scout and spy for the Union Army, and wrapped up her heroic life by campaigning with Susan B. Anthony for women’s right to vote. It doesn’t get more inspirational than that.
Andrew Jackson’s legacy opened the door for Americans from all economic backgrounds to participate in politics. For that, he deserves our thanks. But let’s not whitewash Jacksonian democracy. Let’s elevate a more honorable American instead.
Jillian Keenan is a journalist based in New York. She wrote this for Slate.