I gladly welcomed the recent news that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the US twenty-dollar bill. At first I believed — like many Americans, I think — that Jackson would be expunged altogether. So I felt sorry to learn that the bills will continue to feature “Old Hickory” on their backside.
Andrew Jackson’s image on the twenty-dollar bill has always been inappropriate. The seventh President of the United States disapproved of paper money altogether; he believed gold and silver coins sufficed for currency. Even more ironically, US paper bills are Federal Reserve Notes, and the “Old Hero” (as Andrew’s supporters called him) hated and destroyed the national banking system of his own day. In 1832, when Congress rechartered the Second Bank of the United States (which had functioned as the nation’s central bank), President Jackson vetoed the measure.
It may well have been the most important veto ever issued by an American president. It hindered the development of the capacity of the federal government. And without any institution to act as “lender of last resort,” the US economy swung between dramatic expansions and calamitous contractions between 1836 and 1913, when Woodrow Wilson’s administration persuaded Congress to create the Federal Reserve.
Jackson’s economic opinions and actions alone should disqualify him for a place on modern currency, even apart from his notorious slaveholding and his conspicuous advocacy and leadership of “Indian Removal,” as he proudly named his brutal policy of forcing Native Americans to move west of the Mississippi River.
Harriet Tubman, in contrast, nobly exemplifies our currency’s slogan, “In God We Trust.” A self-emancipated escaped former slave, Tubman defied the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to return to the South and rescue others from slavery. After her courage in combat during the Civil War, Tubman crusaded energetically on behalf of women’s suffrage, even after her white counterparts increasingly turned toward racist arguments for “white woman’s suffrage” and black men increasingly faced disenfranchisement as Reconstruction violently tore through the postbellum South. Yet Tubman never lost her faith in the cause of woman’s suffrage, in democracy, or in God. She remained an active leader in the African Methodist Church, Zion, until her death in 1913. The same year, President Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act.
All of this, of course, makes Jackson’s pairing with Harriet Tubman not just inappropriate, but absurd.