Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Treasury Department recommended that President Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill be replaced with one of Harriet Tubman, a black leader in the Underground Railroad. Although Tubman’s activities may merit recognition on another bill, she should not replace Jackson, whose contributions did far more to shape America’s destiny.
First, Jackson was the first commoner to become president after a string of six aristocrats in the White House. His 1829 inauguration was unprecedented: 10,000 people, mostly commoners, attended, many from the West and South. According to eyewitness Margaret Bayard Smith, the crowd that followed him from the Capitol to the White House was composed of “countrymen, farmers, gentlemen … women and children, black and white.” The White House was opened to all, including black Americans. Smith concluded: “It was the people’s day, and the people’s president, and the people would rule.”
If not for Jackson’s precedent, the aristocratic William H. Seward may have become the Republican president in 1861, instead of Abraham Lincoln. As president, Seward might have abandoned Fort Sumter, an idea for which he unsuccessfully advocated as Lincoln’s secretary of State. Consequently, the Confederacy might have survived, thereby splitting America into two countries.
Second, even though a southerner, Jackson stopped South Carolina from seceding in 1832 in a dispute over high tariffs, which the North favored but the South opposed. He persuaded Congress to modify the tariff and simultaneously grant him authority to militarily enforce it in South Carolina. The Palmetto State accepted the compromise in 1833.
Third, Jackson was America’s most fiscally responsible president — the only one to completely repay the federal debt. He eliminated wasteful spending and fired corrupt tax assessors for collecting personal bribes instead of taxes.
Fourth, he stopped private interests from monopolizing money when he ended the Second Bank of the United States, which had functioned as the nation’s central bank. Since it was privately owned, however, the government chose only five of its 25 directors and its stockholders selected the rest. Jackson explained: “It is easy to conceive that great evils … might flow from such a concentration of power in the hands of a few men irresponsible to the people. … [T]he rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”
Fifth, Jackson presciently recognized the dangers of a “deep state” composed of perpetual officeholders. He proposed term limits for elected officials and replaced about 15 percent of the bureaucrats who had been appointed by earlier administrations. He felt that “rotation of office,” rather than permanent tenure, should be the principle in a democracy. “There are,” he said, “few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being … under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties. … They are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interests.”
Sixth, Gen. Jackson’s victories during the War of 1812 against the British and their Indian allies transformed him into a “second George Washington.” According to biographer Robert Remini, “The nation had entered this war, in part, to prove its right to independence, but … had experienced one military disaster after another, including the burning of” the nation’s capital. Jackson restored America’s confidence that our country was not merely a temporary experiment in democracy.
While some claim that Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was unimportant because a preliminary treaty already had been signed in Europe, Jackson’s infliction of more than 2,000 casualties at a cost of fewer than 100 convinced Europeans that future wars against the United States of America could be more dangerous than previously assumed. Consequently, six years later, Spain agreed to sell Florida to the United States to end persistent conflicts with Gen. Jackson along the peninsula’s northern border.
Although some modern critics complain that Jackson should be dishonored because he was a slaveholder, historian H.W. Brands, of the University of Texas at Austin, explains in his book, “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times”: “The northern states had abandoned slavery peacefully when a majority of voters there decided slavery no longer served their interests. When a majority of voters in the southern states decided the same thing, slavery would end in the South. To force the issue was to assert that the people couldn’t be trusted with political powers. Jackson could never accept that.”
Philip Leigh has worked as a computer industry stock analyst. He is the author of seven books on history, including “U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency” (2019).