H.W. Brands recants. Says Jackson should come off the $20 billHistorians in the News
tags: Jackson, 20 dollar bill
... A dozen years ago, during a previous anti-Jackson campaign, I joined the defense. My excuse was that I was at work on a biography of Jackson and the last thing I wanted was for him to be pushed off the pedestal before my book came out. Now that I have no skin in the game, I can say what I really think about all this: Every one of the faces on America’s currency should be replaced, and replaced again and again, on a regular basis.
Back then, I shamelessly declared Jackson’s unseating a terrible idea: ahistorical and politically motivated. Sure, he was tough on the Indians, but hardly tougher than any other president between Washington and Grant, and his attitudes commanded a solid majority among his contemporaries. I made the point that historical greatness requires a fit between the individual and the times; if Jackson had been as liberal on the Indian question as his modern critics, he never would have been elected president and therefore never would have accomplished the great task of his generation in American history: establishing the democratic principle that ordinary people should determine America’s political destiny. Jackson was the first “people’s president,” and as the people’s president he shared the strengths and sins of the American people at the time.
Besides, if Jackson went down, who would be next? Jefferson was a philosopher of liberty but a practitioner of slavery; would he come off the $2 bill? Washington was as complicit in the evil institution as Jefferson; would he be bucked from the buck?
Fortunately for Jackson and for my book sales, that round of the campaign fell afoul of Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader. Frist was a Republican but a proud Tennessean, and he killed the effort to displace the Volunteer State’s favorite son.
Now the critics are back. Jack Lew may have diverted them with his sally against Hamilton, but once the principle is established that no icon is safe, they will certainly come after Jackson again.
And so they should. And this time they should win. But the iconoclasm shouldn’t stop with Hamilton and Jackson. As large as Jackson and Hamilton—and Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and Grant and Franklin—loom in American history, to contend that they should grace the currency forever does a disservice to them and to us. They were men for their time, which was much of what made them great. But they weren’t perfect, and their time was not our time. To each generation should fall the responsibility of defining its own heroes. ...
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