Stop clinging to the Founding Fathers: The Andrew Jackson/Hamilton/Tubman debate is really about honest history

Roundup
tags: Harriet Tubman, Hamilton, Jackson



Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson" (Random House). Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

… Compare Hamilton to Tubman. He had important wealthy patrons who advanced his career. She had none, save for those who endangered their own lives by assisting her in a great and noble cause. He handed the government over to the moneyed class. She fought for those who never had a chance in the world Hamilton helped to produce.

Harriet Tubman deserves the honor of replacing the bloodthirsty Andrew Jackson on the twenty. She was an original, a genuine American heroine, a liberator, defiant in her active opposition to the terrible inhumanity so long perpetuated through the constitutionally protected institution of slavery; she served as a Union spy in the Civil War, reporting back on opportunities to free slaves who would willingly enlist. She was nicknamed “Moses” for obvious reasons––the promised land being, for many, Canada.

For those who see this escaped slave as a foe of capitalist exploitation, and therefore an unlikely face on currency, we see instead the beauty of irony, of honoring this principled individual on a tangible symbol of twenty-first-century America’s renewed desire to reach toward greater fairness in matters of financial well-being.

The intemperate Andrew Jackson, an unapologetic slaveholder, hated banks, anyway. He campaigned for re-election in 1832 on an ill-considered all-out “war” on the national bank, without studying the full implications. If we were to feature financial wizards on currency, our choice would definitely be the thoughtful, practical, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, treasury secretary under Jefferson and Madison, successful U.S. diplomat, and New York banker. His statue outside the Treasury Building, next door to the White House, is rarely remarked upon. Unheralded except among historians of the early republic, the Genevan was a champion of the “little guy,” a great supporter of public education, strongly in favor of reducing the national debt, and yet he was pilloried by Hamiltonian elitists and denied a U.S. Senate seat owing to his “foreignness” (he spoke with a pronounced French accent). The historian Henry Adams, descendant of a famous family of statesmen, adored Gallatin, and wished to keep his legacy alive. But historical amnesia being what it is, the twentieth century could only remember a handful of designated founders. So, if we’re looking to remedy anti-immigrant bigotry in a symbolic gesture, keep the clear-headed patriotic Albert Gallatin in mind.

There’s a point beyond the tongue-in-cheek effect in bringing up Gallatin: he’s not controversial in the least in the modern historical imagination. But in the Hamilton-Jefferson-Jackson era, he was exceedingly controversial. We should bear that in mind as the liberal versus conservative fight over keeping or displacing the traditional statuesque patriarchs from U.S. currency drags on. Ultimately, the question we face is how important an honest encounter with history is, versus how needful some will always be to cling to the rule of the patriarchs, to our long-dominant national mythology that consecrates the singularity of founder genius. Yes, clinging––intended in the same sense as then-candidate Barack Obama was unintendedly captured speaking of conservatives clinging to their guns and religion….




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