New York Times columnist Gail Collins is on a tear. Her sense of civic rectitude oozes from her prose. Her characteristic breezy haughtiness is on full display. The moral imperative that has caught her fancy and led to two columns in as many months: Getting that angular-faced Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replacing him with a woman, preferably an African-American or American Indian.
“Finally,” she writes, noting a grassroots movement on the issue, “we have a current event that’s not depressing.” She rushed to the phone to call Gloria Steinem, who expressed her preference for an American Indian — “or in her words, ‘a woman who was here before all those bonkers, hierarchical, monotheistic, Europeans arrived.”’ Ms. Collins didn’t seem to notice that, had Steinem directed such venom at any other racial or ethnic group, she would have stirred cries of racism. But you can malign those “bonkers” Europeans with impunity. And it’s fun — certainly not depressing.
One might wonder why, in a world beset by ISIS, rampaging debt, growing inequality and venal soccer officials, anyone would even care whose faces grace the U.S. currency, whether it be Ms. Collins or myself.
But the currency of any nation reflects its heritage, and the heritage of any nation deserves respect. Indeed, a nation that attacks its own heritage with excessive abandon is likely heading for decline. And the American heritage is under assault these days from many quarters.
So what’s the argument for keeping Jackson on the twenty versus tossing him aside in favor of names mentioned by Ms. Collins — for example, Angelina Grimke, Sybil Ludington, Margaret Brent and Elizabeth Jennings? These are all American figures worthy of respect, though they do seem a bit obscure compared to a president whose civic philosophy dominated the American political landscape for a generation and has come down to our own time as a significant element of the country’s ongoing political debate about the role of government in American society.
Harriet Tubman, who seems to be Ms. Collins’ favorite, is another matter. An escaped slave who risked her life repeatedly in returning to the South to help other slaves out of bondage, she enjoys a position of respect in American history. And for good reason. Her courage and heroism serve as an inspiration to a nation that long since moved beyond the scourge of slavery. She lived a life worthy of attention — including, if the country wishes it, the attention of her visage on money bills.
The problem is that there aren’t many slots on the country’s currency, and so if anyone new is going on, somebody else has to go off.
Which brings us back to Jackson. For Ms. Collins, kicking him off the twenty is a no-brainer. “The perfect target,” she writes. “Slave-owner who came to national renown as an Indian-killer. Who, as president, made hatred of the national bank his big issue while showing a certain fondness for state banks owned by his cronies.”
True, he was a slave-owner, but then, as Ms. Collins points out, so were half the people who grace the face of our currency. This argument demonstrates once again the folly of judging historical figures by the standards of today. We can take pride in our progress as a nation without rejecting the immense contributions of its Founders and early builders, however flawed they may have been. All human beings are flawed, and therefore all societies are flawed, though in different ways at different times.
And true, Jackson fought in various Indian wars and also fostered Indian-removal policies that proved tragic for many Southeastern tribal folk, who were pushed west with brutal disregard for safety and health. But he also adopted an infant Indian boy, orphaned in war, and raised him as a son. His views on the fate of the Indians were highly complex and nuanced, as captured with both sensitivity and appropriate reprobation by two acclaimed Jackson biographers, Jon Meacham and H. W. Brands. Both point out also that his views reflected the vast preponderance of political sentiment in the land, a reality that should give pause to anyone inclined to single Jackson out as a particularly villainous American figure of his day. It’s simply more complex than that.
As for the Bank of the U.S., Ms. Collins’s portrayal of that issue doesn’t even rise to the level of caricature. She ignores the blatant corruption of the Second Bank that required a clean-up effort so stringent that it led directly to a national recession. As president, Jackson had to deal with bank president Nicholas Biddle, who bribed politicians with interest-free loans and turned his bank into a potent political force that operated mostly in the interest of Nicholas Biddle. The modern tale of Fannie Mae comes to mind, given that it also contributed to economic hard times much as Biddle’s bank did decades earlier.
Ms. Collins should read Jackson’s bank-veto message, a penetrating and eloquent warning against government-business cronyism that stands the test of time — and takes on particular pertinence in our own era of rampant crony capitalism.
So, sure, Ms. Collins is free to malign Jackson in her simplistic way and bring forth any number of historical women, however obscure, whose money visage would tickle her feminist sensibilities and Gloria Steinem’s. But she ought to step back sufficiently to give an honest portrayal of the man she wants off the twenty. Her country’s heritage is worthy of at least that.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.