We live in the America that Andrew Jackson fostered – The Tennessean

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The selection of Harriet Tubman is not “pure political correctness,” as 2016 GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump called it on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday, but it is a reminder that when we reduce our debate to simplistic, one-dimensional stories, we lose who we are.

The most entertaining comment I read on United States Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s announcement that Tubman would replace President Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 bill came in a Twitter post by author, economist and Fox News columnist John Lott Jr.

“On $20 bill, D(emocrat)s replace Andrew Jackson, a founding father of D Party, w Harriet Tubman, a black, gun-toting, evangelical Christian, R(epublican) woman,” @JohnRLottJr tweeted.

His 139-character comment is a bittersweet reflection of what holds our interest — pithy wit is far more engaging than the grubby complexity of our history.

We should thank the Treasury Department for reminding us of what a wonderful and intriguing story America is.

We cannot doubt that Tubman is an inspired choice to grace the face of a Federal Reserve note.

But Jackson, because of his failures, faults and complexities as much as his successes and victories, embodies the nation’s story in ways few other Americans can claim, and the America we live in today was fostered in the Jacksonian era.

Harriet Tubman

Tubman was born into slavery either in 1815, 1822 or 1825, she was never sure.

In 1849, she escaped slavery in Maryland and fled to Philadelphia, but she risked her freedom to return time and again to help others make the journey through the Underground Railroad to freedom in the Northern states and in Canada.

In 1858, after becoming a prominent abolitionist and leader of the movement, she helped John Brown plan his raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal, where he hoped to incite a slave rebellion. She was not a part of the failed raid that resulted in Brown’s execution for treason.

During the Civil War, Tubman worked with the Union Army in South Carolina and became the first woman to lead a combat assault, the Combahee River raid in 1863.

After the war, Tubman worked for suffrage, dying seven years before the Tennessee General Assembly’s vote ratified the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in all elections.

Tubman’s life reflects the fight for liberty that Americans should celebrate, and the narrative of that life is far more amenable to modern America than the complexity that Jackson presents.

But is it more reflective of who we are and how we came to be that way?

I agree with Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation that, “United States history is not Andrew Jackson versus Harriet Tubman. It is Andrew Jackson and Harriet Tubman, both heroes of a nation’s work in progress toward great goals. It is unnecessary to diminish Jackson in order to honor Tubman.”

Andrew Jackson

The campaign to put a woman on a Federal Reserve note inevitably led supporters to diminish the stories of Jackson and Alexander Hamilton, whose portrait is on the face of the $10 bill.

Originally, the Treasury planned to replace Hamilton because the $10 bill was due for a redesign to upgrade security features, but the nation’s first Treasury secretary got a public relations boost when the Broadway musical “Hamilton” became a hit.

The Jackson story, however, embodies Ronald Reagan’s observation, “If you are explaining, you’re losing.” And Jackson’s story needs a lot of context to be appreciated in the 21st century.

We know a lot of the bad, especially that Jackson owned slaves and that, as president, he supported and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the horrific “Trail of Tears” forced resettlements of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands to reservations west of the Mississippi River beginning in 1831.

Jackson’s life embodies some of the worst aspects of our history, but as Jon Meacham of Nashville wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Lion”:

“… Of the early great presidents and Founders, Andrew Jackson is in many ways the most like us. In the saga of the Jackson presidency, one marked by both democratic triumphs and racist tragedies, we can see the American character in formation and in action.”

Jackson’s father died three weeks before his son was born along the North Carolina-South Carolina border in 1767; his mother died when he was 14 while nursing American prisoners on a ship in Charleston harbor.

Like Tubman, he was driven to change his circumstances.

He became a frontier lawyer, land speculator, a founding father of the state of Tennessee, a war hero, and was elected the seventh president of the United States in 1828.


Jackson did not support the concept of a national bank and vetoed the re-chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, and his requirement to pay for land sales with gold or silver instead of bank drafts played a significant role in the financial panic of 1837.

But when the Federal Reserve system was created in 1913, Jackson’s portrait was selected for the $10 bill (Hamilton’s portrait was featured on the $1,000 bill). In 1928, the Treasury put Jackson on the $20 bill and Hamilton on the $10.

We should embrace the complexity of our history, and maybe put Jackson back on the $10 bill.

Reach Frank Daniels III at 615-881-7039 and on Twitter @fdanielsiii.

We live in the America that Andrew Jackson fostered – The Tennessean

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