By Steve Inskeep
June 18, 2015
IDEAS
Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and author of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab

Admirers of Alexander Hamilton are outraged. The Treasury Department says the man on the $10 bill must share his real estate with a woman, starting in 2020. If Hamilton were alive today, I’d advise him to take credit. He will benefit from his association with Harriet Tubman or Ida Tarbell or whoever may be chosen. He could even be recast as a posthumous feminist.

Still, it’s true that Hamilton’s ouster came as a shock. The public had been led to expect that a different man would have a diminished presence: Andrew Jackson, the man on the $20. A campaign to put a woman on the $20 has drawn widespread attention. As Treasury’s plan became apparent, Dave Weigel of Bloomberg Politics spoke for many: “So anti-central bank Indian genocide junkie Jackson stays on the $20 while American hero Alexander Hamilton is off the $10?”

Okay, let’s lay out that argument. Why Hamilton and not Jackson?

Hamilton’s supporters are largely right about him. It’s common to call him the most important Founding Father who did not actually become President. Orphaned in youth, he rose to become an aide to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Afterward he co-authored the Federalist Papers, which helped to sell the public on the Constitution. Then he was the first Treasury Secretary. It was his genius to insist that the United States should assume state debts from the Revolution, and impose taxes to reliably pay them. He also said the United States should establish a national bank to assure a steady flow of credit in the economy.

And Hamilton’s supporters are partly right about Jackson. First as a general and then as President, he ruthlessly pushed American Indians off their land in the eastern United States. “Genocide” is the wrong term for this policy, which was not designed to exterminate, but “segregation” works, and its execution was awful. Jackson argued it was better for whites and Indians alike if they were separated. His true interest was in opening Southern land for white real estate development, including his own personal real estate investments, whatever the human cost. More to the point in the who’s-ceding-bills argument, Jackson was anti-central-bank. In the 1830s, President Jackson went out of his way to destroy the Second Bank of the United States, exactly the institution that Hamilton’s earlier ideas had envisioned. Jackson also distrusted paper currency, and as President took steps that undermined its value. Shortly after he left office in 1837 a financial panic struck, leading to a depression in which, according to one study, 33,000 businesses closed their doors.

It can be argued, then, that Hamilton was better than Jackson in almost every way, except that Jackson was a better shot, having killed a man in an 1806 duel. When Hamilton fought a duel in 1804, he was the one who was killed. After Aaron Burr shot Hamilton, he traveled to Tennessee, where the colorful rogue visited none other than Andrew Jackson, then a rising state politician. They hit it off and talked for days, these gentleman killers.

But there is another way to look at Hamilton, Jackson and money. Although history has broadly proven Hamilton right — right to argue for the Federal assumption of debts, and for a central bank — an undercurrent of his thinking was less savory. Arthur Schlesinger, the liberal historian, found Hamilton to be an acolyte of the rich. He quoted Hamilton’s statement that government should “unite the interest and credit of rich individuals with those of the state.” Government borrowing would channel profit, in the form of interest, to wealthy lenders. The national bank would offer credit to wealthy borrowers. And wealthy men would prove a bulwark against the unruly masses, who “are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” All of this can feel creepy in an age when government is accused of backing fantastically wealthy people through the financial industry while everyone else’s income sags.

Jackson entered the Presidency paranoid about the Second Bank of the United States — believing it wasn’t constitutional and was too entangled with powerful elites (or rather, elites other than Jackson, who had come from modest circumstances but by then was very wealthy). But Jackson wasn’t exactly wrong. The Bank was making loans to the same lawmakers who supported it. Senator Daniel Webster wrote the Bank president to complain that “my retainer has not been renewed, or refreshed, as usual,” and suggested that he could not defend the Bank unless he was sent money.

Having killed the Bank, Jackson left his successors the problem of finding a suitable replacement. (It took generations to come up with the Federal Reserve.) But it can be argued that he struck a blow for democracy and for people of more ordinary means. As the founder of the Democratic Party, Jackson and his advisors were great innovators in mobilizing people behind his cause — including his war against the Bank of the United States.

A more vibrant democracy is among Jackson’s lasting legacies. And in seeking to eject him from the $20 in favor of a woman, his critics have used precisely that vehicle. They campaigned through the media and encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to vote online. They may yet succeed. The Treasury Department says the $10 is getting a woman now because it had already been chosen for a routine redesign. Presumably the $20 will come up eventually. If Jackson’s critics do build up enough democratic pressure to replace him, they will owe a word of thanks to Jackson himself.

Steve Inskeep is co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and author of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab

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