During the darkest days of Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, apparatchiks who fell out of favor with the mercurial tyrant – and it didn’t take much to clear that bar – found themselves airbrushed out of photographs, usually after they faced the firing squad or were shipped off to a gulag in one of Siberia’s coldest corners.
While not officially erasing them from history, some folks in this country would like to engage in their own form of airbrushing through our currency. Last month, an essay appeared on the Slate website by New York writer Jillian Keenan urging that Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, be bumped off the $20 bill for his role in removing American Indians from their land and forcibly relocating them to what is now Oklahoma.
Calling Jackson “a mass murderer,” Keenan wrote that “his face on our money implies an honor that Jackson’s legacy doesn’t deserve. Worse, it obscures the horrors of his presidency.”
The debate about Jackson being on the 20-spot isn’t all that new – do a Google search and you’ll find the debate stretching back for years. And lest you think the effort to get Jackson off the $20 bill is an example of smothering lefty political-correctness, hold up – conservatives have made periodic efforts to get Franklin Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal and our social safety net, off the dime to make way for Ronald Reagan. The Reagan-on-a-dime advocates have also been eyeing the $50 bill, even as its longtime occupant, Ulysses S. Grant, has been getting a fresh look from historians in recent years.
We have a suggestion: Let’s call a truce where our currency is concerned and keep things as they are.
First, redesigning the $20 bill, or the $50 bill, or the dime, would surely cost a pretty penny, money the treasury can ill afford to expend in these straitened times. But if we go looking for perfect historical figures to honor, we’re going to have absolutely no one on our currency, or stamps, or anything else.
Yes, the campaigns that were waged against American Indians by Jackson, and his successors, are repugnant to current sensibilities. But is that the sum total of Jackson’s legacy? No. Born into lowly circumstances, Jackson was a self-made man who clamped down on patronage and paid off the national debt, among other accomplishments.
And as much as conservatives may abhor the activist government that lay at the heart of the New Deal, FDR also guided the country through World War II. Neither of their legacies can be subject to tidy black-and-white, thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdicts.
While the folks who want to mess with the currency are at it, they might want to consider dynamiting Mount Rushmore to powder – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, with Jefferson allegedly impregnating one of them. Theodore Roosevelt had a little too much faith in the revivifying powers of war and Abraham Lincoln, despite being the Great Emancipator, once characterized whites as being the “superior” race.
Also, we should take John F. Kennedy’s moniker off all the structures named in his honor because he was a less-than-faithful husband and bungled the Bay of Pigs. Harry Truman was prone to anti-Semitic observations and Dwight Eisenhower was ill-tempered.
If we want unqualified piety and purity represented on our money, push aside the presidents and bring on the saints.
The fact that Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill may be an issue for some, but here’s a bigger one: Given our generally blithe ignorance of history, there are probably many Americans who don’t even know who he is.