"Who still supports Andrew Jackson?"
An NPR colleague posed that question Thursday morning after news broke that Jackson, or at least his image, will share the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. Tubman, in fact, would be the one on the front of the bill; Jackson would ride in back. News items described this Treasury Department decision in a way that made Jackson seem impossible to support: A slave-owning president was being shoved aside in favor of a heroic escaped slave.
The poetic nature of the change is even greater than the news accounts would suggest. Jackson not only owned slaves; he was known to personally hunt down those who escaped. Now he is to be (eventually) replaced on the front of the bill with a woman who helped slaves to make their escapes.
So who, if anyone, still supported him? This was the question posed by my colleague Joanna Pawlowska over breakfast in Knoxville, Tenn., where we'd been working on a Morning Edition broadcast.
We were in the perfect place to ask. News of Jackson's demotion had reached us in his home state.
Jackson lived outside Nashville, none too close to Knoxville given the transportation of his day — but the city still has at least one building Jackson was known to have visited in the early 1800s. That his exact whereabouts in one building or another would even be remembered 200 years later suggests how famous Jackson was then, and how he has endured in the memory of his admirers. If any people still supported Jackson, they might be in a place like this.
By chance, an acquaintance who had joined us for breakfast was the perfect person to answer the question. We were talking with Daniel Feller, the scholar who serves as the editor of Jackson's papers at the University of Tennessee. Feller has freely criticized Jackson for his flaws. In addition to being a slaveholder, the onetime general and president played a major role in removing Indian tribes from their land in the Eastern United States.
Yet Feller could also recount reasons that Jackson was venerated in the first place. Feller described the case for Jackson without even mentioning the Battle of New Orleans, his most famous victory as a general. Rather, he said Jackson was an orphan who rose from humble beginnings to be president from 1829 to 1837. He was the first president who started so low in life. He governed as a president opposed to moneyed interests. He destroyed the Bank of the United States, the central bank of his time. His may have been a wildly irresponsible and even illegal campaign, but he attacked moneyed interests who had attached themselves to this government-chartered institution and profited from it.
Jackson, Feller said, saw excessive power among the wealthy men of his day as a danger to democracy. "I was surprised," the historian went on, "that there was not more interest in Jackson after 2008," when the financial crisis again exposed the reach and influence of the financial sector. Feller sees parallels between Jackson's rhetoric of the 1830s and the modern-day language of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Jackson is also known for holding the Union together. The crisis that caused the Civil War might have come 30 years earlier than it did, but for Jackson's forcefulness against recalcitrant South Carolina in the 1830s.
When I went on tour to discuss a book I wrote about Jackson's dark legacy with Cherokees, I met Jackson fans. I learned of living people named Andrew after Jackson. Military men still admire his combat service. An older generation venerates his incredible persistence. Many Southerners were raised to venerate him. And the debate over changing the $20 bill has prompted a number of conservative figures to denounce what they see as a politically correct rewriting of history.
There is, nevertheless, the reality that Jackson built an empire of cotton plantations worked by enslaved laborers. There is also the reality of the Trail of Tears for Cherokee Indians, a devastating move that did not take place on his watch but was set up by his forceful actions. So having stated the argument in favor of Jackson, Feller himself raised no objection to the change in the $20.
Some people have asked a related question about the change. Why does it make sense for Tubman to share the bill with Jackson? They are such different people.
That is precisely why the decision by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew does make sense. I'd made a similar proposal myself in 2015, calling for Jackson to be paired with John Ross, his greatest Cherokee opponent. Placing two opposing figures on the bill represents how our democracy is supposed to work. It is not the rule of any one individual. It is a constant contest of ideas. The great but flawed achievements of Americans like Jackson were improved by Americans like Tubman, who actively challenged the flaws.
Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, is author of Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.