You may know him from the twenty dollar bill, but that may be a fleeting glance. These bills come and go from our lives and there is only so much that you can tell from them. The engraver put a bit of sadness into Jackson’s eyes, a sense of weight that doesn’t quite seem right. Wasn’t he a man of determination and strength? Yet the portrait is accurate in its own way, telling us about the legacy of Jackson that is harder to bear than the man himself. In Jackson’s story, we have the story of our people.
As stories go, it’s so damned hard to tell that we often ignore it.
I’ve read the book by H. W. Brands and now seen the History Channel special on the man, but I’m far from an expert on Andrew Jackson. His story is one that you have to feel in your guts and get into like an author has to be inside their own fictional character. That’s the peculiar mythic nature of Jackson that needs to be told far more often. While he was a unique figure, he was in many ways typical of the Scotch-Irish people who had a big hand in making the USofA what it is.
Without Jackson, we would probably not see government as a reflection of the will of the people. His defeat of the elite establishment and the Bank of the United States made our government what it was, the force by and for the people. He even paid off the National Debt, the feat he was most proud of, removing the government’s reliance on bankers for the long haul.
In this sense, Jackson is the true founder of the Democratic Party, which is why he is on the twenty – Jefferson and Jackson, the Democrats, are on the two and twenty, Lincoln and Grant, the Republicans, are on the five and fifty, and Washington, Hamilton and Franklin as non-partisans or Federalists make up the one, ten, and hundred. That was the compromise that put these characters on our bills.
The man of the people, however, had the same dark side that the people of the day had; he hated the natives. The Indian Relocation Act can only be called genocide, and Jackson’s enforcement of this despite being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of John Marshall makes it a major power grab.
These are the details he is known for, but the story of the man who always got his way is one that I cannot possibly tell in this space. All I can do is encourage everyone to at least see the History Channel special if you’re not up for the book. It’s breathtaking.
As we contemplate where we are in history right now, the parallels with FDR and Lincoln keep coming back to us for obvious reasons. But who we are, as a people, was defined by a man that many of us do not know – for the simple reason that his story is difficult. That’s a shame.
We are many things, as a people, but one of them is determined. That can be awful for people who seem to be in our way, but when getting through hard times it’s a virtue. That strength, along with its downside, is something we need to understand. We need to know more about Jackson than what we see coming out of an ATM.