Harriet and Andy

The news in numismatics this week is that Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, is to be booted from the face of the $20 bill in favor of Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame.

Jackson’s getting the axe for two reasons:  The present administration is determined to put a face on U.S. currency that is not a white male face, and Jackson owned slaves.  He is also warmly despised for ejecting the Five Tribes from the Eastern United States.  So he has to go.

Harriet Tubman was a leading figure in the organization and operation of the Underground Railroad, that system of hiding places and safe houses which conducted escaping slaves from their points of origin to Canada, where the fugitive slave laws didn’t apply.  It was work conducted, at least in the South, at peril of the parties’ lives, and once in the north, at peril of arrest and imprisonment.

Suffice it to say that Harriet Tubman was equipped with guts enough to equip a regiment.  If you were to set out to fill an auditorium with the Greatest Americans who have thus far lived, she’d have a seat somewhere.

And yet I do not favor kicking Andrew Jackson off the $20 to make place for her.


For starts, a portrayal on U.S. paper currency is, if you will look at it, presently reserved for people who did great deeds in their capacity as public officials, not for acts of private significance, however worthy.  The only even possible exception is Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, but even then, Franklin was among the United States’ most important public servants.  The revolutionary alliance with France, that enabled us to win the war for independence in the first place, was a product of Franklin’s credibility at the court of Louis XV, of Franklin’s acknowledged place in world society (he regularly corresponded, as an equal, with the pre-eminent scientific minds of his generation).  Even before the war, he represented several colonies in London, and it was his personal experience of vituperation in Parliament which decided him that continued affiliation with Britain was not a workable long-term solution.  Later, he was a key player in the constitutional convention in 1787.  So even though he never held any public office under the United States Constitution, he was one of the men but for whom that compact would never have come into existence.

The other public servants scarcely need introduction.  Washington?  Father of the country.  Lincoln?  His deeds require no justification for the reverence in which we hold his memory.  Hamilton?  Father of our national economy (and also a key player in the constitution’s birthing).  Grant?  If being the key commander in winning the Civil War doesn’t merit his place, what might?  On coinage the pattern is similar.  Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson.  Eisenhower, who held together the Western allies in defeating Germany.  The two heads I don’t really understand are Truman’s on the dime and Kennedy’s on the half-dollar.

There is a single exception, and one that never took off:  The Sacagawea dollar (by coincidence I happen to have one in my pocket at this moment).  But even she has a claim to a service in the public interest:  It was she who guided the Corps of Discovery (better known at the Lewis and Clark Expedition) over the western mountains, who was valuable in securing for them the safe passage from the tribes whose lands they crossed.

Now let’s think of why Jackson might be on the $20 bill.  He was the founding light of the oldest continuing political party in American history.  Being a party hack doesn’t really merit a spot on the currency, though, does it?  Victor of New Orleans?  Well, as every school child knows, that battle was fought after the peace had been signed, although the point has been made that it in fact was not, in all likelihood, totally irrelevant for that reason.  There is strong reason to believe that Britain, had it been in possession of the mouth of the Mississippi, would not have surrendered it willingly after the war, which would have utterly changed the complexion of later American development.

No, I think Jackson earned his spot on the $20 bill when he stared down the South Carolina nullifiers.  As Gentle Reader will recall, a protective tariff had been adopted for the benefit of northern industrial interests.  The new imposts had the desired effect, of making imported manufactured goods more expensive than domestic production.  The burden fell hard on the Southern agricultural interests, because of their dependence upon their trade relationships with the British to move their cotton crop.  They bought a large proportion of their manufactured goods from Britain as a result of that trade.

Needless to say, the Southern interest was outraged at the new tariff law.  South Carolina announced an intent to “nullify” the federal statute.  It even passed an ordinance declaring the law to be unconstitutional and null within its borders.  It just was not going to apply in South Carolina (sort of like all these bullshit “sanctuary cities” that have announced that the federal immigration statutes don’t apply within their city limits — San Francisco is very much in the slaveholders’ tradition in this respect).

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock of where things stood during the Nullification Crisis:  In 1832-33 the United States was still a comparatively weak country, a comparatively small country.  Its parts were not yet bound by an enormous rail network, and outside the coastal plain there weren’t even all that many canals.  Large areas were still virgin wilderness (that situation applied far longer than one might expect: not far from where I live there is a county in which there were still over 100,000 acres of virgin hardwood in 1910).  The forces of cohesion in the country were still fragile, and there were still many powerful actors in the world who would have rejoiced in a failure of what was then known as the American Experiment.  This was still a world in which people’s demands for written constitutions were believed to be, and were treated as, an act of rebellion.  In fact, the Revolutions of 1848 in Central Europe were based in large part on precisely that — demands for written constitutions to tie down monarchs’ privileges.

[By the way, note what this understanding of constitutionalism has to say about the notion of a “living constitution.”  Until the U.S. Supreme Court got into it, everyone understood that a written constitution was written for the precise reason that its meaning did not morph over time into whatever you wanted it to say.  The U.S. Constitution was a revolutionary document for exactly the reason that it was written and its meaning did not change to suit the whims of the ruler of the moment.  The idea of a “living constitution” in which no provision has any permanent meaning does violence to the very concept of a constitution, and until the American left got at it, was universally understood to do so.]

The United States with its written constitution was a direct and immediate threat to all those crowned heads in Europe who fiercely resisted the pressure to shackle themselves to a written document with ascertainable substance.

Had South Carolina succeeded in openly defying the federal government as to Congressional action in respect of a matter unambiguously placed within its constitutional competencies — the regulation of trade with foreign nations — the American Experiment would have failed.  The country would not have survived, and there would have been no Underground Railroad because the borders would have been largely closed off.

Jackson was having none of it.  Congress authorized the Force Bill to compel South Carolina’s compliance with the law.  But of course, it would have been Jackson as commander-in-chief who would have been charged with implementing that, or not, and if so, how vigorously.  And what was Jackson’s position?  Well, a visitor from South Carolina asked him if he had any message he’d like to send to the good folks back home.  Jackson gave it to them with the bark still on it:  “Yes I have; please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

South Carolina knew he meant every last word of that promise.  Compare and contrast Dear Leader’s “red line” in Syria that wasn’t.  South Carolina knew what it had to expect from Jackson, and a compromise was reached.  Syria knew what it had to expect from Dear Leader, and it has acted accordingly.

Jackson, in short, did no more and no less than save the union in 1832-33, at a time when there was an immediate danger of its dissolution.  For that, he more than deserves his place on the $20 bill.  Whatever Harriet Tubman’s private courage and dedication to the cause of human liberty may have been, her life’s work simply does not rise to that level of national significance.  The Underground Railroad never would have changed a damned thing about the institution of slavery; there is no way on earth they could have spirited enough slaves out of the South to make any but the most minuscule dent on the institution.  It took a civil war to make that happen, and had it not been for Jackson’s stance in the face of the nullifiers in 1832-33, there never would have been the northern industrial and demographic powerhouse twenty years later which tore the poison lance of slavery from the national body by main force.  Just wouldn’t have happened.

If you absolutely want to have Tubman’s face on U.S. currency, bilge either Truman or Kennedy, preferably the latter.  But to degrade the man whose courage saved the country betrays a profound ignorance of American history.

Leave a Reply