The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why was Andrew Jackson put on the $20 bill? The answer may be lost to history.

(Locke Cole/Wikimedia Commons)

This post initially went up last year. We are re-upping it in light of news that Harriet Tubman will now appear on the $20, replacing Jackson. Previously, the plan had been for a woman to share the $10 with Alexander Hamilton.

Sometimes, popular history has a way of turning the dead into heroes or villains. In the case of Andrew Jackson, the current narrative leans towards the latter. And yet, for nearly a century, a portrait of America's seventh president has graced the $20 bill — something one new group wants to change by replacing Jackson with a woman.

Here's the new plan for the $20, $10 and $5 bills (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Historians have some ideas as to why putting Jackson on the $20 seemed like a good idea in 1928, when his face was selected to replace Grover Cleveland's. But as it turns out, nobody seems to know for sure why a Treasury Department committee assigned Old Hickory's portrait to the bill.

No really, we checked. The Treasury Department, which has the authority to determine who appears on what bills (so long as that individual is already dead), says on its Web site that its own historical records "do not suggest" why certain presidents ended up on certain bills during a blitz of portrait selections in 1928.

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Howard J. Kittell, CEO of the Hermitage, a historical museum devoted to preserving and teaching Jackson's legacy, told The Post by phone that "it's a mystery to us as well." The museum's historian "did a lot of research" for a new exhibition on Jackson's legacy and ran into the same dead end. "The Treasury Department doesn't have clear documentation," Kittell said.

We also asked Daniel Feller, a University of Tennessee history professor who edited "The Papers of Andrew Jackson." He didn't know either.

There are more $20 bills in circulation than there are people on Earth, according to Federal Reserve data — about 8.1 billion in all. Only the $1 and the $100 exist in larger quantities. The choice of Jackson for that popular bill has long been a source of controversy — particularly among the Native American tribes who were forced to relocate to Oklahoma and give their land to white Southerners under the Indian Removal Act. That forced migration during Jackson's presidency is known as the Trail of Tears.

Jackson's place of honor became a big topic once again this week after a nonprofit group called Women on 20's suggested that it was time to retire the Jackson $20 and replace it with a bill featuring one of several prominent women from American history. The group's suggested replacements include Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

Although not everyone has agreed with the campaign — or over who, if anyone, should have the honor of replacing Jackson — it's easy to find reasons to suggest that he is overdue for retirement from the $20. His passionate support of the measure that led to the Trail of Tears and anti-Native American policies is first among them. He was a slave owner, and he made his fortune on their labor.

There's also Jackson's opposition to paper money in the first place (he preferred gold and silver), and his long, ultimately triumphant fight in the Bank Wars during his presidency. In other words, Jackson himself would probably hate the fact that his face is on a paper bill

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But Feller, the "Papers of Andrew Jackson" editor, said it's not surprising that the Treasury Department of 1928 would see Jackson as someone worthy of the honor."It's actually astonishing how completely the generalized public image has changed and how rapidly it changed," the historian said of Jackson's legacy. From the late 19th century through the 1960s, Feller said, Jackson was seen by most Americans as a "champion of the common man, a symbol of democracy," and "second only to Abraham Lincoln as the champion of the perpetual union" of the United States of America. In fact, Feller notes: "Abraham loved to quote [Jackson]" during the Civil War, because of "Jackson's striking proclamation against nullification" of the Union.

In that context, Feller said, "who deserves more to be on American currency?" When Jackson was placed on the $20, "it was unproblematic" to say that Jackson was a hero.

It is not so today, Feller noted — and for good reason. Other voices can now speak more loudly in the historical record, including advocates for the Native American tribes who were brutally displaced during Jackson's presidency and the slaves who worked at his Tennessee plantation. (There were 150 slaves at the time of his death, and the stories of only a few are known, the Hermitage notes.) We have a better historical understanding now of how those policies and structures continue to impact our society. Jackson's legacy can and should contain that.

It didn't, really, for much of American history. It was one of Jackson's better sides that led to what appears to be the first time Jackson's portrait was placed on a postage stamp, in 1863, the Hermitage's Kittell noted.

It could be Jackson's popularity as a stamp portrait selection that helps explain how he ended up on so much currency through the decades. By Kittell's count, Jackson has appeared on 18 pieces of currency, including a $5 bill, a $10, a $50 and a $10,000.

In 1928, most Americans wouldn't think about the Trail of Tears when they thought about Jackson. In Arthur M. Schlesinger's New-Deal era biography of Jackson, Feller said, the Trail of Tears was barely mentioned. Instead, Jackson was more of a populist figure, seen as a "champion of the working class against the business community." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like many of his time who championed populist and progressive ideals, was a fan of Jackson's.

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Feller, who knows many of Jackson's most famous speeches by heart, said he hears the president's rhetoric today in, for instance, some of what Elizabeth Warren says. He's heard "whole sentences" in her statements that are "almost directly quoted" from Jackson, including his famous bank-veto document. Feller guesses the resonance isn't intentional. But in 1928, Wall Street critics like Warren would have had Jacksonian written all over them.

That said, Jackson never had a perfect reputation. His difficult personality has been notoriously hard for his biographers to capture. The first stab at an impartial biography of the president makes that pretty clear. Jackson was a "patriot and a traitor," James Parton, the biographer of record for his time, famously wrote in 1888.

Parton went on:

He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesman, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.

So, does the "atrocious saint" still belong on the $20? For his part, Feller is a "complete agnostic." But, he said: "I think the debate is healthy."

"One thing that it can lead to is an understanding that some of these things are more complicated," Feller said. "It's all for the good. Let 'em fight it out."