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Take Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill

A president that defied the Constitution and placed thousands in concentration camps deserves no reverence on our currency.
A close-up of Andrew Jackson on a $20 bill. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa/AP)
A close-up of Andrew Jackson on a $20 bill.

I hate using ATMs. It’s not the lines that bother me, nor is it the inevitable awkwardness of the person lurking behind you, seemingly in a rush and looking over your shoulder as you type. No, I hate ATMs because I know when I swipe my card, when the machine dispenses pieces of my livelihood, I have to see that face. His face. On the $20 bill.

When historian David Greenberg thinks of Andrew Jackson, he thinks of democracy. When I see Andrew Jackson, I think of my grandmother’s spit. 

* * * 

The trip was long. And for an eleven-year-old, somewhat painful. Wedged in the backseat between my younger sisters and their respective mountains of Barbies, the eight hour drive felt like an insufferable eternity.

Girls, my father’s voice would boom every time our incessant complaining crossed his fatherly-defined threshold: Quiet. We are going to visit the grave of a president.

When we finally arrived, I jumped out of our minivan and began exploring. But when I caught a glimpse of my grandma, my legs came to a standstill.

I watched as my grandma walked straight to the president’s grave. She stood for half a second, then her neck arched back, her body heaved forward, and for the first time in my life, I saw my grandma spit. It wasn’t a casual spit. It was a once in a lifetime spit. I watched as the saliva of our ancestors flowed through her mouth and hit that grave with an echo that turned heads and stopped conversations.

She turned and walked straight back to the minivan. Let’s go. And so we left.

What made my grandma, who had never so much as uttered a swear word in her life, spit on the grave of Andrew Jackson? When I asked my father, his voice floundered and his eyes begged my silence. So when we got home, I asked Grandma.

Back in the comfort of her own home, her face glowed with pride as she pointed to the photos of two men that decorated the wall of her living room. These two men, Major Ridge (Ka-Nun-Tla-Cla-Geh, he who walks along the Ridge) and his son, John Ridge (Skah-tle-loh-skee, Yellow Bird), were my great-grandfathers. They fought to save an entire Nation not with a gun in a battlefield, but with a petition in a court of law.

"With the turn of his hand, Andrew Jackson became the only president in the history of the United States to openly defy an order from the Supreme Court."'

In 1832, when the State of Georgia and the executive branch of the federal government threatened the Cherokee Nation’s very existence, my grandfathers—along with Principal Chief John Ross—took the Cherokee Nation’s case to the Supreme Court of the United States. In an unprecedented decision (Worcester v. Georgia), Justice Marshall issued a ruling declaring the Cherokee Nation to be a sovereign, “distinct community, occupying its own territory” with “the preexisting power of the Nation to govern itself.”

Following this victory, my grandfather John Ridge visited President Jackson in the White House. My grandfather asked how the federal government would enforce the Supreme Court’s decision. Andrew Jackson told him:

"John Marshall has issued his decision. Let him enforce it."

And with the turn of his hand, Andrew Jackson became the only president in the history of the United States to openly defy an order from the Supreme Court. 

Recognizing that neither the federal government nor the State of Georgia would abide our constitutional and inherent right to exist in our homes, my grandfathers signed the Treaty of New Echota, agreeing to relinquish our cherished homeland in exchange for land in what is now Oklahoma. Following the signing of the treaty, President Jackson forcibly placed 16,000 Cherokee in concentration camps for holding until they were “sent” to what is today Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey now known as The Trail of Tears.

Not long after they arrived in the Indian Territory, my grandfathers (both Major Ridge and John Ridge) were brutally assassinated by their fellow Cherokee. For signing the Treaty of New Echota and acquiescing to the removal, they were considered traitors.

* * *

Greenberg, writing for Politico Magazine last week, claims Jackson is “the president who made American democracy democratic.” As a lawyer who has studied the United States Constitution extensively, I find nothing democratic in a president who oversteps the constitutional bounds of his authority and defies another co-equal branch of government. Imagine if Dwight Eisenhower told the nine black students seeking to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957: “Earl Warren made his decision, let him enforce it.” I doubt we would praise such presidential defiance of Brown v. Board of Education as “democratic.” 

"Jackson’s work to increase the political power and wealth of lower-class white men at the expense of people of color and women is not worthy of celebration or reverence in a post-Fourteenth Amendment America."'

Jackson not only defied the Supreme Court -- he also violated the plain text of congressional statutes that he himself signed into law. In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, the plain language of which required a removal treaty with an Indian Nation before its citizens could be moved. However, as Suzan Shown Harjo points out in her article, "Andrew Jackson is Not as Bad as You Think, He’s Far Far Bloodier," Jackson never negotiated or signed a removal treaty with the Muscogee Creek Nations; instead there “was no removal treaty and removal was carried out at bayonet point. ... Tens of millions of acres were taken illegally, and the Muscogee Peoples still grieve over the displacement, ill treatment, and injustice, and for the homelands and ancestors left behind.”

A president that defies the fundamental tenets of legislation passed by the democratically elected Members of Congress -- legislation that the Constitution does not allow him to unilaterally repeal without an act of Congress -- threatens the foundations of American democracy and deserves no reverence on our currency, or in our canon of democratic legends. 

Nor should we applaud Jackson’s work to increase the political power of “men of all classes” or his success in “bringing the neglected West into the life of the nation.” 

Jackson’s work to increase the political power and wealth of lower-class white men at the expense of people of color and women is not worthy of celebration or reverence in a post-Fourteenth Amendment America. In particular, his efforts to bring the “West” into the nation involved policies predicated on the eradication of an entire people (my people) because we occupied the land he sought to make available to Greenberg’s “[white] men of all classes.”

As he explained to Congress in 1833: 

"[American Indians] have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear."

Thankfully, our Constitution -- and thus our democracy -- have evolved since Jackson left the presidency. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 renders Jackson’s assertions that American Indians must “ere long disappear” because of “their inferiority” not only un-democratic, but unconstitutional. Nothing could be more undemocratic in 21st century America than continuing to celebrate a president who contradicts the democratic values we cherish -- and continue to fight to preserve -- in our Constitution.

* * *

The nostalgia and mythology surrounding Jackson is understandable given that we still live in a country that teaches its third-graders that Native Americans are nothing more than costume pieces to wear at Halloween and Thanksgiving. However, this inability to call a genocide “genocide” and remove Jackson from the $20 bill impedes our ability to heal collectively and restore the true democratic ideals embodied in our Constitution.

"This inability to call a genocide 'genocide' and remove Jackson from the $20 bill impedes our ability to heal collectively and restore the true democratic ideals embodied in our Constitution."'

Just this past Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury announced it will be replacing Alexander Hamilton with a woman on the $10 bill. This announcement confirms that changing American currency to more accurately reflect the diverse faces of our evolved democracy is achievable, practical, and timely.

I’d like to see Jackson replaced with Wilma Mankiller. As the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, no one could be more fitting to replace the man who sought to exterminate the Cherokee entirely.  

Today, my grandmother is buried just a few rows down from Major Ridge and John Ridge, in the small Cherokee Cemetery in Jay, Oklahoma, less than a quarter of a mile from our family’s former allotment land. Someday, I too will be buried there. But before I’m placed in the same soil as my grandfathers and grandmother, I will continue to dream of the day when participating in the American economy doesn’t require accepting the attempted eradication of my people as a democratic ideal.

Jackson’s plan, after all, failed. In 1833, he said that my Cherokee grandfathers, and all American Indians, should “ere long disappear.” But as Wilma Mankiller always said, “We are still here.”

Mary Kathryn Nagle is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She is a playwright and attorney working to protect the inherent sovereignty of American Indian Nations and protect the constitutional rights of American Indians today.