Over the past few months, Americans have been weighing in on whether Jackson should still be on the twenty-dollar bill. For early-nineteenth century scholars and those who are familiar with some of the key watershed moments in American history, this has always been a source of amusement and befuddlement. Daniel Walker Howe called it "richly ironic" in his magisterial and Pulitzer-Prize-winning tome, What Hath God Wrought (2007). I've always wondered why Hamilton, a financial wizard, was on the ten and why Jackson, who destroyed Hamilton's beloved creation, the national Bank, was on a denomination of higher value! Lately there has been a push to put a woman on the bill, perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, Ida B. Wells, or Hariet Tubman. I think this would be great and generally support the idea.
In my own writing, I am not pro-Jackson by any means. And anyone who has studied the primary sources closely can tell that Bank proponents, by and large, possessed a more sophisticated and forward-thinking view of finance and economics than their anti-BUS adversaries. What I don't like are the characterizations of Old Hickory as a rube, an idiot, or a person who knew absolutely nothing about banking. Yes, like Senator Thomas Hart "Old Bullion" Benton, Jackson believed in a metal currency and distrusted all banks. There was no future of rapid economic growth and industrialization if one stayed beholden to this mindset. But if you look at his writings, he was generally okay with state banks. He liked Nicholas Biddle on a personal level and Biddle had even voted for Andrew Jackson. He used the various branch offices and credit instruments of the Second Bank in his day-to-day commercial transactions. The chief executive, moreover, left open the possibility of compromise with Biddle, so long as a national bank was a) restricted to the District of Columbia; b) could be taxed by the states; c) functioned as a government-run institution that was not a private corporation; and d) did not endanger the liberties of the people, however one defines this rather broad concept. Jackson's letters bore the imprint of Amos Kendall, Andrew Jackson Donelson, and James A. Hamilton, who understood finance well. All of these considerations seem to be lost in the discussion, and if we end up putting Eleanor Roosevelt or Ida B. Wells on the twenty (which I would support by the way), we should at least keep in mind that Jackson was not a simpleton. He could write letters that were quite eloquent and formal at times, even if his handwriting was difficult to read. I don't believe any historian can be objective, but I do believe we should be fair to historical actors when we evaluate them on a scholarly - rather than conversational - level.