Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson as the new face of the $20, according to the Star Tribune and other news outlets. Unfortunately, Jackson will still be portrayed on back. (The back of the $20 currently shows the White House; a smaller image of Jackson will be added.)
Jackson does not deserve even that honor. He was the driving force for the Indian Removal Act, which not only displaced tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homes, but also resulted in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in the forced relocation known as the Trail of Tears.
Still, not surprisingly, Jackson’s defenders are emerging.
CNN reports Presidential candidate Donald Trump calling the $20 bill redesign “pure political correctness,” suggesting instead that Tubman go on the $2 bill (which no longer exists.) Politifact reports former presidential candidate Ben Carson praised Jackson as: “the last president who actually balanced the federal budget, where we had no national debt.”
This is one of those statements that sounds really impressive, until you do a bit of digging. Then it is almost laughable if not so tragic.
First, as Politifact points out, the debt in Jackson’s era was relatively small: $58 million, or the equivalent of $1.4 billion in today’s dollars. But while the article finds Carson’s statement “Mostly True,” it misses a giant piece of context.
For more, we turn to a 2012 post in the blog Quartz. The headline pretty much tells the story: How the US last paid off its debt: Stealing land from Native Americans. According to the article:
Uncle Sam balanced his budget on the back of an unsustainable, wildly-speculative land-buying frenzy that occurred during Jackson’s stint at the White House. Federal receipts from the sale of lands surged from $1.5 million in 1829, the first year of the Jackson administration, to $14.8 million in 1835. Expenditures stayed roughly flat over the same period. That’s a recipe for instant, sizable surpluses.
And how did the federal government come to have all this land to sell? Why, by removing the people who lived on it, en masse.