Andrew Jackson looms large in Louisiana history, which is why a renewed debate about his legacy has special resonance here.
An iconic statue of Jackson on horseback forms the centerpiece of Jackson Square in New Orleans, a tribute to Jackson’s military leadership in decisively defeating the British during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. That victory affirmed America’s stature as an emerging world power and helped propel Jackson to the White House. His image rests not only in the heart of the French Quarter but on the front of the $20 bill.
Should the nation’s seventh president continue to be featured on the bill? Steve Inskeep recently raised that question in a provocative oped for The New York Times. Inskeep is known to many as a host of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” but he’s also the author of a new book about Jackson — “Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.”
Jackson’s mistreatment of Native Americans is already well known. Here’s how Inskeep summarized that record in The Times: “He coerced Native Americans into surrendering land through unjust treaties. In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, supporting a policy to push all natives west of the Mississippi. One result was the Trail of Tears in 1838, when 13,000 Cherokees left their homeland in the Appalachians. Another was a war against Florida’s Seminoles, lasting nearly as long as the war in Iraq.
“The story is even worse than is generally known,” Inskeep adds. “Jackson and his friends obtained slices of Cherokee real estate for personal profit and colonized the land with lucrative cotton plantations worked by slaves.”
But Inskeep notes Jackson’s positive contributions to American history, too. He rose from poverty to the presidency, the first American chief executive to do so. Jackson’s example inspired others of humble origin to think that they, too, could become president one day. Jackson’s resilience in preserving the Union also served as a model for future presidents. “Decades later, as Abraham Lincoln strained to save the Union during the Civil War, a portrait of Jackson hung on his wall,” Inskeep told readers.
Inskeep argues that Jackson should be remembered in spite of — or even because of — his imperfections. “Democracy is a conflict of interests and ideas,” he writes. “Many players in that conflict have been grievously wrong. But as they struggled, we now know, our forebears were often thrashing toward the light.”
The Jackson we see in Jackson Square and on our currency was a flawed human being. But then again, in our own way, so are we.