This rusty old republic is getting some new detailing, if not the engine work it really needs. Instead of changing the way the money gets divvied up, the U.S. is just changing the way the money looks.
Acknowledging that symbolism is no substitute for economic reality, it’s still fun to psychoanalyze what the symbols say about what America wishes it was.
What Jackson represents to America in general is not the same as what he means to New Orleans. The Times-Picayune frames that difference in the most common way, hailing Jackson as “the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.” But the context of early American New Orleans gives us a very different way to understand the meaning of the 1815 decision to rename the old Place d’Armes in his honor. Despite that one shining moment of glamorous and unnecessary killing (the war was over before the battle was fought), New Orleans has less reason to honor Jackson than does the United States in general.
Let’s look at Jackson first from a broadly national perspective. The strikes against him are obvious and oft-repeated: Indian Removal and slavery. The two are closely related, of course. Simply pointing out that Jackson was a slaveholder barely glimpses the tip of the iceberg. Jefferson was a slaveholder, too, but also an outspoken critic of the peculiar institution. No such paradoxes muddy Jackson’s legacy.
Matthew Rosza, writing in Salon.com, redundantly points out that Jackson was also an “imperialist.” It’s a redundant observation because Jackson’s expansionist ambitions are tied inextricably to his support for slavery. The “five civilized tribes” of the Southeast needed to be removed to make the region safe for white slaveholders, and the dream of the slaveholding class was to keep expanding into Mexican territories to the west, and even into the Caribbean and Latin America.
But excoriating Jackson today for these policies is a perfect example of the impotence and hypocrisy of symbolic politics — as if Jackson alone is responsible for Native American genocide and slavery, as if the beneficiaries and victims of these historic crimes are no longer with us, and it’s just a matter of cleaning up the bloodstains. We know what American conservatives think, so it’s really a failure of the mainstream liberal left, a crowd good at endlessly proposing cosmetic makeovers that don’t touch the substance of the unequal world the bad guys of the past bequeathed to us.
In the conservative corner, Donald Trump says the decision to replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman is “pure political correctness.” I used to be confused about what “politically correct” was supposed to mean, but Trump and GOP rival Ted Cruz have clarified it for me. It just means any policy or argument that’s not fanatically conservative. But the rhetorical effectiveness of the “politically correct” charge lies in it being more nuanced and contradictory than its plain meaning. Like Nixon’s “silent majority” ploy back in ’68, “politically correct” plays to the persecution complex of America’s white rural Christian masses.
A difference, though, is that we can’t dismiss their sense of disenfranchisement as a persecution “fantasy.” With declining incomes as well as life expectancy, white working people are clearly in crisis. They’re also correct to note that America’s ruling elites don’t really give a rat’s ass what happens to them. Like the rest of us, they’re fed symbols and rhetoric instead of bread and butter, but Trump gives them the symbols and rhetoric that smell the most like real food to them.
Trump is a master of vagueness. He says Andrew Jackson “had a history of tremendous success,” which we could translate as “Jackson made America great.” There’s no reason to think that Trump is a scholar of Jacksonian America, but he gets the basic theme right: Jackson represents the idea of America as the land of equality and opportunity for white people, at the expense of people of color. To consider the interests or memory of non-white people is “pure political correctness.”
But what does the country gain by a public slap-down of Old Hickory? It’s yet another signal to white Southern country people that their heroes, their version of their identity, is out of vogue, even shameful. If America is ashamed of Jackson, all those kids who grew up revering “the hero of the Battle of New Orleans” must realize that America is also ashamed of them.
Harriet Tubman as Jackson’s replacement on the $20 bill is unassailable, and not just because, being black and a woman, she checks off two “politically correct” categories at one stroke. Like Jackson, she’s a military hero. Like Jackson, she comes from humble social roots. She’s also a revolutionary. It’s perfectly fitting that Jackson will be replaced by someone he would have quickly executed if their times and paths had crossed.
The regrettable aspect of Jackson’s removal isn’t about Tubman or him. The sad and typical lesson of the failure of the liberal symbolic imagination comes from the sudden resuscitation of Alexander Hamilton. Through a downright surreal succession of events, the architect of American capitalism is now an icon of anti-racism.
I hate to break it to folks, but Hamilton was not a Latino hip-hop artist. It would make more sense to put Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit Broadway show that saved Hamilton’s historical reputation, on a bank note, if indeed the idea is to offer an alternative to rich white men as America’s heroes.
Hamilton believed in the necessity of property restrictions on the franchise, that people of modest means should not have the right to vote at all. Jackson, on the other hand, favored much broader political participation, and presided over and benefited from removal of property tests for white male voters. The decision to dump Jackson while keeping the suddenly and nonsensically hip Hamilton represents perfectly the contradictory politics of the Democratic Party in the age of the Clintons.
It’s a symbolic fantasy of a color-blind meritocracy that does nothing at all to lessen the plight of working people of any color. Thus Jackson’s legacy as a champion of the working poor, once so dear to Democratic Party identity, is utterly eclipsed by those aspects of his politics that we rightly find reprehensible today. Nothing is actually done to improve the lives of the descendants of the people Jackson wronged, or to address the obvious fact that America’s prosperity, its “tremendous success,” in Trump’s words, was an outcome of the atrocities that we now self-righteously blame on dead people.
We really showed that racist bigot, we took him off the $20 bill! But nobody’s lining up to give Georgia back to the Cherokee or Mississippi back to the Choctaw, and the families that made fortunes off the opening of the South and West to economic development are still pretty much running the country.
What’s even worse is how Hillary Clinton has invented a strange new brand of race-baiting in her response to Bernie Sanders’ challenge from the left. Southern conservative demagogues used to distract white working class voters from their own economic interests by promising to keep black people down. Hillary, on the other hand, distracts white middle-class voters from their economic interests with anti-racist and pseudo-feminist appeals rather than racist and sexist ones. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” she said in February, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? No!”
She thus demonstrated in a nutshell the abandonment of the Democratic Party’s historic mission to ameliorate economic inequality by implying that racism and sexism are condoned by those who fight for economic justice — as if economic inequality and racial inequality are somehow separate issues.
Bernie Sanders is Andrew Jackson in this twisted scenario, a guy who wants to stick it to powerful capitalist interests and sell out people of color. Sanders’ policies might greatly improve the lives of many working women of color, but Hillary wins at “feeling their pain,” that great Clintonian ability to acknowledge identities rather than help people with their problems.
While Jacksonian democracy envisioned a world where all white men would strive on an equal playing field, Clintonian democracy projects a future where all millionaires can be treated with respect regardless of race, sex, or gender identity, where Ben Carson and Sheryl Sandberg and Caitlyn Jenner and Bill Gates can all walk into Donald Trump’s Palm Beach country club without fear of being snubbed. The underpaid black and Latino workers in the kitchen will get lots of respect, if nothing else, while the angry white poor will get lectures about white privilege.
The future of Jackson Square, whether or not the Place d’Armes is renamed once again, raises a whole other set of questions, in some ways distinct from the meaning of Jackson for America at large. In New Orleans, Jackson is a symbol of the American triumph over Creole society, and with it the Americanization of race relations in the Creole city. To put it bluntly, America in Jackson’s time was a disaster for the black people of New Orleans, both slave and free.
While most African-Americans had no freedom to lose, many black New Orleanians did have freedom to lose (half of them, in the 1810 census), and lose it they did. Jackson apologists will point out that he, out of desperation, authorized a regiment of free people of color to fight at Chalmette. As Caryn Cosse Bell explains in “Revolution, Romanticism and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition,” he appealed to the free blacks of New Orleans as “sons of freedom,” and praised their conduct after the battle. But that wisp of anti-racism sentiment quickly vaporizes when we note that the Spanish had already rewarded slaves with freedom in exchange for military service, and that the first business of the new American territorial legislature had been to disband the Spanish free-black militias.
Indeed, many of the black men who served under Jackson had been trained by the Spanish, or by the French, like the black hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Colonel Joseph Savary. And Jackson’s kind words to the black veterans of 1815 didn’t slow the steady erosion of their freedoms under the Americans. Ask 1815 veteran Hippolyte Castra, who wrote, “I fought with valor/ Only wishing to serve my country/ I had no thought that my reward/ Was to become a target of hate.”
I think Jackson has less of a claim to the heart of the Creole city than he does to the $20 bill. I could think of at least 20 people from New Orleans and from the same era that I’d rather see in the Square: Joseph Savary, Marie Laveau, Pere Antoine, Henriette DeLille, Rodolphe DesDunes. But I’m not writing any letters about it. Jackson’s support of slavery did not lead him to start a Civil War that killed 600,000 people, so it isn’t really appropriate to lump him with the Confederates.
I’d love to see New Orleans continue to distance itself from the conservative South through monument shuffling, but of course symbolic politics is ultimately just smoke and mirrors. Jackson should also remind us that economic struggle — this time including all colors — should be the No. 1 priority of the political party he shaped so profoundly. New Orleans is now the sixth most economically unequal city in the United States, based on cost of living compared to average income. Every other city on the list is a blue city where dead racist bigots are not tolerated. Harriet Tubman is welcome here, but she’d have a hard time paying her bills.
C.W. Cannon’s latest book is “Katrina Means Cleansing,” a young-adult novel about Hurricane Katrina. He teaches “New Orleans Myths and Legends” and other courses at Loyola University.