Mark Washburn

Why Andrew Jackson is smiling

Equestrian statue of a young Andrew Jackson at the S.C. state park located on the land near Lancaster where he grew up.
Equestrian statue of a young Andrew Jackson at the S.C. state park located on the land near Lancaster where he grew up. mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

Get a $20 bill (you can ask your kids for one) and look at the portrait of Andrew Jackson.

Examine closely. Is that the hint of a smile?

It probably is, for reasons we’ll get to in a second. But first, flip it over and look at the picture on the back.

See that magnolia tree on the right? Jackson planted it while president from a seedling he brought from Tennessee. Well, kinda.

He actually planted it on the other side of White House, but when the artist made the engraving for the 1928 currency, he took some license and moved the tree from the back lawn to the front.

It’s still beside the south portico of the White House in real life, a vast lump of unruly vegetation, as any healthy magnolia will be. A decade ago, a seed from it was sent to Andrew Jackson State Park near Lancaster, and it is blooming nicely today.

Nearby works former schoolteacher Laura Ledford, the interpretative ranger for the park, who knows all things Jackson.

She can tell you how historians still quarrel about Jackson’s birthplace. Some put it in North Carolina, some in South Carolina.

Ledford says she doesn’t remember where she was born, but has it on good authority from her mother that it was in Augusta, Ga. Jackson believed he was born in South Carolina, but the dispute smolders on.

Jackson’s role in U.S. history is as tangled as the underbrush in the Waxhaws, where he grew up.

He was a hero of the Battle of New Orleans. He was a populist leader who sprang from humble roots to become president.

But he was a slaveholder and oversaw the Trail of Tears, the enforced exodus of Native Americans from the East. He thought it would be best for them – it would allow the tribes to survive and remove them from increasing friction with European settlers east of the Mississippi River.

“For Americans, Indian removal is a good reminder that the best intentions in the world can sometimes end in human misery and death,” said Robert Remini, one of his biographers. “They can sometimes disgrace a nation and blacken its history.”

Our Carolinas native son was a complicated man who lived a complicated life. You can make any judgment of him you please and know that history will support you.

As you know, Jackson is being evicted from the front of the $20 bill. He will be replaced by Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and suffragette. Many see that as fitting justice.

But Jackson detested national banks and would have hated the idea of the Federal Reserve, which hands out $20 bills. For 88 years, he has been the face of a denomination known, accepted and respected the world over.

“He hated paper currency,” says Ledford. “Thought the money should be all silver and gold.”

Think what you will of Jackson. I think he’s smiling.

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