Two hundred years after their time, the mythology of America's Founding Fathers persist in our national curriculum, pop culture, and political discourse.
Yesterday's elite have become today's gods: their flaws erased, their privilege ignored, their violence excused, their self–interest whitewashed, their words twisted, their stories glorified and, above all, told. It is perhaps a poetic end for the stories of yesterday's elite to be used by today's – a continuation of privilege, a continuation of history.
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a break with this tradition of recording history from the mouths of privilege. It's the story of what was happening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who were not political or economic elites.
As I encounter each of the Founders represented on the US banknotes in Zinn's book, I'll redesign the bill to focus on Americans who didn't get their faces on a piece of currency. I'll post each new design, along with a short blog post about the person in it, and that person's relationship to the original subject.
Grass Still Grows West of the Mississippi
The US twenty dollar bill immortalizes Andrew Jackson, a colonial leader who is depicted in traditional textbooks as a war hero, a frontiersman, a democrat, a man of the people. Setting aside that the characterization of Jackson as a man of the people assumes one doesn't consider women, Native Americans, and black people, people, it's worth considering Jackson's less publicized roles: brutal military leader, slaveholder, exterminator of Native Americans, executioner of deserting troops, breaker of treaties, aggressive land speculator, bestower of war plunder on his own elite group of friends and family.
Seventy thousand Native Americans were forced West from their homes under the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren.
Perhaps the bitterest in Jackson's long line of bloodletting and broken promises during what was called Indian Removal was his promise to Choctows and Cherokees, in exchange for their migration west beyond Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. He said, “There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs.”
Suffice it to say that grass still grows west of the Mississippi River; the Cherokees aren't there to see it.
The replacement of Andrew Jackson in the above twenty dollar bill redesign recognizes Chief Black Hawk, one of the leaders of the Native American resistance against white expansion and the settlers' attempts to force assimilation to the white concept of “civilization”. Civilization to the whites was state–backed capitalism focused on agriculture, merchant trade, markets, and private ownership of land and property. This system contrasted with the more communal hunting–based Native communities, where there was no concept of owning land, and resources were expected to be shared equally within the tribe. After the brief but bitter Black Hawk War, Chief Black Hawk made a surrender speech to his captors:
“I fought hard. But your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me . . . You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it. . . . We told them to leave us alone, and keep away from us; they followed on, and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the snake. . . . The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse–they poison the heart . . . Farewell, my nation! . . . Farewell to Black Hawk.”