Who Is On The $20 Bill? Examining Andrew Jackson‘s Complicated Legacy

For nearly a century, the face staring back at you from the U.S. $20 bill has been that of Andrew Jackson, the nation‘s 7th president. His stern portrait is as familiar as the bill itself, but many are unaware of Jackson‘s complex life story and controversial legacy that has sparked debate in recent years over whether he still deserves this place of honor.

In this article, we‘ll take an in-depth look at how Jackson came to be on the twenty, the history behind the bill‘s design, the case for and against his continued presence there, and efforts to potentially replace him with a new historical figure. By the end, you‘ll have a much fuller picture of the history and issues surrounding this ubiquitous piece of American currency.

The Life and Presidency of Andrew Jackson

So who exactly was Andrew Jackson and how did he come to be chosen for the $20 bill? Born into poverty in 1767 in the Carolinas, Jackson had a difficult childhood marked by tragedy and struggle. As a young boy, he served as a courier in the Revolutionary War and was even held as a prisoner of war by the British, an experience that shaped his fiery personality and fierce hatred of the British.

Despite his humble origins, Jackson became a frontier lawyer and rose to national fame as a general in the War of 1812, scoring decisive victories over the British and Native American tribes. His military successes made him wildly popular as a rugged man of the people and propelled him to the White House in 1828.

As president, Jackson embraced a populist leadership style and sought to reform government to better represent the common man. Some of his most significant accomplishments included:

  • Expanding voting rights: Jackson believed all white men should have the vote, not just property owners, and during his presidency voting participation increased dramatically.
  • Fighting the National Bank: Jackson saw the centralized banking system as elitist and corrupt. He dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, which he felt held too much power over the economy.
  • Paying off the national debt: Through aggressive spending cuts, Jackson eliminated the federal debt for the first and only time in U.S. history in 1835.

While Jackson is often celebrated as a champion of the people and defender of the Union, his legacy is severely tarnished by his forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in what became known as the Trail of Tears. At least 4,000 Cherokees died during this brutal ethnic cleansing campaign that Jackson authorized and oversaw as president. Even during his own lifetime, this grave injustice invited harsh criticism.

Jackson‘s dual legacy as both democratic hero and Indian oppressor makes him one of the most controversial figures ever to occupy the White House. Later in this article, we‘ll examine the recent debate that has emerged over whether Jackson should remain on the $20 bill in light of these troubling actions against Native Americans.

History of the $20 Bill Design

The $20 bill featuring Andrew Jackson‘s portrait that you‘re familiar with today looks quite different than the original twenty dollar notes introduced in the 1800s. In fact, Jackson wasn‘t even the first person featured on the denomination.

The first $20 bills were issued in 1862 as "demand notes" to help finance the Civil War. These notes featured a portrait of Lady Liberty rather than any historical figure. After the war, new $20 bills were designed as part of the "Legal Tender" series starting in 1869. These featured a portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the front (who today is on the $10).

Next came the "Silver Certificate" $20 bills in 1878, which for the first time featured a president: Grover Cleveland. However, Cleveland‘s reign on the twenty was short-lived. In 1928, the U.S. Treasury decided to replace Cleveland‘s portrait with that of Andrew Jackson, in a major overhaul to the look of U.S. currency.

Why was Jackson chosen? As a champion of sound monetary policy and an opponent of centralized banking, Jackson‘s ideological views aligned well with the Treasury‘s aims at the time. His enduring popularity and image as a man of the frontier people also helped elevate him above other figures under consideration.

The specific engraved portrait of Jackson used was based on an 1869 engraving by James B. Longacre, itself based on an 1817 painting by Ralph E.W. Earl. This classic image of a stern-faced Jackson has remained on the $20 ever since 1928, with some design tweaks over the years:

  • 1990s: Security features like a watermark, security thread, and color-shifting ink were added to combat counterfeiting
  • 1998: Minor design changes introduced, including enlarging the portrait
  • 2003: Additional colors and background images added

Today‘s $20 bill design retains the same iconic Jackson portrait that‘s been in use for almost 100 years. Let‘s look at the current design in greater detail.

Examining the Modern U.S. $20 Bill

The most recent version of the $20 bill features an enlarged and detailed engraving of Andrew Jackson‘s portrait based on the classic Longacre/Earl image. Jackson is shown facing slightly left, his face lined and serious, with long wavy hair swept back. The background behind him is one of ornate, swirling patterns and borders.

To the left of the portrait is the Federal Reserve District Seal, while to the right is the Treasury Department Seal. Below left is Jackson‘s signature, re-created from original letters. The bill‘s denomination appears in each corner, plus repeatedly along the border on the back.

The back side of the $20 features a vignette of the White House facade as it appeared before the North and South Porticos were added in 1824 and 1829. This image was engraved by Frederick Girsch and first appeared on the Series 1928 $20 bill. An eagle appears to the left of the White House and below the bill‘s denomination.

In terms of security features to prevent counterfeiting, today‘s twenties include:

  • Watermark: A faint image similar to Jackson‘s portrait appears when held up to light
  • Color-shifting ink: The numeral 20 in the lower right corner shifts from copper to green when the bill is tilted
  • Security thread: A thin embedded strip running vertically states "USA TWENTY" and can only be seen under UV light

All in all, today‘s $20 bill is a intricately designed, highly secure piece of currency made to be difficult to replicate illegally. But it‘s the portrait at the center of it all that has generated controversy in recent years.

The Case For and Against Jackson on the $20

In 2016, the Treasury Department under President Obama announced that anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on a new version of the $20 bill to be unveiled in 2020, in honor of the 100th anniversary of women‘s suffrage.

However, the Trump administration put those plans on hold, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stating in 2019 that a new $20 bill wouldn‘t be released until 2028 and that a future treasury secretary would make the design decisions. The Biden administration has since said they will accelerate those efforts, but no new timeline has been announced.

This back-and-forth over the future of the $20 highlights the controversy that has surrounded Jackson‘s legacy and place on the currency in recent years. A growing chorus of critics argue that Jackson‘s portrait sends the wrong message and that he shouldn‘t be honored in light of his shameful actions against Native Americans.

They contend that the Trail of Tears, in which Jackson forced tens of thousands of Indians off their land, leading to thousands of deaths, is an irredeemable black mark that outweighs any of his positive achievements. In their view, glorifying Jackson on the $20 bill amounts to an endorsement of his racist policies and a whitewashing of one of the cruelest episodes in American history.

On the other side, Jackson‘s defenders maintain that judging historical figures by modern standards is unfair and that his full legacy must be considered. They point to Jackson‘s humble origins, his populist appeal, and success in strengthening the presidency and preserving the Union against threats like the Nullification Crisis. Removing him from the $20, they argue, would amount to erasing history rather than learning from it.

As for the choice of Tubman to potentially replace him, proponents say putting the celebrated abolitionist and "conductor" of the Underground Railroad on the $20 would send a powerful message about the values of freedom and equality. Tubman risked her life repeatedly to lead dozens of enslaved people to freedom and later fought for women‘s voting rights. Honoring her would help balance out the all-male, nearly all-white line-up currently on U.S. currency.

What do you think? Does Jackson deserve to keep his spot on the $20 based on his full biography and historical contributions? Or is it time for him to go in light of the Trail of Tears and other moral failings? There are compelling arguments on both sides, but the debate itself reflects a reckoning over how America remembers its own history.

The $20 Bill FAQs

We‘ve covered the background of Andrew Jackson and the history of $20 bill, but you may still have some practical questions about this common denomination. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about twenty dollar bills:

How long do $20 bills last?
According to the Federal Reserve, the average lifespan of a $20 bill in circulation is 7.8 years. After that, worn out bills are taken out of circulation and replaced.

Can you still use an old, worn, or damaged $20 bill?
As long as a bill is more than half intact and the text and imagery are still mostly visible, any bill is still legally usable currency no matter how old or worn. Retailers may reject heavily damaged bills, but banks should still accept them.

How widely accepted are U.S. $20 bills abroad?
Many international banks and currency exchanges will accept $20 for exchange, and the bill is widely used in border areas of Canada and Mexico. However, in most cases it‘s advisable to get local currency when traveling rather than assuming U.S. money will be taken.

What‘s the current status of putting Harriet Tubman on the $20?
The Biden administration has said it will accelerate Obama-era efforts to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, but no specific timeline has been provided other than that new designs will be unveiled by 2026. A new $20 bill is still likely years away from being in circulation.

Conclusion

The story of who appears on the $20 bill is a fascinating reflection of America‘s own complex history – both the good and the bad. For nearly 100 years, Andrew Jackson has gazed out from one of the nation‘s most ubiquitous bills, but in light of his cruel treatment of Native Americans, a contentious debate has emerged over whether he still deserves that symbolic place of honor.

At the same time, efforts to potentially replace Jackson with the heroic Harriet Tubman represent an attempt to rebalance America‘s currency to be more representative of the country‘s diversity. How this chapter ultimately plays out remains to be seen, but it‘s a conversation that cuts to the heart of how we grapple with the most troubling parts of our shared past.

The next time you pull out a crisp (or not so crisp) $20 bill, take a moment to reflect on the controversial figure staring back at you and the unresolved questions his legacy still raises to this day. The more we engage with our history in all its complexity, the better we can chart an inclusive path forward.

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