The Diplomat — “The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao”

Later this year, Jeff Wasserstrom and I are going to collaborate on a third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know*, so we’ve started making notes on parts of the book that will need updating. With this week’s announcement that Andrew Jackson will no longer be the face of the $20, we’ll have to revise a few paragraphs in which we compare him to Chairman Mao—saying, essentially, that both are figures with decidedly mixed historical legacies yet have retained symbolic positions of some importance in their respective countries (Mao much more than Jackson, obviously). Jeff and I traded some emails about how the forthcoming currency redesign changes our take on things, and have turned those thoughts into a short commentary at The Diplomat:

The decision to remove Andrew Jackson’s face from the front of the $20 bill reflects a willingness to acknowledge that the United States does not have one singular shared historical narrative—and to question, as Chinese leaders are loathe to do, the way important and traumatic parts of the past have been treated. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, whose portrait will replace Jackson’s on the front of the $20 bill, obviously experienced the mid-19th century quite differently than Jackson and his fellow white male Southerners. And although the $5 and $10 bills will continue to feature Great White Men of American History (including the newly beloved Alexander Hamilton) on their faces, the reverse sides of both will become more diverse, with the addition of suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opera singer Marian Anderson, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Read the whole thing here.

*Amazon Associates link; I get credit if you buy.

One thought on “The Diplomat — “The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao”

  1. Maura – really enjoy your blog. This is a question I confront often. The men on the quarter, one, two and twenty dollar bills were all slave holders. One of them, Jefferson, raped at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. Jackson owned 500 slaves but his greater crimes were probably against Native Americans (not that the two are comparable – both horrific). They all represent the US – north as well as south. Northerners were happy to live off of slave labor by buying the raw materials they produced and New York didn’t outlaw slavery until 1827. The fugitive slave laws essentially made slavery a de facto reality in the north until the civil war. It is good that the US is confronting more of this history rather than limiting the discussion to the 1861-1865 in the south, but it’s just a start.

    Mao is actually more complicated for me. There are different Maos – pre-1949 vs. post-1949 or post-1964. There are Mao the liberator and Mao the defender; Mao the educator and Mao the anti-intellectual. The big difference for me is that Jackson fought internal battles against weaker opponents, whereas Mao’s opponents (the PRC’s opponents) were often supported by external forces, primarily the US through the KMT, proxy forces trained by the CIA in Tibet, or US forces in Korea. Obviously there was no love lost between Mao and the various Russian leaders either but I don’t think it ever erupted into a shooting war – just didn’t result in the type of economic cooperation that could have made up for their isolation from the world economy (US policy). These factors made Mao a war-time leader through almost his entire political career. The US isolated China and armed and funded their enemies which did as much or more to wreck their economy as the great leap forward and other misguided Maoist efforts. It didn’t have to be that way. Barbara Tuchman’s “If Mao Had Come to Washington in 1945” is an interesting explanation of that, but it had a lot to do with how WW2 ended (or the way the Cold War began), the removal of Stillwell and Wallace not being Roosevelt’s VP during his last term.

    Jackson sent the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears so White people could farm their land.

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