The Public Broadcasting System on Feb. 7 wrapped up a four-hour series on the U.S. Supreme Court. The series had its moments, but overall it left an unsettling impression, as if the highest court in the land has mainly been a mediocrity cartel in chief for more than two centuries, confirming strange perversions in public opinion no sane individual would admit to in the clear light of day. Some testament to democracy.
Given television's penchant for retelling history by the highlights and the limits of image-based storytelling - as a wise Englishman warned near the outset of the last century, photographs are true but stupid - the sour impression was probably inevitable. On the bright side, the series makes a strong case for continuing the ban on cameras in the high court. By the time a case makes the Supreme Court, it is always based on so much more than visual images can begin to convey; yet images, true within their limited frame, possess an overwhelming power. They would bewitch public opinion, and in due time Supreme Court decisions would be distorted accordingly.
For the same reasons visual images and history by the highlights aren't much help with complex issues, they are second to none in making the case for simple truth. In no more than a few minutes over the course of four hours, the Supreme Court series harnessed that power in its consideration of President Andrew Jackson. A few stark images, a few basic sentences, and it was done: Jackson defied the law of the land, as established by the Supreme Court, in making the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia the template for federal Indian policy. He followed that up by appointing a states'-rights Supreme Court justice to replace deceased Chief Justice John Marshall, champion of federal authority and author of the opinion that Cherokee removal was flat-out illegal. Jackson's man and Marshall's replacement, Roger Taney, later gave us the Dred Scott decision, barring African descendants (in effect slaves) from citizenship and provoking, in large part, the Civil War.
The simple truth brought forward by PBS' Supreme Court series, then, is that Jackson flouted an unambiguous Supreme Court ruling that, in other hands, might well have mitigated the Indian hatred of 19th century settlers instead of sending it forth full-bore across a continent. He was directly responsible for the foul deeds of dispossession and genocide inflicted on Indians under the banner of removal policy. And if there is anything at all to the talk of presidents leaving a legacy through their appointments to the Supreme Court, Jackson is indirectly responsible for the Dred Scott decision, the darkest mark on the Supreme Court's record and one of the most ill-fated judicial rulings ever cast.
Millions of Americans will see the Supreme Court series eventually, if millions haven't already. Probably every one of them will continue to make use of the $20 bill, which bears Jackson's portrait. But with the simple truth about Jackson on such prominent display, the time has come to get serious about the obvious questions. Why is there any place on our national currency for a miscreant of Jackson's magnitude? Why celebrate lawless genocide and internecine carnage every time we open our wallets and pocketbooks? It isn't a surfeit of political correctness to suggest that Jackson's stay on our national currency should come to an end. It's simple truth
Overall, U.S. currency gives pride of place to a worthy crew. Washington and Lincoln twice, Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Grant and Franklin - Americans can be proud of them on balance. We shouldn't have to apologize for Jackson. There is a place for him on postage stamps. He should be replaced on the twenty. People could help the process along by requesting two ''Hams'' for a twenty or a ''Ben for any five of them. Tribal governments might well find a way to lead the charge, perhaps in tandem with African-American or other minority communities. Profound sums of money move through them all. The natural alliance here might lead to greater things. The PBS series is for sale as a DVD, or as a book version. An educational initiative in schools suggests itself.
Of course, canceling Jackson's mug on the twenty may prove easier than finding consensus on a replacement image. Indian and African-American communities will have no trouble offering candidates of their own among those who resisted removal and the Dred Scott decision, but Indians in particular should remember that the only successful Native-themed American currencies have featured a generic trophy head. The theme, as emphasized by the pairing of trophy head and bison on the buffalo nickel, has always been nostalgia for the extinct frontier.
The first priority should be getting the outlaw Indian killer and slave state advocate off the national currency. If achieving the top priority plays into a place for Chief Justice John Marshall on the twenty, tribes should have little real trouble standing up for the man who stood up for them. (African-Americans may have more to say; Marshall's record on slavery was enlightened for his times, but ambiguous for ours.) The selection of Marshall would deliver a late poetic justice to a reputation that doesn't need it, but his might well be the easiest case to make to the American public at large.
Some momentum exists for this in another quarter - the campaign against Indian mascots. After years of dedicated effort that brought success little by little, it is now succeeding by leaps and bounds. Once the local ritual belittlement of Indians shuts down, the time will be at hand to take on a standing national insult. Today Illiniwek, tomorrow Old Hickory.