Andrew Jackson has been in the news a lot over these last few years.
First it was the Obama Administration’s decision in 2016 to replace Old Hickory on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.
Then came the 2016 election, when Donald Trump openly and repeatedly praised Jackson and expressed admiration for the controversial ex-President in a way that hasn’t been in vogue in decades. Trump has also gone out of his way to associate himself with Jackson, drawing parallels with his predecessor’s populism, combative nature, political inexperience and anti-establishment attitude. Trump has Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office, has made a pilgrimage to the Hermitage and has even given Jackson credit for things that happened well after his death. Trump’s admiration for Jackson is such that his administration has refused to commit to replacing Jackson on the $20 with Tubman.
And, like Jackson, Trump has had his problems with the country’s central bank.
In 1832, Jackson was reelected comfortably over a field that included longtime rival Henry Clay (later on, Jackson is alleged to have said that one of his biggest regrets is that he didn’t shoot Clay, although that seems to be apocryphal). One of the central themes of the race had been the status of the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson and his Democrats opposed renewing the bank’s charter, accusing it of benefiting the wealthy and being an unconstitutional infringement on state sovereignty. Jackson had already vetoed the bill re-chartering the bank, and after winning his second term, the bank’s fate was sealed.
Jackson’s decision touched off a series of measures and countermeasures by the Administration and the lame duck Bank of the United States that led to the Panic of 1837. The most controversial move was the Specie Circular, an executive order stating that payment for government lands could only be in the form of gold or silver. The act was widely blamed for causing the panic, as credit collapsed, use of paper money declined and people started hoarding precious metals and coins. [In a quote that is probably not apocryphal, Jackson said, on his deathbed, that he didn’t regret signing the Specie Circular or shutting down the national bank- his only regret was that he didn’t hang his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, as a traitor for his part in the 1828 Nullification Crisis.]
In the ensuing recession, many businesses and political organizations started privately minting and issuing tokens. Some were purely for political propaganda – Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren were popular targets. Others served as substitutes for U.S. currency, redeemable for goods or services from the issuing business. Some looked like the one cent coins they were meant to substitute for, while others served as advertisements for the companies or merchants that offered them.
Known collectively as “hard times tokens,” these coins have become highly collectible in the ensuing years. According to A Complete Book of Hard Times Tokens by Q. David Bowers, even though the “hard times” generally refers to the Panic of 1837, tokens that were minted and released in 1832 to support Jackson and his reelection bid are generally considered to mark the start of the “hard times token” era. For obvious reason, the post-Panic tokens tended to be critical of Jackson and Van Buren while promoting the Whig Party and its politicians, such as Clay, Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison and William Seward, among others.
My initial foray into these tokens came when I bought a set of five of the more common ones off eBay nearly 20 years ago. I like collecting these tokens because of the political history behind them, as well as the fact that they are, mostly, affordable to buy.
I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. One of the more famous (and expensive) hard times tokens available, this anti-slavery coin features a female slave in chains on one knee with her hands clasped in prayer and the phrase “Am I Not a Woman & A Sister” on the obverse. The reverse features a simple message: “Liberty.” There is a companion token featuring a man in chains bearing the phrase “Am I Not A Man & A Brother,” however, those tokens were rare in the U.S. While 500 to 1,000 of the female coins are known to exist, only four of the male ones have been found.
Both coins trace their history back to abolitionist tokens prevalent in Great Britain during the late 17th century. The “Am I Not a Man & A Brother” image and phrase were used by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was founded in Great Britain in 1787. According to Bowers, the female variant was used in Britain, but was less common.
In the U.S., the image helped stir up opposition to slavery, which was quickly turning the defining political issue of the post-Jackson, pre-Civil War era.
According to his memoir, in 1832 Boston preacher Timothy Gilbert ‘began to send out illustrations’ that included a ‘poor slave, eyes looking towards heaven, and hands clasped, saying ‘Am I Not A Woman & A Sister.” The platform began to resound with appeal, the pulpit sounded a trumpet which gave timely warning, and the church prepared for action.Bowers, Hard Times Tokens
As such, when Gibbs Gardner & Co. of Belleville, NJ started issuing “Am I Not A Woman & A Sister” tokens in 1837 (dated 1838), they became popular and highly sought-after. According to an ad in the November 1937 edition of The Emancipator, the main purpose of the coin would be to spread antislavery ideals to as wide an audience as possible – even to those who wouldn’t be sympathetic. “The friends of liberty have it in their power now to put a medal into the hands of every person in the country, without cost, containing a sentiment of immense value” the ad read. “It is a tract that will not be destroyed. If it falls into the hands of an enemy of liberty, he will ‘read and circulate.'”
There were several reasons why these tokens caught on. For one, the coin confirmed what was already happening – slavery was quickly becoming the single most important, and divisive, issue in the U.S. Indeed, as the U.S. expanded westward in the ensuing decade, the extension of slavery into those territories ignited an explosive debate that would eventually trigger the Civil War. By 1850, Jackson would no longer be around, having died in 1845, but Clay, Webster and Calhoun (for their final acts) would play leading roles in the crisis that nearly started the Civil War a decade early.
Additionally, the coin struck a chord with women. Many female abolitionists drew parallels between slavery and the subjugation of women, as a whole.
[T]he time has come for woman to move in that sphere which Providence has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied in the circumscribed limits with which corrupt custom and a perverted application of Scripture have encircled her; therefore it is the duty of woman, and the province of woman to plead the cause of the oppressed in our land, and to do all that she can by her voice, and her pen, and her purse, and the influence of her example, to overthrow the horrible system of American slavery.Annual Report of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society
Indeed, many of the female suffragists of the early 1900s got their start as abolitionists, including future dollar coin subject Susan B. Anthony.
As for my own point of view, another reason why this coin was so memorable was because it stood out from the crowd. Most hard times tokens were silly, satirical or commercial in nature. The “Am I Not A Woman & A Sister” token was different because of its serious subject matter and underlying message. Plus, it properly foreshadowed what the next several decades (arguably, centuries) in American history would be about. Put simply, there’s so much history in this one coin, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.